Commentary: Did global warming close Cargill’s Plainview plant?

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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 “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.

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North Central MT  |  January, 30, 2013 at 09:09 AM

With a beef cow herd the smallest since the 1950's in the US (and shrinking), certainly contributions from livestock to green house gas emissions should be lowering temperatures.

TENNESSEE  |  January, 30, 2013 at 09:18 AM

I am a Tennessee Hillbilly not the sharpest tack in the box, so I have been told. Has there ever been a study to determind how much green house effect the air line industry contributes to "Global Warming?"

Kansas  |  January, 30, 2013 at 09:25 AM

“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.” These statements are patently false. We can reduce the largest source of the most damaging GHG (methane) by consuming less meat and milk. Furthermore, producing less meat and milk—both of which are resource-intensive and inefficient products—would leave more food for human consumption, which would then mean less hunger in poor countries.

tony newbill    
powell butte ore  |  January, 30, 2013 at 09:41 AM

Did the dust bowl of the 1930s happen because of Global warming ? The Ogalalla Aquifer was and still is a Ancient Water supply that never did recharge at a rate of extraction thats being done with the irrigated acreage thats being irrigated . This will naturally correct itself with Natural attrition and we should be Realizing the potential and setting goals that can lead us in alternative directions , like this , and www, and

Wyoming  |  January, 30, 2013 at 01:42 PM

What would you use to replace meat and milk in our diets? If you were to look at a large part of mid-western states you will find that the environment here is unable to support any other type of protein production except for beef. Here Beef production is very efficient. Being diverse is a key in feeding the world.

Caped Green Crusader    
NYC  |  January, 30, 2013 at 01:50 PM

Kit you would replace meat and dairy in our diet with bean curd and cold gruel. That's what you should be eating anyway. You also should be taking cold showers in the dark. That's the best way to preserve the planet for me and other selfish elitist asses. How else can we continue living crowded together in cities, consuming water and electricity like its going out of style if you persist in living above your station? You common people are destroying my planet and I don't like it one bit. Cold gruel is too good for you.

Kansas  |  January, 30, 2013 at 03:44 PM

Sometimes dim bulbs ask the right questions. I have been asking this question about private jets etc for years and just get distainful looks from the bright bulbs.

David Brewbaker    
Iowa  |  February, 01, 2013 at 09:16 AM

To follow this logic then all ruminants in Africa should be eliminated. The resultant starvayion should help the vegematics feel even more righteous.

c. andrews    
chicago-kansas  |  February, 01, 2013 at 10:17 AM

Face facts: The bovine is the greatest converter of roughage in all of God's creation. It is really not meant to be pounded with the high energy grain provides but AT A PRICE beef's taste is value added by cheap grain. That day is gone simply put that at$1.36 & $7.00 corn feeder index feeders @ 750 must be purchased $1.33 & at $1.26 @ $1.17. doesn't work. Once this cycle ends of overdone beef which will be between May-August 2013 the economics will restart as it has done over history. The new business will be about super genetics that is produced via roughages/rotation grazing and byproducts of byproducts plus being value added at the processing (cooking-marinating) thus reaching profitable economics.

Tom Anderson    
Nebraska  |  February, 03, 2013 at 04:26 PM

Drovers...this is some other news from Nebraska: Below the link is my response to the LJS article on line. The deforestation of Nebraska is a great tragedy. When the tree huggers complain about the burning of the forest/jungle in Brazil, that is exactly what happens in Nebraska. Their is a great big pit dug, trees are pushed into the pit, a bunch of old tires are thrown in to keep the green trees burning, and it is repeated across the state with the Farm Bureau's blessing, and the USFW, Soil Conservation and other agencies sit on their asses. The ethanol plant was not shut down due to current high corns prices. It was shut down because there is more money to be made selling the contract corn, or its futures, on the open market than making ethanol.. The whole ethanol mandate law should be repealed. It has done nothing that it was legislated to do. It has not reduced hydrocarbons and it sure as heck has not reduced the nations dependency on foreign oil. Reduction in hydrocarbons is being accomplished by more efficient vehicles, hybrids and other alternative fuels such as natural gas. Reduction on foreign imports is being accomplished by utilizing this nation's own resources. The only thing the ethanol mandate has accomplished for Americans is raise food, meat and poultry prices. Raised the cost of subsidized meals for school students. Raised everyone's hidden taxes due to an out of control farm bill that just keeps pumping out subsidy money like a center pivot pumps out water. It has tragically hastened the deforestation of land that was planted during the dirty 30's.

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