Sunday, April 22 , 2018, 1:04 pm | Fair 66º


Tam Hunt: Livestock Emissions, and the Cowspiracy’s Very Short Tail

[Author’s note: My next column will address the recently completed Paris Agreement on climate change, a major new agreement signed by 195 countries in Paris.

A new documentary is making some online waves with its claims that the current global process for addressing climate change is missing the main source of emissions: cows and other livestock.

The problem with Cowspiracy is that it plays fast and loose with the facts.

When we dig into the relevant research, we see that the laudable point — that our meat-eating habits are indeed leading to far too much environmental destruction — is weakened by the inaccurate claims about the greenhouse gas emissions from raising animals, as well as entirely unsupported accusations that organizations that choose not to focus on this issue are being paid to keep silent.

The key document that the duo behind Cowspiracy relies on is a 2006 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which found that 18 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases are related to animal agriculture.

18 percent is a good chunk and shouldn’t be ignored if we are taking climate change seriously.

The problem, however, is that this figure is misleading. First, about half of that 18 percent is from the fossil fuel energy used in the livestock industry for growing feed and transporting feed and livestock.

So that brings us to about 9 percent of global greenhouse gases from livestock emissions. Cows and some other livestock emit a large amount of methane from “enteric fermentation,” digestion in other words.

But the FAO revised this document in a 2013 version and found that the 18 percent figure should have been 14.5 percent, again with half of that coming from livestock emissions rather than fossil fuel emissions related to raising livestock.

So we’re down to about 8 percent of global emissions from livestock rather than fossil fuels and other sources.

Also, the revised FAO report looks at global emissions data only through 2004 and, in the ensuing 11 years, fossil fuel emissions have risen remarkably due to nations like China and India adding many hundreds of new highly polluting coal power plants.

The net effect is to reduce livestock emissions to even less than the 8 percent figure just described.

So, yes, livestock emissions are important, but they are far outweighed by emissions from fossil fuel use, by a factor of more than 10-to-1.

But is the FAO report too conservative? The movie also cites a 2009 Worldwatch Institute article that looked at the same data as the 2006 FAO report and concluded that the FAO had seriously underestimated the total emissions from livestock.

When examined correctly, the Worldwatch authors calculated that emissions related to livestock were “at least” 51 percent of the global total.

But as just described, the FAO revised its report four years after the Worldwatch report came out, after having a dialogue with the Worldwatch authors, and the FAO’s revised numbers went down rather than up.

Who’s right?

Is it two authors writing for Worldwatch in a nonpeer-reviewed article? Or the U.N. FAO’s revised report that was the product of a multiyear and multinational effort to get these figures as accurate as possible?

I’m always open to mavericks proving the mainstream wrong, but in this case the large weight of the evidence is on the side of the FAO probably being more accurate.

Are Nonprofits on the Take from the Livestock Industry?

The documentary also argues that nonprofit entities that focus on environmental protection (Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, etc.) don’t tackle livestock issues because they see it as a bad issue for fund-raising and, far worse, perhaps because they’re being paid to look away by the livestock industry itself.

Some experts interviewed in the film suggest that if these nonprofits were to challenge people’s personal habits like meat eating that they wouldn’t be able to raise enough money to stay in business.

This argument is pretty silly on its face because the livestock emissions issue simply isn’t well-known. And it’s not well-known because just about everybody — everybody except two authors of a single article — who has looked at this issue in the context of greenhouse gas emissions has found livestock emissions to be far smaller than fossil fuel emissions.

Again, the 2013 revised FAO report found that just 8 percent of global emissions come from livestock instead of fossil fuels and other emitting sources.

So there’s no cowspiracy or conspiracy here. It’s simply a matter of these organizations following the science as it currently exists.

And this science shows that the large majority of emissions come from fossil fuels, not livestock.

It’s also unreasonable to suggest that these organizations are nervous to suggest changes in diet when they are already suggesting changes in transportation choices, energy choices, etc., in the numerous nonprofit campaigns designed to move people away from fossil fuels toward more sustainable forms of energy.

Diet is not a special category of behavior change.

And many nonprofits do already urge dietary behavior change. Greenpeace, for example, in a response to the movie, highlights its work on animal agriculture and forestry issues that long predate the documentary.

The film goes even further and suggests (in a number of places) that Greenpeace takes donations from the livestock industry to keep quiet about the role of livestock and meat in environmental degradation.

This is absurd, and there is no evidence of this at all. Greenpeace, which has a public record of its donations, denies any funding from corporate entities or governments at all.

In short, while some of the messages from the film about the very negative impact that the livestock industry has on our planet are highly laudable, the general level of professionalism is low and the film is, frankly, dishonest, even while its intentions are good.

What About Solutions?

