Searching for Truth in the Agriculture – Climate Change Connection

photo: Robert Grillo

photo: Robert Grillo

“Plant-based diets may not be environmentally friendly” was the surprising headline above an article about a new French study (first published January 13, 2013). More surprising was the publisher of that headline — Occupy Monsanto — which would normally be skeptical of such a study. Hundreds of other publications have published similar breathless headlines. But the French study doesn’t assert what most have said it does.

The French study actually compares greenhouse gas said to be attributable to livestock products versus greenhouse gas attributable to vegetables and fruits — and it concludes that a meal consisting of fruits and vegetables low in caloric density could be responsible for as much greenhouse gas as a meal consisting of meat.

Yet fruits and vegetables are rarely eaten instead of meat. The French study failed to compare similar products, such as chicken versus one of its many plant-based substitutes, which normally consist mainly of calorie-dense grains and legumes, rather than fruits and vegetables.

Moreover, the French study relied entirely on estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that livestock are responsible for up to 18% of worldwide human-induced greenhouse gas, while other food production is responsible for up to 12% of human-induced greenhouse gas.

Free From Harm, like other groups, has publicized a range of environmental perspectives on food. It’s understandable that there are so many perspectives on food, let alone the range of views on climate change. Given various controversies over food on its own, and climate change on its own, it’s even harder to tell what the truth is when they’re linked.

For example, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has garnered a lot of publicity for its “Meat Eaters’ Guide,” which pegs greenhouse gas attributable to livestock at about 5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas. Yet the EWG’s estimate fails by giving far too much weight to methane attributable to ruminants and not enough weight to deforestation for ranching, and omits to count other amounts of greenhouse gas attributable to all livestock products.

Those mistakes could be explained by a view that apparently preceded development of the “Meat Eaters’ Guide,” and which was written into it, stating that most people simply “aren’t going to give up meat”. It’s phrased as a fact — but it’s actually an opinion, and it’s as misplaced as a similar opinion would be in a professional environmental assessment of chlorofluorocarbons or coal. One way to tell that it’s not a fact is by viewing a video featuring Bill Gates making a prediction that a large-scale replacement of livestock products with better alternatives could occur within the next five years.

Similarly, the FAO’s widely-cited estimate of greenhouse gas attributable to livestock was published in an FAO report that didn’t include any analysis of alternatives, which is a standard tool in environmental assessment. Instead, the FAO report simply prescribed more factory farming (see p. 236): “The principle means of limiting livestock’s impact on the environment must be… intensification.”

That FAO prescription was made even though one of its co-authors, Cornelius de Haan, was lead author of the World Bank’s 2001 strategy that advised institutions (see p.65) to “avoid funding large-scale commercial, grain-fed feedlot systems and industrial milk, pork, and poultry production.”

The leap from the World Bank’s recommendation to avoid factory farming over to the FAO’s recommendation to expand it seems baffling, given that the FAO report pegged environmental risks and impacts of livestock at a higher level than the World Bank report. Maybe the best explanation is that the FAO report was authored by livestock specialists, rather than by environmental specialists. Normally, environmental assessment is considered most reliably performed by environmental specialists, particularly where environmental risks and impacts are significant.

On the other hand, reports published by the FAO are normally considered authoritative, in light of its status as a UN specialized agency. Yet countless sources, including Forbes and A Well Fed World, have cited an assessment that’s starkly opposed to the FAO’s — and which has been written by environmental specialists employed by two other UN specialized agencies, the World Bank and IFC. I’m one of those specialists, and the New York Times has published my critique of the FAO’s partnership with global meat, dairy, and egg industry associations.

Before my critique was published by the New York Times, the FAO actually invited Jeff Anhang and me to present in both Rome and Berlin. Those presentations are on our website, as well as links to prominent citations of our analysis. Our analysis has been cited in such languages as French, German, Chinese, Italian and Spanish, to name just a few.

The latest version of our analysis is in Nature Climate Change. We’ve cited there the warning from both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency (IEA) that the next five years may be the last real chance to reverse climate change before it’s too late.

We’ve also cited the IEA’s estimate that US$18 trillion of spending is needed in the next 20 years to reverse climate change by replacing fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy infrastructure. As a result, focusing mainly on energy usage while neglecting food and agriculture could end up guaranteeing climate catastrophe.

In fact, we’ve proposed in our latest editorial, Lifting Livestock’s Long Shadow, that reforestation and regeneration of forests could absorb all of today’s excess atmospheric carbon — while sufficient land can be freed up by replacing at least 25% of today’s livestock products with better alternatives. That’s because an astonishing 45% of all land on earth is now used for livestock and feed production.

So we propose that, contrary to popular belief, the key to reversing climate change in the next five years — as needed — is actually the food industry. It is more exposed to climate change’s risks than any other industry. Yet food companies develop better foods as a matter of course. They control lots of land on which livestock and feed production can (and should) be reduced, and they can sell carbon credits from reforesting land.

One wouldn’t know it from most reports on the new French study, but according to Bloomberg, promising activity is actually underway in the food industry to replace livestock products (that is, meat, dairy, and egg products) with better alternatives. Consumers have an equal role in their capacity to act themselves to replace livestock products with better alternatives.

About Robert Goodland

Robert Goodland has served as lead environmental adviser at the World Bank Group, and is the first ever winner of the World Conservation Union's Harold Jefferson Coolidge medal for lifetime achievement in the conservation of nature.

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