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Don't blame cows for climate change

Despite oft-repeated claims by sources ranging from the United Nations to music star Paul McCartney, it is simply not true that consuming less meat and dairy products will help stop climate change, says a University of California authority on farming and greenhouse gases.

UC Davis Associate Professor and Air Quality Specialist Frank Mitloehner says that McCartney and the chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ignored science last week when they launched a European campaign called "Less Meat = Less Heat."
The launch came on the eve of a major international climate summit, which runs today through Dec. 18 in Copenhagen.
Badly informed
McCartney and others, such as the promoters of "meatless Mondays," seem to be well-intentioned but not well-schooled in the complex relationships among human activities, animal digestion, food production and atmospheric chemistry, says Mitloehner.
"Smarter animal farming, not less farming, will equal less heat," Mitloehner said. "Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries."
Livestock’s long shadow misunderstanding
Mitloehner traces much of the public confusion over meat and milk's role in climate change to two sentences in a 2006 United Nations report, titled "Livestock's Long Shadow."
Printed only in the report's executive summary and nowhere in the body of the report, the sentences read: "The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents). This is a higher share than transport."
These statements are not accurate, yet their wide distribution through news media has put us on the wrong path toward solutions, Mitloehner says.
"We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by consuming less meat and milk.
Focus on energy saving
"Rather, in developed countries, we should focus on cutting our use of oil and coal for electricity, heating and vehicle fuels."
Mitloehner said leading authorities agree that, in the US, raising cattle and pigs for food accounts for about 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions, while transportation creates an estimated 26%.
"In developing countries, we should adopt more efficient, Western-style farming practices, to make more food with less greenhouse gas production," Mitloehner continued.
In this he agrees with the conclusion of "Livestock's Long Shadow," which calls for "replacing current suboptimal production with advanced production methods -- at every step from feed production, through livestock production and processing, to distribution and marketing."
"The developed world's efforts should focus not on reducing meat and milk consumption," said Mitloehner, "but rather on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries, where growing populations need more nutritious food."
Apples and oranges
Mitloehner particularly objects to the UN's statement that livestock account for more greenhouse gases than transportation, when there is no generally accepted global breakdown of gas production by industrial sector.
He notes that "Livestock's Long Shadow" produced its numbers for the livestock sector by adding up emissions from farm to table, including the gases produced by growing animal feed; animals' digestive emissions; and processing meat and milk into foods.
But its transportation analysis did not similarly add up emissions from well to wheel; instead, it considered only emissions from fossil fuels burned while driving.
"This lopsided 'analysis' is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue," Mitloehner said.
Clearing the air
Most of Mitloehner's analysis is presented in a recent study titled "Clearing the Air: Livestock's Contributions to Climate Change," published in October in the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Agronomy.
Co-authors of the paper are UC Davis researchers Maurice Piteskey and Kimberly Stackhouse.
"Clearing the Air" is a synthesis of research by the UC Davis authors and many other institutions, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, US Environmental Protection Agency, US 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 United States.
Since 2002, Mitloehner has received $5 million in research funding, with 5% of the total from agricultural commodities groups, such as beef producers.
Source: UC Davis

Dick Ziggers

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    It is unclear whether Professor Mitloehner has read the World Watch article “Livestock and Climate Change” attributing at least 51% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to the life cycle and supply chain of livestock products. But it seems fairly clear that he is unaware of the widely-accepted GHG protocol on how to count emissions in GHG inventories across all industries. According to this protocol, emissions counted on the site of an industry should be attributed directly to that industry as Scope 1 emissions. Emissions from energy purchased offsite should be attributed directly to that industry as Scope 2 emissions. Other emissions are counted optionally, and are called Scope 3 emissions.

    Most emissions counted in both the FAO’s “Livestock’s Long Shadow” and World Watch’s “Livestock and Climate Change” would normally be considered as Scope 1 emissions. That’s because most emissions counted in both reports are attributable to feed production and to the physiology of livestock. Emissions attributable to the physiology of livestock are obviously Scope 1. In case it is less clear that emissions attributable to feed production are Scope 1: When assessing the livestock sector as a whole – rather than an individual livestock business – feed production would be considered an integral part of the livestock sector. Perhaps these emissions could arguably be considered as Scope 2, but certainly not as Scope 3.

    Conversely, in the transportation sector, emissions from fossil fuels burned while driving would normally be considered as Scope 3. After all, almost none of the fuels burned in driving are purchased by any part of the transportation industry. So it would make sense if Professor Mitloehner proposed that comparing livestock and transportation industries requires attributing to the transportation industry all the emissions from steel production to car dealerships – as they are Scope 1 and Scope 2 – and perhaps require excluding Scope 3 emissions from fuels burned in driving. But then livestock wouldn’t seem as benign as he proposes.

    It is essential to count emissions attributable to foregone carbon absorption on land set aside for livestock and feed production – as regenerating forest on such land is probably the only feasible way to absorb a large amount of today’s atmospheric carbon in the near term. The amount of these emissions is very large; yet it seems that Professor Mitloehner has neglected to consider them, along with other emissions attributable to the life cycle and supply chain of livestock products both within and outside the United States. Professor Mitloehner is remiss in considering livestock emissions only within U.S. borders, as livestock products and feed are global commodities – flown, shipped and trucked all over the world – and climate change is of course transboundary.

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