Have we got it right on meat and greenhouse gas emissions?

Cows outdoors

If intensive farming has the lowest environmental impact should we promote it?

Analysis showing lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with intensive livestock production could pose a challenge to our views on best farming practice

When it comes to livestock, meat production and climate change the dominating argument amongst environmentalists has been that intensive, factory-style farming is bad for animal welfare and has a bigger negative environmental impact than extensive alternatives.

Why? Because it relies on a global feed system that is driving deforestation, destroying biodiversity and wasting energy when compared to an extensive grazing based system.

The argument was only reinforced by the publication of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) report, ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ back in 2006. It said livestock accounted for 18 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions: more than the transport sector.

Campaign groups were quick to jump on that comparison. Our appetite for cheap meat, they said, was bad for animals and climate change. Oxfam has argued that each person who replaces red meat and dairy with vegetables for one day a week for a year cuts their GHG emissions as much as if they skipped a 1,160-mile car trip.

The ‘Meat-free Mondays’ campaign turned this argument into action by urging people to reduce their meat consumption, starting with a commitment not to eat meat at least one day each week.

Emissions overplayed

However, the argument has taken some heavy criticism in recent weeks following the publication of a report by Dr Frank Mitloehner from the University of California. Appropriately title, ‘Clearing the air: livestock’s contribution to climate change’, it claims that the impact of meat and dairy production has been overstated.

Mitloehner says the UN’s report unfairly compared a full life-cycle calculation of livestock - including emissions from growing feed and the processing of consumer products - with a calculation for the transport sector that only included direct emissions, omitting, for example, the greenhouse gases produced during the manufacture of the car.

As such, he concludes that the UN has helped others to overplay the impact of meat and dairy production on the environment.

Mitloehner makes two other points. First, he argues that a global comparison figure does not take account of regional differences.

'In Paraguay, the contribution of livestock may be as high as 50 percent because they are clear-cutting a lot of forest, and that basically takes a unit of [greenhouse-gas] sequestration away and puts cattle, which is an emissions source, there instead. In the U.S. the contribution from livestock is only around 3 percent of the total,’ he says.

Although Mitloehner himself has admitted to underestimating US livestock emissions by up to 1 per cent, and being part-funded by the beef industry, the UN has accepted his comparison critique.

Global meat trade

However, other campaign groups have questioned the idea that livestock emissions from each region can be thought of in isolation and that, for example, US meat production could have no impact on land-use decisions and deforestation elsewhere in the world.

‘In a globalised trading system purchasing decisions and markets in one part of the world can have direct and indirect effects on land use. Unless the US is an economic island then it cannot be seen to be separate from the global pattern of land use,’ says Tara Garnett from the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN).

What is the 'best' system?

The second issue raised by Mitloehner’s report will be more difficult for environmentalists to stomach. He acknowledges that livestock’s emissions need to be reduced but believes that more efficient production methods, rather than necessarily cutting consumption, are the way forward.

He adds that less industrialised countries should be helped to satisfy their populations' growing demand for meat and dairy by adopting western-style factory farming.

‘My concern is not to feed more meat to people in the developed world but to make nutrition available to people who are undernourished.

‘The current systems in Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are very land-hungry because they are so extensive. We have the tools to show them how to do it using less resources,’ says Mitloehner.

Factory-style farming techniques produce less emissions per unit of output, says the FAO

‘I agree it runs contrary to animal welfare concerns surrounding industrial-style farms but animals that are starving or infected with parasites - they are suffering too and no-one talks about them, or the suffering of undernourished humans,’ he adds.

New FAO analysis

Mitloehner’s point looks likely to be backed up by more analysis from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The FAO is working on a major update to their livestock report from 2006, which will break down greenhouse gas emissions by farming system, sector and region.

Preliminary findings for the dairy sector have found that GHG emissions per litre of milk are three times as great in India than in Western Europe or North America and seven times as much in Kenya.

A final report is not expected before 2011 but the FAO says the findings could be used to help countries reduce the GHG-impact of their meat production.

‘Developing countries have huge total emissions per unit of output and this could offer a strategy of mitigation for them. The more productive systems could bring the double benefit of lower emissions and more income,’ says FAO chief livestock policy officer Henning Steinfeld.

‘There are lots of people in the world who would appreciate meat and need the protein and I don’t think we should preach to them not to eat these products,’ he adds.

More than just meat

The FAO report would not be the first to highlight the higher GHG emissions per unit of extensive systems.

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A report from the meat industry body, Eblex, late last year, recognised the fact but said it was important to, ‘appreciate that hill beef and sheep, in particular, are converting and concentrating nutrients not suitable for human needs into valuable foodstuffs from difficult-to-exploit land resources.’

‘Equally, their role in delivering environmental goods and services like biodiversity and landscape character, as well as enhancing the value of upland pastures as carbon sinks, needs to be taken into account,’ concluded the report, ‘Change in the Air: the English Beef and Sheep Production Roadmap’.

Food Ethics Council director Tom MacMillan agrees: ‘It is a mistake to imagine the equation is just about meat and gas. It’s also about livelihoods, workers’ health, disease, animal welfare, biodiversity and by-products. If you factor all that in, then mixed farming systems look a whole lot more productive,’ he says.

Forgotten benefits

Others argue the so-called ‘efficient and productive’ systems are actually inefficient, once you factor in the energy-intensive distribution system and lifestyle that accompanies them.

A joint Compassion in World Farming and Friends of the Earth report, published last year, says the efficiency measure is based on the assumption that animal protein or milk in the case of dairy cows is the sole output of livestock systems.

‘In many regions livestock is required to provide power for agriculture and transport. Ruminants also convert biomass not digestible by humans into food for humans, for example from waste lands or semi-deserts.

‘Thus, livestock systems that appear to be inefficient due to their input-output ratio may in fact represent well-adapted, highly efficient production systems in their respective local contexts,’ says the report.

MacMillan argues that the solution is still likely to involve reducing consumption of meat and dairy products in the industrialised world, and warns that it is, ‘short-sighted to assume countries making the so-called ‘nutrition transition’ to Western diets will want to emulate the amount we eat’.

Useful links

Clearing the air: livestock’s contribution to climate change
Eating the planet: how can we feed the world without trashing it?
Livestock's long shadow
Food Climate Research Network (FCRN)


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