The impact of the meat industry on the environment, particularly relating to greenhouse gas emissions, has become common knowledge among consumers and is increasingly a feature of mainstream media headlines today.
Arguably starting when the Food and Agriculture Organization released a paper entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow in 2006, the anti-meat movement moved on from focusing on concerns about the humane treatment of animals to its environmental footprint.
Soon vegan groups, philanthropists, environmentally-conscious entrepreneurs, and other influential people built initiatives, businesses and even raised investment funds aimed at combating livestock’s carbon footprint.
In particular, startup businesses producing alternatives to animal-grown meat, dairy and leather have picked up pace, grabbing consumer and investor attention. With plant-based burgers bleeding and feeling like meat, and fish grown through cell cultures in a laboratory, it’s no wonder this segment of food tech is exciting to many.
Parlor tricks aside, the cornerstone of many of these groups’ marketing campaigns — and indeed overall corporate missions — is that they’re solving, at least in part, what they describe as livestock’s devastating impact on the environment. Some go even further.
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Impossible Foods, one of the best funded plant-based meat alternatives, states on its website: “Eat meat. Save Earth.”
It is certainly a noble cause to do business while doing good — and there are many reasons the world would be better off without the intensive meat farming industry for humane as well as environmental reasons — but the issue of livestock farming’s impact on the environment is not as clear cut as many of these businesses would have you believe. In fact, many of the data dairy and meat alternative businesses are using to market their animal-free wares are inaccurate and misleading.
In this article, we want to lay out the facts and offer a different perspective on the impact of livestock farming on the environment by including information about the science behind the data on greenhouse gas emissions, the unintended consequences of quitting meat, and the differences in methods of meat production. Believe it or not, some meat production can actually be beneficial to the environment and sequester carbon!
We also hope to bring some realism to the conundrum that is reducing humanity’s negative impact on the environment; it’s going to take a lot more than purely reducing meat and dairy consumption.
Corrected FAO Research
The FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow, which has since been corrected by its authors, concluded that global meat production created 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, which put it ahead of all the world’s trains, planes, and automobiles combined (around 14%).
For one researcher, however, the data didn’t add up.
“I conducted a review of the report and then published a critique in a peer-reviewed journal that showed why the notion that livestock produces more greenhouse gas than transportation is flawed,” Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor of air quality at UC Davis’ department of animal science tells AgFunderNews.
Dr. Mitloehner’s 2010 critique revealed that the UN researchers used two different methodologies for evaluating the emissions associated with livestock production and transportation emissions. This led to disproportionate and inaccurate conclusions.
“For livestock, they used a live cycle assessment, or LCA, which looks at everything, not just the belching and emissions from manure, but also emissions related to [animal feed including] herbicide, pesticide, fertilizer, soil emissions, crop emissions, transporting the product to market, cooling, processing, selling the meat, and buying the meat. It’s a cradle-to-grave analysis,” Dr. Mitloehner explains. “They didn’t do this comprehensive analysis for transportation. They only looked at tailpipe emissions, not the whole manufacturing of vehicles, extracting oil, transporting it to refineries, refining it, transporting it to gas stations, and then burning it.”
Livestock’s Actual GHG Emissions Contribution
To compare livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions fairly with other industries, you need to look at the direct emissions associated with the industry.
Luckily, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which identifies and monitors human activities responsible for climate change, does exactly that. It estimates that direct emissions from livestock account for 5% of all global emissions from human activities with 2.3 gigatons of Co2 equivalent. They consist of methane and nitrous oxide from rumen digestion and manure management. By comparison, transport’s 6.9 gigatons of direct Co2 emissions per year represents about 14% of the total; this is the number quoted in Livestock’s Long Shadow including road, air, rail and maritime transport.
In the US, livestock’s contribution is even lower, and transport’s contribution is even higher.
It is, of course, still important to look at the indirect emissions associated with any industry. As mentioned earlier, the indirect emissions related to livestock include those involved in the many aspects of cultivating growth of animal feed such as — involving the manufacture of pesticides, fertilizers used on all crops — and transportation to get that feed and meat to market.
The most recent research from the FAO on the livestock industry’s total contribution to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities is 14.5% but interestingly, there is no comparison to the indirect and direct contribution of the transport industry, or others.
We can compare industries in the US thanks to the EPA’s 2018 emission inventory. The entire US agriculture industry contributes 9% of total greenhouse gas emissions (livestock represents 3-4%), while transportation contributes over one-quarter of total emissions at 28% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Commercial and residential activities like the burning of fossil fuels for heat and waste disposal contribute 11% of overall emissions.
