Meat and climate change redux

Back in January, I blogged about the link between meat production and GHGs.  Grist.org has taken up this issue recently, with an interesting article by Tom Philpott making the case that U.S. livestock production is a significant contributor to GHG emissions, and a rebuttal from farmer Eliot Coleman.

As Philpott’s article notes, a U.N. FAO report from a couple of years ago, Livestock’s Long Shadow, found that 18% of global GHG emissions are caused by meat production worldwide.  Philpott’s article quotes a livestock industry spokesman’s estimate that U.S. livestock production is responsible for only 2.8% of U.S. GHGs (which still seems significant to me!), and notes that Ralph Loglisci of The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University has estimated the U.S. number at about 9%.   Whichever number is correct, there’s no question that livestock production is a significant GHG contributor.

The rebuttal from Eliot Coleman, who Grist calls “one of the most revered and influential small-scale farmers in the United States, famous for growing delicious vegetables through the Maine winter with little use of fossil fuel,” provides an interesting counterpoint.  But Coleman’s article is short on facts and long on name-calling.  With no evidence, Coleman accuses those who believe meat to be a significant GHG contributor of being in a conspiracy with, or duped by, fossil-fuel interests.  Coleman asserts, without any evidence and probably erroneously, that grass-fed cattle emit less methane than grain-fed cattle.  (This is important, since methane contributes substantially more to global warming on a per-unit basis than carbon dioxide does.)

More fundamentally, Coleman simply fails to provide any evidence to counter the claims that livestock-raising is a major source of GHG emissions.  (See the comments to his article for critiques and interesting discussion of the issue.)

Coleman does make the important point that livestock production – and agriculture for that matter – that is dependent on petrochemicals is far worse for the planet than agriculture that is based on sustainable methods.  And I have no doubt he’s correct that the world would be a better place, with fewer GHG emissions, if all our grain-fed, petrochemical-dependent livestock vanished and we ate only animals raised the way he raises them.  (We also would eat far fewer animals, since they can’t be raised that intensively with his methods.)  But in all this, he misses the larger point that animal agriculture, as we practice it today and as it’s likely to be practiced far into the future in this country, is a significant part of the problem.  Demonizing critics of beef production or calling them naive won’t change that fact.

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Reader Comments

2 Replies to “Meat and climate change redux”

  1. Another important fact that needs mentioning is that methane, over a twenty year period, is 72 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere (see IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group 1 – Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis). However, atmospheric methane breaks down far more quickly – in only 8-12 years, compared to up to 200 years for CO2.
    **In practical terms, this means that reducing CO2 emissions will have little effect on global warming for decades, while reducing methane will have an almost immediate effect.
    Though we definitely need to drastically reduce our CO2 levels for future generations, the fact is, reducing or eliminating meat from our diets will help buy us critical time in the climate change crisis, preventing global GHG levels from surpassing dangerous tipping points as identified by climate scientists.

  2. As director of “Veg Climate Alliance,” a group dedicated in increasing awareness that a major societal shift to plant-based diets is essential to effectively respond to global climate change. Please visit our web site (VegClimate Alliance).org, where we have a wide variety of material on dietary connections to climate change and other environmental threats.

    It stands to reason that raising 60 billion farmed animals for slaughter worldwide annually under modern intensive factory farm conditions would require far more land, water, energy and other valuable resources and contribute far more to pollution, species extinction, soil erosion and depletion, deforestation and global warming then eating plant-foods directly. Over 40 percent of the grain produced in the world are fed to farmed animals, while over a billion of then world’s people suffer from chronic hunger and an estimated 20 million of the world’s people die of hunger annually.

    There is an abundance of evidence at out web site and in many other sources that the world is rapidly approaching an unprecedented catastrophe from climate change and a major shift to plant-based diets is essential to help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.

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About Sean

Sean Hecht

Sean B. Hecht is the Co-Executive Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, Evan Frankel Professor of Policy and Practice, and Co-Director o…

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