Commentary: Bittman thinks global warming is “What’s For Dinner”

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If you’re eating beef for dinner, you’re contributing to global warming. So, if you want to be a hero, stop eating meat.

That’s the message from Mark Bittman in his opinion column published online yesterday by The New York Times. Following closely on the heels of a well-publicized essay contest that asked Times’ readers to explain why it’s ethical to eat meat, Bittman – one of the contest’s judges – leaves no doubt about his views of livestock production when chides readers, “You already changed your light bulbs; how about eating a salad?”

Bittman writes “on food and all things related” for The Times, and he’s the author of several successful books, including “How to Cook Everything,” “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian,” and “Food Matters,” which he says is a “look at the links among eating too much meat, obesity, global warming, and other nasty features of modern life.”

Although Bittman admits to no formal training as a chef, his recipes are quite popular, and he’s worked as a food writer since 1970. He has also appeared as a regular guest on the Today Show. That Bittman is so popular among consumers is why it is so discouraging to see him rely on tired, inaccurate claims about beef and livestock production to peddle his theories about saving the planet.

“The purely pragmatic reasons to eat less meat (and animal products in general) are abundant,” Bittman wrote. He then cites a famous – and famously flawed – report on livestock’s environmental footprint.

“Five years ago, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a report called ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow,’ which maintained that 18 percent of greenhouse gases were attributable to the raising of animals for food. The number was startling.”

Yes, that number is startling. So startling, in fact, it sent a few scientists who actually know how to use a slide ruler scurrying to do some fact checking. One of those scientists is Frank Mitloehner, PhD., an animal scientist and air-quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, Air Quality Center.

Mitloehner says that the claims that livestock are to blame for the bulk of global warming are both “scientifically inaccurate” and a dangerous distraction from more important issues. However, Mitloehner has repeatedly acknowledged global warming is occurring, and that human activity contributes to it. But he wants people to understand that the contribution of animal agriculture to climate change is much smaller than what many believe.

In a report titled “Clearing the air: Livestock’s contribution to climate change,” Mitloehner and his colleagues point to significant errors in the FAO report. He agrees that livestock are a major contributor of methane, but says the U.N. report that criticized livestock production as a major contributor to global warming used a faulty methodology, and that the calculations in the FAO report were off.

The FAO report, according to Mitloehner, lumps all regions together in arriving at the 18 percent figure, which has misled the media and consumers. Further, in the research report, Mitloehner and his colleagues point out that the FAO report relies on a type of study called “lifecycle analysis,” or LCA, to estimate GHG emissions from a system. But all LCA’s are not created equal. In FAO’s research they used the most extensive type of LCA to estimate emissions from livestock, including all inputs, such as emissions produced from tilling crop fields for growing grain, drying and transporting grain and every other process contributing to meat or milk ultimately delivered to consumers.

Evaluating emission from the transport sector, however, the FAO used the simplest form of LCA, looking only at tailpipe emissions. Contributors such as auto manufacturing, oil drilling and fuel transportation were conveniently disregarded.

“This lopsided analysis is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issues,” Mitloehner said. “We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by consuming less meat and milk. Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries.”

Lest you think Mitloehner is just a shill for the meat industries, consider that one of the author’s of “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” Pierre Gerber, acknowledged three years ago that the comparison with transport data was inaccurate. “We thought it would be useful to compare the figures to another sector – transport – and I accept that this comparison is now a little doubtful,” Gerber said.

Although he believes those who wrote the UN report were well-intentioned, Mitloehner says many critics of livestock production are “not well-schooled in the complex relationships among human activities, animal digestion, food production and atmospheric chemistry.”

In making his case to readers of his NY Times column, Bittman wrote, “It’s seldom that such enormous problems have such simple solutions, but this is one that does.” His answer: “…we can begin by eating less meat tomorrow.”

Bittman gets only the first part right – that global warming is an “enormous” problem. Its complexity defies simple solutions, and ending livestock production and meat consumption is not a solution to global warming. In fact, it’s only a solution to greater hunger in the developing world.

In fact, utilizing more modern agriculture practices is a better solution to global warming. For instance, two years ago Stanford University scientists released results of a study that said the cheapest way to slow global warming is to invest in agricultural research.

These Stanford researchers concluded that advances in high-yield agriculture during the latter part of the 20th Century prevented massive amounts of greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere – the equivalent of 590 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s prevented, not emitted.

“Our results dispel the notion that modern intensive agriculture is inherently worse for the environment than a more ‘old-fashioned’ way of doing things,” said Jennifer Burney, lead author of a paper about the study that was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Steven Davis, a co-author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford, said, “When we look at the costs of the research and development that went into these improvements, we find that funding agricultural research ranks among the cheapest ways to prevent greenhouse-gas emissions.”

