Don't Blame Cows for Climate Change

December 8, 2009
Frank Mitloehner, air quality specialist with Animal Science at UC Davis, measures the gases produced by livestock. (UC Davis photo)

( -- Despite oft-repeated claims by sources ranging from the United Nations to music star Paul McCartney, it is simply not true that consuming less meat and dairy products will help stop climate change, says a University of California authority on farming and greenhouse gases.

UC Davis Associate Professor and Air Quality Specialist Frank Mitloehner says that McCartney and the chair of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on ignored science last week when they launched a European campaign called "Less = Less Heat." The launch came on the eve of a major international climate summit, which runs today through Dec. 18 in Copenhagen.

McCartney and others, such as the promoters of "meatless Mondays," seem to be well-intentioned but not well-schooled in the complex relationships among human activities, animal digestion, food production and atmospheric chemistry, says Mitloehner.

"Smarter animal farming, not less farming, will equal less heat," Mitloehner said. "Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries."

Mitloehner traces much of the public confusion over meat and milk’s role in climate change to two sentences in a 2006 United Nations report, titled "Livestock's Long Shadow." Printed only in the report's executive summary and nowhere in the body of the report, the sentences read: “The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of emissions measured in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents). This is a higher share than transport.”

These statements are not accurate, yet their wide distribution through news media have put us on the wrong path toward solutions, Mitloehner says.

"We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by consuming less meat and milk.

"Rather, in developed countries, we should focus on cutting our use of oil and coal for electricity, heating and vehicle fuels."

Mitloehner said leading authorities agree that, in the U.S., raising and pigs for food accounts for about 3 percent of all , while transportation creates an estimated 26 percent.

"In developing countries, we should adopt more efficient, Western-style farming practices, to make more food with less greenhouse gas production," Mitloehner continued. In this he agrees with the conclusion of "Livestock’s Long Shadow," which calls for “replacing current suboptimal production with advanced production methods — at every step from feed production, through livestock production and processing, to distribution and marketing.”

"The developed world's efforts should focus not on reducing meat and milk consumption," said Mitloehner, "but rather on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries, where growing populations need more nutritious food."

Mitloehner particularly objects to the U.N.'s statement that livestock account for more greenhouse gases than transportation, when there is no generally accepted global breakdown of gas production by industrial sector.

He notes that "Livestock's Long Shadow" produced its numbers for the livestock sector by adding up emissions from farm to table, including the gases produced by growing animal feed; animals' digestive emissions; and processing meat and milk into foods. But its transportation analysis did not similarly add up emissions from well to wheel; instead, it considered only emissions from fossil fuels burned while driving.

"This lopsided 'analysis' is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue," Mitloehner said.

Most of Mitloehner's analysis is presented in a recent study titled "Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contributions to Climate Change," published in October in the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Agronomy. Co-authors of the paper are UC Davis researchers Maurice Piteskey and Kimberly Stackhouse.

Provided by UC Davis (news : web)

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5 / 5 (3) Dec 08, 2009

Sorry but this article is as far off as the UN study. Cattle do cause GHG emissions in quantity. More than 3% but far less than 26%. And you need to add farm CO2 of feed just as you need to add gas/oil production to transport fuels.

Luckily both can be cut by a lot.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 08, 2009
Often neglected point is, many animals are able to collect proteins from life environment more efficiently, then the agricultural plants by using of solar radiation, because they can consume even the plants growing in wild, which people cannot. Which is the reason, why people in rain forests or arctic areas are feeded by meat preferably - the farming of mooses is more effective and ecological(!) here, then the growing of plants. I even suspect, farming is more ecological as a whole.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2009
For example, for production of rice it's required 2552 m³ of water/ ton rice, whereas for production of one ton of poultry it's required 3809 m³ of water.


Therefore the consumption of poutry may sound like inefective waste of water for someone - but the content of proteins in rice is ten times lower, then in chicken meat! This explains, why people from deserts in Chad or Mongolia are living from pasturage, instead of farming.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2009
jerryd--"Sorry but this article is as far off as the UN study. Cattle do cause GHG emissions in quantity. More than 3% but far less than 26%. And you need to add farm CO2 of feed just as you need to add gas/oil production to transport fuels."

If you read the article, the co2 of feed was included. That's why not adding the production of fuels is deceptive. Mr. Frank Mitloehner has presented the numbers to back up his claims, the "farm animals cause massive amounts of greenhouse gases" folks are reporting and re-reporting news media hype.

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