An analysis of the livestock industry over the last several decades also shows why livestock are not the largest global contributors of methane emissions. Global animal numbers have remained static for decades, while milk production has nearly doubled as the industry has become more efficient. Global methane emissions began spiking in 2006 despite livestock populations remaining consistent. The fact that production capacity has nearly doubled using the same number of animals suggests that the livestock industry has been working hard to improve its environmental impact, which is the stark opposite of the media narrative around alternative proteins.
Quitting Meat for a Year is Same as a One-Way Flight from US to Germany
Dr. Mitloehner’s critique made quite a splash, particularly after the drafters of Livestock’s Long Shadow admitted that their findings were flawed. Following Livestock’s Long Shadow, the FAO assembled a partnership project to develop benchmarking tools for livestock’s impact on the environment. The partnership elected Dr. Mitloehner to be chairman of the project. And in September 2018, one of the lead FAO researchers for Livestock’s Long Shadow co-authored an article exploring whether cars or livestock contribute more to climate change and addressing some of Dr. Mitloehner’s critiques.
Others have chimed in on the debate over livestock’s impact on the environment. A panel at Fast Company’s recent Innovation Festival recently explored the subject of whether quitting meat really will save the environment
Dr. Mitloehner has also cautioned the public about being too quick to believe that dietary choices are the biggest and the only way to reduce GHG emissions.
“Meat alternative startups have said publicly that livestock produces 51% of all GHG. That number has been proven to be so flawed and wrong, but these companies still use that to scare the public into buying their products. I have a real problem with that not because of the marketing ploy but because it suggests to consumers that all that matters is consumers’ dietary choices and that all other issues can be relaxed upon,” Dr. Mitloehner says. “That is dangerous in my opinion because it is clearly fossil fuel use in the US and globally that is the number one cause of greenhouse gases. If you ask any climate change specialist what human activity’s main contribution to GHG is they will all say we take oil, coal, and gas and we burn it and it creates enormous amounts of CO2.”
And when it comes to some consumers’ recent decisions to go vegetarian or vegan in an effort to save the planet, Dr. Mitloehner wishes they had a more realistic understanding of the environmental impact that their personal diet actually has on the environment.
“If you decide to start being a vegan in 2019, then the carbon savings and GHG savings that you would create for that year equate to the GHG emitted for a one-way flight from the US to Germany. This is not nothing, but it is not as much as the media wants us to believe. It’s not fair and it’s not getting us where we need to go, which is finding ways to reduce emissions from fossil fuel,” said Dr. Mitloehner.
For perspective, the FAA reports that there were 9.7 billion scheduled passenger flights in 2016 alone and that roughly 2.6 million passengers fly in and out of US airports each day.
It’s also worth pointing out that while demand for meat might – and has – declined in the US and other developed markets, these markets need to continue producing meat at the same rate to meet the growing demand of developing nations. These developing nations would also need to rely on imports from the US and other developed nations where production methods are the most efficient when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
That is happening, according to the World Resources Institute, but cannot be guaranteed.
Plants Are Not Always the Climate-Friendly Alternative
Dr. Mitloehner’s research into greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production didn’t end with his critique of the UN’s 2006 report. He’s since worked on projects comparing the environmental externalities of producing dairy milk versus almond milk, which many companies tout as a more environmentally-friendly choice over cow’s milk.
“It is true that almond drink has a 10-times lower carbon footprint compared to dairy milk, but it has a 17-times higher water footprint. That means it takes 17-times more water to grow what it takes to produce 1 liter of almond milk compared to 1 liter of dairy milk,” he says. “It’s not just one impact category. We have to look at the whole picture and those plant-based alternatives are cherry picking in categories where they feel they are superior. They have to be aware that there are externalities where they will not do a good job.”
A 2017 study explored what could happen if we totally removed animals from US agricultural production. The study concluded that an animal-less system would produce roughly 23% more food, but that it would fall short of meeting the nation’s nutritional requirements for essential nutrients. Moreover, the study determined that the resulting diet would provide an excess of energy in the form of carbohydrates and that each person would have to consume a greater volume of foods overall to obtain their minimum nutrient requirements.
There’s also the issue of farming crops at mass scale and the production practices associated with mono-cropping. The widespread use of herbicides has led to pervasive problems with herbicide-resistant weeds that are now incapable of being eradicated, while the widespread use of nitrogen-based fertilizers has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is the same size as the State of Connecticut.
Furthermore, there would be a new waste stream as humans can only consume the grain or fruit of a plant, whereas livestock animals can digest nearly the entire plant at various stages of its growth cycle. Studies have shown that only 13% of the feed provided to cattle is digestible by humans. The other 87% is up-cycled waste nutrients that humans can’t digest.
The Misunderstood Inefficiency Argument
“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” wrote Winston Churchill in 1931 in an article predicting the future 50 years from then.
