When Cargill Meat Solutions announced the closure of its Plainview, Texas, harvest facility last month, the company cited the effects of the ongoing two-year drought as one of the reasons. The lack of rain in the region would seem to fit nicely with the reality that cattle numbers were low even before the drought. But taking the scenario a leap further and suggesting that the plant was forced to close due to global warming is a stretch of epic proportions.
But that’s exactly what R.P. Siegel suggests in an article published on the website Triplepundit.com. “It sounds a bit like justice served, doesn’t it?” Siegel asks. While he acknowledges scientific models don’t yet have the precision to directly tie a particular event to global warming trends, Siegel, nevertheless, uses the Cargill plant closure to dredge up a seven-year-old discredited report about livestock’s contribution to climate change.
“More clear is the linkage between the beef industry and the changes to our planetary thermostat,” Siegel wrote. “The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that somewhere between 14 and 22 percent of all greenhouse gases were generated directly by the meat industry.”
Siegel is referring to “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” the 2006 report issued by the FAO that actually was very specific in saying livestock production is responsible for 18 percent of emissions, not “somewhere between 14 and 22 percent.” Regardless, all of those numbers exaggerate the global greenhouse-gas emissions of livestock, according to subsequent research.
Frank Mitloehner, PhD, an animal scientist and air-quality specialist at the University of California- Davis Air Quality Center, 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 published last year (and reported by Drovers/CattleNetwork) 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.
Mitloehner said leading authorities agree that, in the United States, raising cattle and pigs for food accounts for about 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, while transportation creates an estimated 26 percent.
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 LCAs 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.
When 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.”
Unfortunately, the erroneous data from that 2006 FAO report is still being used by anti-meat crusaders to argue for an end to livestock production. It is cited regularly and often exaggerated beyond the original 18 percent quoted by the FAO. However well-intentioned the anti-meat activists, Mitloehner’s work makes clear that ending livestock production will not dramatically reduce global warming, but it would significantly reduce the ability of humanity to feed its growing population.