No More Foolin’

Published on: 08:08AM Apr 01, 2010

It’s only right that I make this post on April Fool’s day, because, ironically, the topic is a deadly serious one that has been fooled with for way too long:  the relationship between livestock production and greenhouse gases.  Now, thankfully, the truth – or at least more of it – is finally coming to light.

For several years, we’ve seen what I call the “18% albatross” tossed about very publicly like it’s the 11th etched-in-stone commandment from Mt. Sinai.   What this figure refers to is a finding by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization that fully 18% of all the greenhouse gas emissions globally come from the production of livestock products, i.e. meat, milk and eggs. 

Those looking to bludgeon production agriculture (and it’s a motley crew of vegans, environmental radicals, anti-modern farming Luddites, quick-buck marketers,  and others) have seized on that 18% figure, and asserted that  if you want to stop global warming, all you have to do is put down the pizza and eat soy cheese.  This has become a convenient message to appeal to those wanting to pay lip service to fighting global warming:  namely, that while getting a Prius or biking to work may be too much of a hassle, enjoying a “meatless Monday” will achieve the same net effect for the globe.

Those of us who actually bothered to review the FAO’s report, ominously titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” have understood that the study’s methodology was rife with flaws.  The biggest was that modern farming in the U.S. and other developed nations was put in the same camp as subsistence-style farming in under developed countries.  In other words, a big reason behind the 18% figure was that the clearing of forests in the Third World, which does generate more carbon emissions, was being counted against the emissions tab of farms here in the U.S., where farm acreage has been flat or declining, and carbon sinks are managed with much greater care.   The U.N. was painting with the same broad brush the much less efficient farms elsewhere, with far more productive farms and ranches here.  And they made absolutely no effort to distinguish between the two. 

Now, an air scientist at the University of California-Davis, Frank Mitloehner, has published a paper calling attention to the sloppy work of the FAO.  His point is that the UN’s scientific body was comparing apples to rutabagas in carving up the pie chart about which sectors contribute the most to greenhouse gases.  Only for agriculture did the FAO do a full lifecycle analysis.  In other words, the FAO calculated the carbon footprint of every activity that goes into producing the meat and cheese for the pizza, including fertilizing the land to grow the feed to feed the livestock to make the pepperoni and mozzarella.  However, the FAO, in looking at the impact of transportation’s carbon footprint, only looked at the fossil fuels burned to move vehicles from point A to point B.  Extracting and refining oil, mining the metal to make cars, the forestry involved in producing rubber tires…none of that lifecycle was part of the equation for transportation.  No wonder livestock seemed to be more carbon-intensive.

Even more shocking than the media actually reporting on Mitloehner’s work, is the fact that the FAO basically agrees with him!  They are now admitting that their comparison between different sources of greenhouse gases was so far off that they now have to go back to the computers and calculate a new set of ratios.  Said Pierre Garber of the FAO: "It's a weakness that we were aware of the issue when we used it."

I have no hopes that those who evangelize about a “low-carbon diet” will change the menu as a result of the facts coming out.  Their agenda was always more about politics than science.  And let me be clear that just because U.S. dairy farms are relatively much more carbon-efficient than counterparts in other countries, doesn’t mean there is not room for improvement in that area…there certainly is, and we’re working on it.

But at least now, with a new commitment from the FAO for a fuller accounting of the most relevant data, this effort to fool with the facts should reach its end.