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Organic Consumers Association

Livestock, Climate Change and a Mediocre Media

News agencies, newspapers and especially the blogs of Big Agriculture and the livestock industry are rubbing their hand with glee. A new analysis claims that meat may not have as great a climate impact as has recently been reported.

The paper, Clearing the Air:  Livestock's Contribution to Climate Change, suggests that figures in the UN 2006 report Livestock's Long Shadow - which says that livestock is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions - are unfairly compared to emissions from transport.

The basis of lead-author Frank Mitloehner's beef is that while the livestock figures are based on a comprehensive life-cycle analysis which even includes emissions from land clearance, the figures from transport are less comprehensive. If they were, he argues, transport's contribution would be greatly increased. This may well be true. And maybe one day we will live in a world where our understanding of transport's contribution to climate change will be based on embedded emissions instead of smoke and mirrors. It's certainly long overdue.

Likewise, most food campaigners accept that Livestock's Long Shadow is a flawed report. Its recommendation of more intensive livestock farming, for example, is incomprehensible.

What is less easy to accept is the argument that, since beef production on US soil does not directly involve the clearing of vital rainforests, US producers should be encouraged to continue on a business as usual trajectory and even increase the production of meat and dairy through more intensive farming practices.

For an 'air quality expert' Mitloehner - who has borne the brunt of the PR burden for this paper - shows remarkably little awareness of the fact that greenhouse gases do not respect international borders. They don't get turned away firmly but politely by US immigration. Climate change is an international problem. To paraphrase that old chaos chestnut: if a cow farts in Argentina, it could well cause a tornado in Texas.

The livestock industry aims to double its output globally by 2050 and farm animals, like every other living thing, need to eat. According to David Pimentel:  "More than half the U.S. grain and nearly 40 percent of world grain is being fed to livestock rather than being consumed directly by humans".


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