LIVESTOCK’s ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Misinformation about greenhouse gases

Dr. Frank Mitlioenher

Uni. Of California

As more and more companies promote anti-meat products, many consumers have been left with misconceptions about the relationship between livestock and climate change. A number of myths surfaced about livestock’s impact on the environment.  There is a serious need to address and educate people why agriculture is not to blame for climate change and how it is key for a more sustainable future.

The scale and impacts of climate change become increasingly alarming which makes meat popular target for action. Many climate activists urge the public to eat less meat to save the environment, and some have called for taxing meat to reduce consumption. Their key claim is that, globally, meat production generates more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector. However, this claim is demonstrably wrong, and its persistence has misled people about the links between meat and climate change.

A lot of this originated in a 2006 publication by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and they made the claim that livestock produces more greenhouse gases than transportation. And that is very unfortunate because when such an authority makes such a claim, then it has a lot of credibility. However, it has proven that this assertion was wrong and that they used different methodologies when they looked at the impact of livestock on climate versus those of transportation. And they actually corrected that and said, “Whoops, yeah, we were wrong, and we have gone back to the drawing board, and we now use the same methodology when comparing things.” But the horse had left the barn, and all those critics of animal agriculture glued on and gloomed on to this, and damage has been done.

And so, now, many corporations are using the climate impact angle to either promote their own products or disparage the use of animal-source foods. The key reason in this disaster is that agriculture has responded too late.

Methane is CH4, and it’s a gas that is indeed very potent as a greenhouse gas. However, when looking at methane, we have to think about where does the carbon in the methane that we’re also concerned about, where does it come from, and where is it going?

Where it comes from is atmospheric CO2, atmospheric carbon dioxide, which, during photosynthesis, makes it into plants. The plants suck it in, and then those plants convert some of that carbon from atmospheric CO2 into carbohydrates, such as cellulose or starch. Sooner or later, a bovine comes along and eats, and then a portion of that carbohydrate it ingests will become methane. That methane, however, stays in the atmosphere for a relatively short period of time  i.e. 10 years, and is then converted back into CO2, which then goes back into the cycle as plant food and so forth.

So, it is a cycle called (the) biogenic carbon cycle, which is very different from fossil carbon, let’s say, from fossil fuel extraction and use, which is carbon that was in the ground for a very long time (that) has been extracted, burned and, therefore, is now a new additive to our atmosphere.

So, biogenic carbon from livestock versus fossil carbon from fossil fuel use are very different with respect to how they contribute to actual warming.

Just to give you one idea here  because people are exaggerating the impact of livestock in the United States, all beef production contributes to about 3% of all greenhouse gases (and) all dairy production to about 2% of all greenhouse gases.

Globally, all beef contributes to 6% of all global greenhouse gases and the dairy industry to 3% of all global greenhouse gases, in general. Contrast that to the fossil fuel sector contributing to 80% of all greenhouse gases. As per a campaign against animal agriculture as a smokescreen by those who are really mega-producers of pollution.

Comparing livestock to transportation, or power production and use, or the cement industry or so on is a dangerous exercise. And the reason is that the main greenhouse gas from livestock is methane, and methane undergoes cyclical conversion into CO2. So, it is atmospheric CO2 going into plants and animal, and then that goes back into the atmosphere as CO2 again. This is a relatively short life cycle.

As long as you don’t increase livestock herds and keep them constant, you’re not adding new additional carbon to the atmosphere.

But every time you use fossil fuel, you extract carbon from the ground in the form of oil, coal and gas.

You are burning it, and you’re converting that into CO2, and that CO2 has a lifespan of 1,000 years. Meaning every time you use fossil fuel i.e. by driving a car, you are adding new greenhouse gases to the existing stock that’s already there.

So, livestock is cyclical and its impact is relatively short-lived versus fossil fuels, (which) are not cyclical. That’s a one-way street, from the ground into the air, and its impacts are long-lived.

A remarkable progress has seen in US where by reducing large number of cow i.e. 9 million dairy cows at present as compared to 25 million back in mid 1950. With fewer cows still producing 60% more milk and equates to two-thirds reduction of greenhouse gases from dairy sector. Likewise on the beef side, a fifty million fewer beef cattle than that compared to 1970, and producing the same amount of beef. The current global production of all beef is 18% whereas for all cattle is 8%.

This has achieved by an efficient model that has four tools, a combination of which allowed agriculture industry to shrink the herds to historic lows while producing more than ever. One is research and development in the area of genetics, using better genetic material for both plants and animals. The second one is that they have improved reproductive efficiencies in livestock. The third one is that they have installed a veterinary system that can both prevent and/or treat diseases. And last, but not least, developed a feed system, a nutrition system, that optimizes nutrient use for livestock and poultry.

For now particularly the public sector, federal and state agencies, have to step forward to  support and improve, fair emission assessment and investigate into the true impacts of livestock and into, also, research that further reduces those impacts.