Thursday, April 22, 2010

Clearing up the Confusion about Cows and Climate

*Sigh*. Where to begin? I have already gone into about as much depth as a blog allows one to, detailing the effects of animal agriculture on the environment. But misinformation seems to have no end, and this Earth Day it is again time to refute some of the newest “findings”.

Telegraph, UK: Cows Absolved of Causing Global Warming

AFP (Wire): Eating Less Meat Won't Reduce Global Warming: Study

UK Times: Tofu Can Harm Environment More Than Meat, Finds WWF Study

Telegraph, UK: UN Admits Flaw in Report on Meat and Climate Change

These headlines would be great news for meat-eaters and the environment if, well, they were true. It’s a minor detail, I know. But reality must rear its ugly face and inform us that eating animal products is just as destructive as it was on Earth Day last year. I could easily write a separate post for every one of the above articles, but I’ll try to stick to a paragraph each.

Cows Absolved? If you live in China, and the only greenhouse gas you care about is nitrous oxide, then the headline is arguably technically true. They just bury some little details in the 9th and 10th paragraphs: But Dr. Butterbach-Bahl [the author of the study] pointed out that the study did not take into account the methane produced by the livestock or the carbon dioxide produced if soil erodes […] He said the study does not overturn the case for cutting down on red meat.” Oh sure, if you leave out the two most prevalent greenhouse gases, then cows don’t produce many greenhouse gases. Makes sense!

Pro-Meat Study? Dr. Frank Mitloehner, author of the report (it’s not a study) in question, is quoted touting animal agriculture industry talking points such as “Smarter animal farming, not less farming, will equal less heat”. But the article fails to actually cite a single fact from the report, nor do they provide a title of or link to the supposed study. Mitloehner is called a “leading air quality expert”, but his official biography shows that his credentials have nothing to do with global warming and that his main academic objective is to “help establish environmentally benign livestock systems”. Yet somehow he is qualified to undermine findings by the United Nations’ scientists without even citing a fact or source?

Devastating Tofu? Another article fails to actually provide a title or link to the supposed study, and cites no numbers or methodologies. All I can gather from this widely re-posted article is that if you look at the entire carbon footprint of processed soy foods shipped halfway across the globe and compare it only to the land use of local, grass-fed cow (and again ignore the methane from that cow), then you may find the soy product to be worse for the environment. They’re really grasping at straws…

Flawed Reporting? Kind of. The thing is, the UN misreported the TRANSPORTATION sector, not the animal sector. So animal agribusiness is responsible for just as much devastation as was originally reported- and cars may be even worse than we thought. Is this even worth reporting on?

Meanwhile, back in reality, a new UN report shows that it’s not just meat that we need to be concerned with- dairy alone is responsible for 4% of all global warming emissions. This news wasn’t reported nearly as widely as the non-science above, but I can’t say that anyone I know is surprised.

We need to be on top of these facts at all times to counter the nonsense that is spouted by agribusiness. To learn more about animal agriculture's effects on the environment and/or to request a free vegan starter guide, check out

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post! I actually found out about the report by Frank Mitloehner when I clicked on a link in a Washington Post article. At first glance, I actually began to wonder if he might be right, since I saw that he'd published papers in well-known journals and presented his findings from this very report at an American Chemical Society meeting. Being a passionate vegan who's used the environmental argument many times before, but who nonetheless believes in honest telling of the facts, I just had to see it for myself. It took me a whole lot of digging, but I finally found it:
    To be fair, the article does raise an important point that for livestock production to be compared with transportation, the same methodology must be used, and it wasn't in the case of the IPCC (which compared the entire lifecycle emissions of livestock with the transportation emissions from fuel use only). But like you said, this just means that transportation is worse than we thought, not that animal ag is better. Also, he points out that whatever the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, this percentage wouldn't necessarily be wiped out if all animal farming were to cease, because manure couldn't be used for fertilizer and many fabrics would have to be produced synthetically. While this might be true, these factors don't seem large enough to cancel out the improvements from eliminating animal agriculture (the main one being fewer crops--and land and fertilizer--wasted for animal feed). Finally, the most troubling thing is that he seems to be touting intensification (read: factory farms) as an improvement over traditional grazing because it uses less land. But nowhere does he take into account the increased water pollution and reduced air quality, not to mention the terrible animal welfare, that result from factory farms.