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Global meat eating and global warming

March 30, 2010

Is eating meat bad for the environment? Conventional wisdom says yes. Many recent news stories have suggested otherwise. These articles have cried foul after the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) admitted to flaws in its analysis in a recent and highly visible report. The UN body had claimed that worldwide livestock production contributes 18% of GHG emissions—more than any other sector. An insightful review of this debate in the Columbia Journalism Review helps to clear up a number of persistent misconceptions that have emerged in the coverage of criticisms by UC Davis animal scientist Frank Mitloehner. (Short summary: yes, the figure’s wrong. It’s probably somewhere between that and the IPCC’s analysis, around 5%. But it’s definitely not 0%!)

But let’s not get caught up in whether or not the 18% figure is accurate. Whatever the correct number, a figure like that basically useless for any practical purpose. The CJR piece gets at this important point near the end:

“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,” Mitloehner said. “So, I don’t think that the 18 percent number is all that meaningful because it doesn’t apply regionally. It does not apply to Ethiopia, it does not apply to Paraguay, and it does not apply to the United States. Yet it’s being used in these countries [to influence policy and consumer choices].

This is a major problem caused by the global warming mindset. And it creates barriers to adaptation. We have become obsessed with global figures, despite the fact that they are useless for policy making and individual decision making.

According to CJR, the FAO has recognized this and is moving toward more regionally focused analyses. I just wonder why we can’t start with that approach, rather than the knee-jerk global aggregation, which doesn’t help policy makers or individuals trying to understand their environmental impact.

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