Consciously limiting your carbon footprint has become quite trendy among many young, urban Americans. It’s a practice I wholeheartedly support — it’s just that their ideas to achieve that goal are often way off the mark. Last month provided another round of anti-meat chatter with the release of the “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health” by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based non-profit “organization that advocates on Capitol Hill for health-protective and subsidy-shifting policies.”

The research by EWG examined every stage of food production, processing, consumption and waste disposal, and determined that if everyone in the United States eliminated meat and cheese from their diet just one day a week for a year, “the effect on greenhouse-gas emissions would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.”

The report found that traditionally raised lamb has the worst carbon footprint, followed by beef, cheese, pork and fish. EWG also made recommendations for people who choose not to give up eating meat. For beef eaters the suggestion is to eat grass-fed beef because it is “lean and healthiest.” It was also recommended that you choose “certified humane.”

From agriculture’s perspective, the “Meat Eater’s Guide” provides plenty of fodder for criticism. For instance, the report criticizes both antibiotic and hormone use by livestock feeders with unproven claims about the safety of those products. It’s also suggested that “pasture raised” animals are treated more “humanely” than traditionally raised livestock.

Errors and misrepresentations? The “Meat Eater’s Guide” is full of them.

More distressing was the number of media outlets and websites that swallowed EWG’s half-baked report without questioning it. For instance, the Los Angeles Times published this: “Ruminant livestock, such as sheep and cows, ‘release substantial amounts of methane,’ a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, according to the guide.”

“Substantial” amounts of methane, a description used to scare readers, yet one that doesn’t accurately depict livestock’s contribution to methane pollution. But others tried.

For instance, Susie Middleton, a food writer for the Huffington Post, used the report as the basis of a column that listed 10 strategies for eating less meat.

Susie, like a lot of trendy food writers, quickly grabs the sensational tidbits of misinformation spewed out by the anti-meat crowd, such as: “We need big change fast: The latest studies estimate that our current system of intensive livestock farming is responsible for 51 percent of greenhouse gases.” 

Fifty-one percent? Susie, have you ever been fishing? Because that’s a whopper. In fact, even the erroneous U.N. report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” only attributed 18 percent of methane to livestock production.

In fact, the U.N. report has been criticized as flawed by many scientists, including Frank Mitloehner, an air-quality specialist at the University of California at Davis. He called the report a “lopsided analysis (that) is a classic apples and oranges analogy that truly confused the issues.” After Mitloehner’s criticisms were published, even one of the report’s authors, Pierre Gerber, acknowledged that the comparison with transport data
was inaccurate.

In her article for the Huffington Post, Middleton also says, “I want to support small farmers.” She encourages her readers to buy locally produced food from “small diversified family farms” as a way to reduce their carbon footprints.

That’s admirable, Susie — a worthy goal and one you obviously can afford. Reality is that even if every American could afford the luxury of eating only locally, naturally produced meats and vegetables, small, diversified farmers couldn’t begin to meet the demand.

   Reports issued by folks such as the Environmental Working Group usually sound good, but their studies are seldom objective and their science usually shaky. They usually deserve filing under “rubbish and hogwash.”