Foresight on Food Politics

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Sunday November 19, 2017

Like Groundhog Day, the political advocates for environmental reform were out immediately following the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, with dire predictions for more environmental havoc because agriculture is contributing to global warming that sparks more and bigger hurricanes.

"With climate change increasing the likelihood and intensity of storms," says the environmental group Food and Water Watch, "now more than ever it’s time to get rid of factory farms."

"Becoming Vegan or cutting down on your own personal meat consumption could be the single most effective action that you can do to help reduce green house gas emissions," argues another environmentalist site, claiming eating meat is a major cause of gases released into the atmosphere that have the potential to cause global climate warming and bigger, more frequent hurricanes.

But is it true?

The World Resources Institute, an advocacy group for climate protection, alternative energy and environmental sustainability, published these detailed graphics to help visualize the real contributors to the carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other minor gases, both on a global scale and for the United States only, that may contribute to global warming.

Where do greenhouse gases come from?

A careful review of the World Resources Institute graphics demonstrates what U.S. animal agriculture has argued for years: If everyone cut meat from their diets, it would indeed have an effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, the effect would be small. Arguing that going vegan is the most important change people must make to prevent global warming is a grossly oversimplified exaggeration.

The chart shows livestock production globally contributes an estimated 5 percent of greenhouse gases directly (purple bar), most of which is methane from manure and animal digestive processes, an important greenhouse gas. But if livestock's share is only 5 percent globally—and just half that percentage in the United States—how then do advocates for veganism arrive at their conclusion? They do so by also including in agriculture's share the 18 percent contribution caused by deforestation (green bar in the WRI graphic.) That deforestation represents conversion of forest lands that store carbon into pasture and cropland to grow not only feed crops, but crops eaten by people, as well. When those contributions are taken into account, the United Nations estimates animal agriculture is responsible for about 9 percent of carbon dioxide emitted by human activity worldwide.

But that contribution pales in comparison to fossil-fuel use. Transportation, electricity and heating account for almost half of all carbon dioxide emitted across the globe. And even more confounding, in the developed countries, where veganism is most vocally advocated to prevent global warming, animal agriculture as a percentage contributes even less greenhouse gas in relation to other contributors. Notice, for example, the green deforestation bar disappears completely in the WRI graphic for the United States. In this country, fossil fuels are estimated to add more than 10 times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions than raising animals for meat, milk and eggs.

Of course, that interpretation is not to minimize livestock's contribution. Animal agriculture's 2.5 percent to 5 percent is a significant source of other greenhouse gases. However, it's important to recognize the importance of technology to reduce those gas emissions. Using technology permits more food to be raised using fewer resources, which improves sustainability. Advances in productivity driven by technology in beef production over the past 30 years, for instance, have reduced the carbon footprint and overall environmental impact of its production, argues Washington State assistant professor of animal science Jude Capper. Comparing the environmental impact of the US beef industry in 1977 to 2007, she says, shows that improvements in nutrition, management, growth rate and slaughter weights have significantly reduced the environmental impact of modern beef production. That technological boost improves beef's sustainability, she argues. “These findings challenge the common misconception that historical methods of livestock production are more environmentally sustainable than modern beef production,” said Capper.

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