Meat and climate change: How significant is the impact?

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It is a commonly used refrain amongst activists and the media: “Meat causes more global warming than everything else combined” or “contributes 51 percent of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.” After hearing these numbers repeated regularly, many people believe they’re fact, but research from Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., professor at at University of California Davis, who also happens to be the Chairman of the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO) Partnership on Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance, suggests that not only are these numbers far off from reality, they’re irresponsibly misleading.

In a presentation at the Institute of Medicine Food Forum Workshop on Sustainable Diets. Mitloehner explained that many of the figures commonly cited about the environmental impact of meat production are based on worldwide data that produces skewed results because of inefficiencies in third world countries. According to the EPA, livestock production contributes 3.4 percent of the greenhouse gases in the U.S. compared to 31 percent due to energy production and 26 percent from transportation. What this means is that while what you eat can have an impact on greenhouse gases, it is not nearly as significant as what you drive. Based on the data, if everyone in the U.S. cuts out beef one day a week as the Meatless Monday campaign suggests, it would have a .2 percent impact on greenhouse gases. An impact to be sure, but a very minimal one.

Impacts of Large vs. Small Scale Production

Much of Mitloehner’s research has focused on the environmental impacts of large vs. small scale production. While many activists believe modern production is bad for the environment, Mitloehner suggests the opposite is true. For instance, it takes five Mexican dairy cows to produce the same amount of milk as one California dairy cow. The environmental impact of those five Mexican cows is significantly higher than the one California cow. The same impacts are seen in meat production. U.S. producers have utilized feed, health and genetic efficiencies to increase the amount of meat per animal thus decreasing the number of animals needed. In developing countries, where these efficiencies aren’t utilized, the environmental impact is significantly higher and that is why many of the carbon footprint numbers that are reported are higher, because they take these foreign inefficiencies into account.

What Does It Mean for Me?

For average people, this means that to really make a difference on the environment and climate change, they should pay most attention to their energy consumption such as heating and cooling in your home and their transportation choices. These contribute the most greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. There is also some impact from meat production, but if your primary focus to benefit the environment is reducing your meat consumption, the reward will be minimal.

Source: Eric Mittenthal

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VA  |  May, 21, 2013 at 09:20 AM

The conclusions of this article are all wrong. We could all live like Al Gore-- No, I mean we could all live like Al Gore tells us to live and we still would have had one of the coldest springs ever recorded and the recent cooling trends we have been seeing would be continuing unabated.

Maryland  |  May, 21, 2013 at 09:36 AM

This article is so insulting! Imagine telling people to economize on heating & cooling their beautiful homes. Then to have the nerve to suggest people should conserve energy consumed for vital family outings and everyday transportation. How dare you tell me how to live. I consume and I consume conspicuously because that is the trendy thing to do. It is meat that is the ruination of our world. And farmers. Always growing stuff and not letting the wondrous biodiversity of weeds and brush get us back to nature. It is just those terrible evil monocultures and meat that is causing humans to go extinct. The sky is falling and the world is ending and I must have my air conditioned mcmansion and my SUV to cope with all the awful hardship farmers are causing me and my precious kids. Al Gore knows best so when he tells you to do something you don't ask stupid questions you just do it, OK?

Tom McK    
TEXAS  |  May, 21, 2013 at 10:38 AM

EXACTLY !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! LOL

Bea Elliott    
Florida  |  May, 21, 2013 at 11:46 AM

Oh... I see - The public needs to monitor the energy use in their home cooling and heating systems. Set the thermostat at 85 in the summer and 55 in the winter. Hum... Meanwhile billions of pigs/chickens and cows are encaged in climate control systems that we common (plant eating) folks could only dream of. What a "solution" animal ag has to a sustainable future. LOL!

Colo  |  May, 22, 2013 at 05:33 PM

You nailed it, Mandy! =-)

Will Winter    
MN  |  May, 25, 2013 at 09:03 AM

Whenever I see a response to the question of climate change, it seems to revolve around defense of the territory of the writer's career. In this case, defending "modern" dairy farming vs. the backward 3rd World farming. In my studies I find that grass-based livestock cannot contribute to global warming because the Carbon cycle is contained within a closed-loop, all coming from and returning back to the crust of the earth. All carbon released by the cow, whether it's methane, manure or urine, comes back to the CO2-breathing plants and is sequestered as plant tissue and soil organic matter until cycled through an herbivore again. The ONLY increases in atmospheric gases are coming from human- involvement of extraction of fossil fuel carbon from the earth core and expending it with artificial fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other expenditures. Modern farming also depletes the earth's organic matter shooting to the atmosphere. Traditional farming builds organic matter. Lagoon manure pits are the opposite of sequestration, whereas 3rd World manure stays on the ground, then soil biology, like dung beetles captures it quickly. Just about all 3rd World dairy cows are grass-based and do not consume the grain that high-production cattle require. Grain cultivation, harvesting and transportation, all of which are part of modern dairying, expends enormous amounts of fossil fuel carbon.

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