Toward the end of the film, in the section discussing solutions, one of the experts interviewed, William Oppenlander, suggests that while renewable energy as a solution to climate change is good, it will take 20 years to develop and have an impact, whereas going vegan can happen today and have a highly positive impact on the environment.

This argument is off-base because it would of course take many decades for a substantial number of people around the world to become vegan, even if the idea did take off now. Large societal shifts in behavior like this always take decades, if they take place at all.

The problem more generally with the vegan solution to climate change and environmental degradation more generally is that it’s a great solution for a small minority of people who will do it. For the rest of humanity, it’s simply not a realistic or desirable option (to those people, regardless of whether you or I support the vegan option) because the meat-eating habit is too ingrained, not only culturally but biologically.

When trying to achieve change in the world, those individuals and groups who think about strategies for achieving the desired change must think deeply about what kinds of changes are possible and at what pace.

In the field of climate change, a field I know a bit about because I’ve been in it for more than a decade, it’s paramount to keep in mind at all times how much change can be expected of people.

And the short answer is: not much. At least not much at any given time.

Change Is Difficult and Resisted

In short, while I applaud those who go vegan or “merely” vegetarian, I don’t expect that more than a tiny minority of people in the world will be convinced to become vegan or vegetarian in the next few decades.

What is happening currently in the world, however (focusing in on the climate change issue due to lack of space to address all of the environmental issues in this essays) is this: market forces, with some significant help from governments, are finally leading to a potentially massive shift away from fossil fuels for energy and transportation, which are the large majority of greenhouse gas emissions.

Also, the U.N. process is in fact now addressing the issue of agricultural emissions in a pretty serious way. The Lima-Peru Action Agenda, created in 2014 in Lima, the site of a previous round of U.N. climate change negotiations, includes agricultural emissions as part of its agenda.

The key action items for agriculture emissions, which have been signed on to already by a number of nations, include “carbon farming” in which farmers grow crops that have a higher rate of carbon sequestration in the soil, and agro-ecology in West Africa, among other items. Click here for more information on the FAO’s engagement.

What Role Does Veganism/Vegetarianism Have?

I applaud vegans and vegetarians for their personal choices, and I hope to see a lot more people become vegan or vegetarian. But wishing that all or even a significant percentage of people around the world will become vegan or vegetarian in the next couple of decades is, in my view, unrealistic.

Most people in the world, who are struggling to survive, let alone make a good living, don’t think too much about animal suffering in their dietary choices. That’s not going to change until their standard of living changes significantly for the better.

And even people in developed countries will have a very hard time giving up meat entirely.

The “meatless Monday” campaign for people living in developed countries, which the film mocks, is a realistic incremental step away from meat and all of the harm that comes from eating meat.

My personal solution is in between vegetarianism and the meatless Monday option: I eat red meat sparingly, a burger here or there (because I actually really like meat), pork almost never, chicken occasionally, ditto with fish, and eating fully vegetarian meals pretty regularly.

I’ve tried going fully vegetarian, and on one occasion I stuck with it for more than a year, but I fell off the wagon and realized I didn’t need to be dogmatic about not eating meat in order to have a positive impact on the world through my dietary choices.

If I simply reduced the amount of meat I was eating, below the average intake, I was part of the solution, along with the many other lifestyle changes that I’ve made over the years in order to be a conscious consumer and aware of my impact on the planet.

So, yes, people going vegan and vegetarian will have a very positive impact on the environment, but for this movement to have a quantifiable impact on greenhouse gas emissions will take at the least many decades, and probably far longer than the current trends in renewable energy and electric cars will take to make their positive impacts.

Solar and wind power are taking off around the world now — after many decades of progressive buildup — and are set to become the dominant sources of power in the next few decades.

We are also becoming far more efficient in how we use energy, further reducing emissions. This is a very big topic but I can sum up my views in one sentence: we are well on the way toward a major reduction in global emissions by 2050.

Whether that reduction is enough to avert major climate change remains to be seen.

I do think, using my long-term crystal ball forecasting power, that humanity will give up eating animals at some point, and will look back on our meat-eating ways as rather primitive.

But it will be a long time from now and it won’t be because of concerns about the environment or compassion for animals. Rather, it will be because we’ve learned how to produce meat and meat-like products, through plant engineering and genetic engineering, that won’t require growing or killing animals.

And they’ll taste great, maybe even better than the real thing.

In closing, what bothers me most about Cowspiracy is its “truthiness.”

As discussed, a lot of its points are valid. But it’s so loose with the facts, and even approaches slander in its suggestion that Greenpeace and other groups have been literally bribed by the livestock industry to not highlight the impacts of livestock, that I feel like it probably does more harm than good.

We can be effective advocates for change without being “truthy” or downright dishonest. The truth is on our side, so let’s use it.

— Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Santa Barbara and Hilo, Hawaii. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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