Worldwatch bombshell: #1 threat to planet: Meat

Image from the Worldwatch report "Livestock and Climate Change."

When the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization released its blockbuster report Livestock's Long Shadow in November of 2006, the authors cautioned that in some cases they were using more conservative figures than probably necessary to calculate animal agriculture's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Even so they generated the notable stat, which we've quoted here, that animals raised for food generate more greenhouse gases than all of human transportation, i.e. 18% of total emissions versus 14% for trains, planes and automobiles.

Yesterday the Worldwatch Institute released the findings of Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, who scoured the 2006 FAO report to identify and quantify the undercounted factors and areas, and whose report puts it bluntly: Livestock now accounts for at least 51% of greenhouse gas emissions. The raising of animals for food is a bigger threat to the planet than every other factor put together. This is huge.

At the opening of their article (from the November/December issue of World Watch), the authors explain that

[T]he life cycle and supply chain of domesticated animals raised for food have been vastly underestimated as a source of GHGs, and in fact account for at least half of all human-caused GHGs. If this argument is right, it implies that replacing livestock products with better alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change. In fact, this approach would have far more rapid effects on GHG emissions and their atmospheric concentrations—and thus on the rate the climate is warming—than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.

Later, they go into more detail on why the animal-agriculture sector is not just a bigger player, but an easier one to change quickly:

[R]enewable-energy infrastructure has both long and complex product-development cycles and capital-intensive requirements. Converting vehicle fleets and power plants is forecast to cost trillions of dollars, and to require political will and consensus that do not appear close at hand. Even if money and politics were up to the task, such solutions are expected to take more than a decade to implement fully, by which time the tipping point may long since have been passed for irreversible climate disruption.

Goodland and Anhang all but declare that there should be a shift of focus at the upcoming Copenhagen talks

Action to replace livestock products not only can achieve quick reductions in atmospheric GHGs, but can also reverse the ongoing world food and water crises. Were the recommendations described below followed, at least a 25-percent reduction in livestock products worldwide could be achieved between now and 2017, the end of the commitment period to be discussed at the United Nations’ climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. This would yield at minimum a 12.5-percent reduction in global anthropogenic GHGs emissions,which by itself would be almost asmuch reduction as is generally expected to be negotiated in Copenhagen

And in a supplemental FAQ they address the wishful thinking that maybe we can all just eliminate beef and everything will be fine...

There is little variability between types of livestock when it comes to livestock respiration, land used to grow feed, and most of the other factors discussed in this article, which are responsible for most of the GHGs attributable to livestock products generally.  The main factors involving significant variability are enteric fermentation, grazing, and amount of feed required to produce beef and dairy products.  However, the difference that these factors make in total GHGs attributable to beef and dairy products vs. other livestock products is relatively insignificant.  Therefore, eating chicken instead of beef (for example) would not result in any appreciable slowing of climate change.

With this newly-crunched data, the authors point out that it's now clear that

the dramatic expansion of the livestock sector in recent decades may imperil humanity, and that there may be no way to manage the climate risk of either the food industry or the world at large other than by replacing livestock products with better alternatives. 

Their solutions - unlike the authors of the 2006 report, who were wishy-washy and ambiguous about what could be done to achieve any significant effect - involve making food-industry leaders understand that livestock is inherently a dying industry and helping them refit their businesses to acquaint consumers with plant-based analogs to meat and dairy. Notably, they note the prediction "from within both the livestock and financial sectors that peak oil could bring about the collapse of the livestock sector within a few years."

Among the specific ideas proposed for changing the food industry are carbon taxes, labeling analogs with certified claims of the amount of GHGs averted, and changing in-house grocery rules that keep meat and meat analogs far away from each other. The authors also say that "among the least risky strategies might be for a company subsidiary to build a chain of fast-food outlets featuring soy burgers, soy chicken products, sandwiches made with various meat analog products, and/or soy ice cream."

Targeting the food industry, rather than governmental regulations or consumer conscience, for change is a savvy move. People will not change deep seated behaviors no matter how much logic and facts you put before them. But if they become accustomed to eating tasty vegan food, the tide could be turning sooner than we'd thought.

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