Reducing meat consumption won't save the planet… says report funded by livestock industry

A new report has claimed that campaigns such as Meat Free Monday are based on flawed science, and that reducing consumption of meat and dairy will not have a major impact on combating global warming.

In Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contribution to Climate Change, Dr Frank Mitloehner, an “air quality expert” from the University of California, argues that producing less meat will have no effect on harmful greenhouse gas emissions and that producing less meat will in fact “only mean more hunger in poor countries”.

Mitloehner labels as “unscientific” and inaccurate assessments that livestock production is responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions – a figure contained in the 2006 UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow.

He adds that livestock emission figures are calculated differently to those of transport. He calls it a “lopsided analysis” that livestock emissions count embedded emissions – those produced from grazing pasture to plate – when transport emissions only factor in the fossil fuels burnt while driving.

While it’s fair to say the methodologies are different, embedded emissions are the most thorough and scientific way of understanding the real impact of the goods and resources we consume. Rather than change the way we calculate the impact of meat production, it would be better to ask why transport figures don’t take embedded emissions into account – transport figures would rise considerably if the same calculation were applied.

The fact remains that the livestock industry is responsible for a phenomenal volume of greenhouse gases. And consider some other factors that Mitloehner conveniently ignores:

  • The meat industry is set to double its production by 2050
  • The two gases produced by livestock – methane and nitrous oxide – are respectively 21 and 310 times more powerful than CO2, and stays in the atmosphere for considerably longer.
  • More meat production will mean more hunger, not less. A third of the world’s cereal crops and over 90 per cent of soya goes to feed animals rather than humans
  • It takes 634 gallons of water to produce a 150g beefburger – compare this with 143 gallons to grow the same amount of tofu.
  • Compassion in World Farming estimates that the average UK household would cut more emissions by halving its meat consumption than by cutting car use in half
  • Researchers at the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Tsukuba, Japan, found that producing 1kg of beef accounts for greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the CO2 created by a 250km car journey
Reducing your meat consumption – by joining the Meat Free Monday campaign, for example – is an easy step that can make a significant contribution to curbing climate change.
While the story has been picked up by the international media, it turns out the report was first published last year, and heavily promoted in December 2009 – coincidentally just after Paul McCartney and Rajendra Pachauri’s presentation to the European Parliament, and before the climate talks at Copenhagen.
Contained in the 2009 press release for the report but absent from the 2010 press release were criticism of Paul McCartney and “meatless Mondays” campaigns, and the following paragraph, which reveals Mitloehner’s financial links to the beef industry:
“Clearing the Air is a synthesis of research by the UC Davis authors and many other institutions, including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. Writing the synthesis was supported by a $26,000 research grant from the Beef Checkoff Program, which funds research and other activities, including promotion and consumer education, through fees on beef producers in the U.S.
“Since 2002, Mitloehner has received $5 million in research funding, with 5 percent of the total from agricultural commodities groups, such as beef producers.”
Does the funding have any bearing on the findings of Mitloehner’s research? We’ll leave that up to you to decide.

For more in-depth analysis on the report and the media reporting, read these blogs by Pat Thomas and the Guardian’s Leo Hickman

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