If, like Bittman and others, you choose not to eat meat, that’s your business. But please, stop playing the global warming/Livestock’s Long Shadow card as justification. It’s old, inaccurate and totally misleading.

Here’s an “I Am Angus” video of Dr. Mitloehner explaining the research at UC Davis that proved the FAO report wrong.

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Nebraska  |  May, 17, 2012 at 08:10 AM

At their peak American Bison once numbered 100+ million during the mid-19th Century. The U.S. cattle herd (all types-dairy,beef,cows,calves) is currently at 90.8 million. The 'Little Ice Age' or ‘the year without a summer’ occurred in 1850. So, either a 2,000 lbs cloven hoofed ungulate (bison) produces less "global warming" gas than another 2,000 lbs cloven hoofed ungulate (cow) or Mark Bittman is full of hot air.

Montana  |  May, 17, 2012 at 10:35 AM

We raise 100% grassfed beef, and routinely find that cattle can harvest the majority of their foodstuffs themselves, from land that would be cost prohibitive to farm. In other words, cattle can produce nutritionally dense, high quality human food on land that is not easily or profitably farmed. Keeping land in perennial forages for grazing livestock is sustainable, requires very low petroleum inputs, and contributes to CO2 reductions, not emissions. Also, we produce grassfed beef for many customers who have been long-time vegetarians, including myself, and have driven their health into the ground with the lack of protein, fat soluble vitamins, and other nutrients that only meat can provide. Ancient cultures worldwide know that humans need to consume meat for high fertility and longevity. The vegetarian cultures do so because of human overpopulation issues which have led religious leaders to promote vegetarianism as a backdoor method to keep the milk producing animals, which might have been eaten early on as meat, at least producing milk for the human populations concerned.

Ron Treatise    
Alabama  |  May, 17, 2012 at 10:36 AM

"Lest you think Mitloehner is just a shill for the meat industries" Well, yes, that's precisely what he is, if you look at his other research. "...utilizing more modern agriculture practices such as grain and livestock production..." I wasn't aware that grain and livestock production were "modern" agriculture practices. "...the cheapest way to slow global warming is to invest in agricultural research." Perhaps, but let's be clear: that is not the same as promoting animal agriculture. That's saying, "Agriculture could do a better job in becoming part of the solution, rather than part of the problem." And that paper is not without controversy, to put it mildly. But no mention of that controversy here...?

Steve Davis    
Stanford, CA  |  May, 17, 2012 at 11:48 PM

Curious about the controversy you mention. It's news to me that anyone has seriously questioned our findings. It's interesting that cattle is citing the study because we focused on intensification of crop production and drew absolutely no conclusions re: livestock production.

George Robinson    
Dallas  |  May, 17, 2012 at 11:09 AM

Because I quit believing when that renowned scientist "Ted Danson" predicted the oceans death and new ice age in the seventies- I have become an ardent collector of climate change/warming lunacy---termites produce nearly twice the co2 than cattle, get rid of them first. --Anybody who believes "manmade " is an arrogant idiot.

Greg Palen    
Ovid, Michigan  |  May, 18, 2012 at 04:26 PM

Given all climate change is cyclical and has been occurring for a multiple of milleniums, I agree-- "man made" global warming is just politics, not good science. The worst we can do by living and thus consuming resources, is speed up the cycles, which is not the same as making them worse.

Sioux Falls  |  May, 17, 2012 at 11:12 AM

"As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease." Worldwatch Institute, "Is Meat Sustainable?" "The livestock sector emerges as one of the top contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency." UN Food and Agricultural Organization's report "Livestock's Long Shadow" “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains... the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.” Environmental Defense Fund Why would someone choose to be vegan? To slow global warming for one! Here are two uplifting videos to help everyone understand why so many people are making this life affirming choice: and

nebraska  |  May, 17, 2012 at 03:57 PM

Emotional ranting is somehow different than honest objectivity

Floyd, VA  |  May, 17, 2012 at 09:23 PM

I prefer to eat my veggies in concentrate. In a nice juicy Steak!!!

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  May, 18, 2012 at 08:35 AM

I notice the anti-meat people always ignore the stuies on how much methane is produced in rice paddies.

Denver  |  May, 18, 2012 at 09:50 AM

“You already changed your light bulbs; how about eating a salad?” Wait... didn't the government mandate a shift to the new bulbs? That's what I remember. Maybe Bittman wants a gov-mandated salad initiative. Oh wait... this is Bittman. Right.

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