Churchill clearly showed incredible foresight, bearing in mind the growing number of startups now aiming to do just that, but he didn’t quite have his facts straight — at least not for the food industry today.
In fact, we use all of the animal. The livestock industry produces countless byproducts that are used to make various products including lipstick, insulin, and jet fuel. Of course, there are non-animal alternatives, but to say that we’re growing animals purely for certain parts is not accurate.
Livestock farmers also use land that could never grow crops; livestock can graze rough and brushy terrain where crop farming would never work. Ruminants such as cows also eat parts of the plant that humans can’t — we only eat the fruits and seeds of crops — meaning much of a plant would go wasted. Research shows that livestock use roughly 2 billion hectares of grasslands and only 700 of those hectares could be used as viable cropland.
Many municipalities have started employing goats to eliminate brush for fire control. The trendy ruminants’ primary diet of choice consists of bushes, brambles, and trees that can grow in tough terrain. Researchers have backed this up, conducting studies to measure the land use efficiency of livestock systems compared to crops. One study concluded that certain livestock systems make better use of land than crop farming alternatives.
The Potential for New Technology and Farming Practices to Change the Status Quo
Now, having laid all of this out, we’re not advocating for global meat consumption to continue as it is, particularly farming practices involving mass forest clearance and poor treatment of animals.
We want to see the encouragement of the right kinds of livestock operations, and growth in new research and technologies aimed at reducing the impact of meat consumption on the environment, as promoted by the World Resources Institute in its recent report. One researcher concluded that feeding seaweed to cows as a supplement can cut greenhouse emissions from their burps as much as 99%, for example.
Famed food system journalist and best-selling author Michael Pollan was one of the first carnivores to point out the important distinction between protein raised in the conventional industrial model that relies heavily on penning animals in dirt lots and providing them a diet primarily consisting of grain and even Skittles, and protein raised on pasture in a carefully monitored grazing program without supplemental feed.
“Meat eating may have become an act riddled with moral and ethical ambiguities, but eating a steak at the end of a short, primordial food chain comprising nothing more than ruminants and grass and sunlight is something I’m happy to do and defend. The same is true for a pastured chicken or hog. When obtained from small farms where these animals are treated well, fed an appropriate diet, and generally allowed to express their creaturely character, I think the benefits of eating such meat outweigh the cost. A truly sustainable agriculture will involve animals, in order to complete the nutrient cycle, and those animals are going to be killed and eaten,” the Omnivore’s Dilemma writer penned in an essay response regarding why he isn’t a vegetarian.
Some regenerative agriculture practitioners have measured their ability to actually sequester carbon from the atmosphere — something that has yet to modeled in the overall data about the industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions but could bring down the industry’s contribution — and there are many more benefits including protection and enhancement of the local natural ecosystem (that would need another feature article to explain.)
For many champions of regenerative agriculture, livestock are a key piece of the holistic solution to problems like soil degradation, loss of wildlife habitat, and runoff. These farmers, that are investing their time and money in pursuing these practices that they believe will be beneficial to animals and the environment, should be championed, funded and promoted; not tarred with the same brush as all the rest. That’s why we don’t stand behind the term “clean meat” due to its assumption that all other meat is dirty.
Yet again, the complexity of the issue rears its head when you look at data pointing to the economic and logistical benefits of concentrated animal feeding operations as a more efficient production practice than the smallscale livestock farms in operation in many developing countries. The complexity of this issue goes much further than many would have you believe.
Let’s Make this a Discussion
It’s understandable that meat alternative and vegan startups use these misconstrued data to sell their wares; animal agriculture and the food system overall is incredibly complex, which doesn’t make for a good story.
“If I am a marketer for Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods, I am not trying to engage in scholarly discussion or to explain to people the different types of slaughterhouses. I am going to take what people already know, which is that meat causes greenhouse gas emissions and that there are all these stories online that say people should eat less meat, and that people are uncomfortable with how animals are used and I am going to go with that. If you go with what people already have in the front or back of their minds, that is how you market to people,” Matt Ball from the non-profit focused on the space The Good Food Institute told AgFunderNews.
“The point isn’t to have a scholarly discussion with people about lowering carbon footprint by eating less meat, that’s not how people make decisions.”
In same conversation Ball also said: “I’m not saying that we could ever feed all of humanity with no environmental consequences. No one says plant-based meat will save the environment.”
With headlines hitting just this week about research conducted by Oxford University about the energy-intensive process of cellular agriculture that might not make it more environmentally-friendly than meat production, we think that we should have a scholarly discussion about reducing meat production and consumption. The food system’s complexity should be highlighted to consumers, if not understood. Many times before humanity has gone down the path of unintended consequences; let’s not pretend this is a black and white scenario.
Impossible Foods declined to comment for this article.
*Special thank you to David Hunt for his help with this article.*