The war on meat

“the anti-meat message risks destroying the very environment it claims to be protecting”

• Guest post •

— by Barry Brill, Chairman of the NZ Climate Science Coalition

Meat — farming animals for food is undeniably good for the environment (click to enlarge; DROOL).

For most of this century, we have been bombarded by news articles preaching that vegetarians now have a corner on ‘food morality’ and that meat-eating is to be banished in a more environmentally-conscious future.  The notion is that God never intended the human race to be omnivores and that our ancestors just took a wrong turning back there on the savannah.

An excellent essay by Keir Watson in Quillette last April contends that this tirade has not been spontaneous, but is fostered by an AMPAG (anti-meat-posing-as-green) ideology. A couple of years ago, Spiked claimed in “Veganism Isn’t a Diet, It’s an Ideology” that the number of vegans in Britain had increased by 360 percent over the past decade — “This is a statistic fitting to our times: one of puritanism, narcissism, selfies, self-worship and virtue-signalling.”

This constant propaganda has taken root in the fertile ground of climate activism.

Bill Gates in “Climate Change and the 75% problem” claims that 24% of anthropogenic global warming comes from agriculture (exclusive of deforestation) – “if cattle were a country (the Republic of Cattle) they would be the third-largest emitter.”

The UK’s Climate Committee has begun advocacy for conversion of 20-50% of the UK’s lamb and beef farms to forests and biofuels.

Who speaks for the committed Kiwi omnivores?

New Zealand’s Productivity Commission’s “Low Emissions Economy” has taken a similar stance and the Green Party Minister’s Zero Carbon modelling assumes that two million hectares of New Zealand sheep and beef farms will have to be sacrificed to allow the planting of more trees.

So who is putting the other side of the case? Who speaks for the delightfully gambolling lambs and sturdy calves who will go from short lives at present to no lives at all in future? Or for the rural communities or the green landscapes or the food gourmands or the non-urban voters? Or just for the 90% of New Zealanders who remain committed omnivores?

Alas, nobody has stepped forward. As soon as the word “climate” is mentioned, “shivers can’t even find a spine to run up” (in the immortal words of Piggy Muldoon).

The Watson essay “The Case for Sustainable Meat” provides all the ammunition a caring carnivore case-maker could conceivably require. Each of the ‘environmental’ arguments is identified, analysed and answered. As is all too often the case with environmental crusades, it turns out that the data is flawed, the logic is skewed and the language is ambiguous. Under the heading of “Lies, damn lies and statistics”, Watson shows that meat farming does not use excessive water. He defends the green pasture landscapes of his homeland. And, in particular, he addresses the allegation that ruminants are responsible for warming the planet. Under the heading “Cows as Eco-Vandals” the essay has this to say:

“One of the biggest controversies (and misconceptions) about meat production is its contribution to global warming, which reached media prominence following the publication of the 2006 UN report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow. This document made the shocking claim that livestock accounts for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, placing it ahead of the transport sector. Now, call me naive, but I thought the cause of global warming was our predilection for burning fossil fuels. Does it seem likely that farming — an activity that took place for thousands of years before the industrial revolution — is likely to be the problem?

Religious dogma: eat less meat

For the last decade, “Livestock’s Long Shadow” has contributed to the near-religious dogma that to tackle global warming we all need to eat less meat. However, there are important caveats behind the UN figures that take much of the darkness out of the ‘long shadow.’

Firstly, this is a global figure. It masks the fact that the preponderance of greenhouse gas (GHG) comes from deforestation to create new beef pasture or animal feed crops. That is, most of the carbon emissions attributed to the beef are actually from the destruction of the carbon sinks (forests) that preceded them, rather than the ranching itself. Furthermore, this activity is chiefly happening in developing countries. Most developed countries, by contrast, have seen increasing forest cover for many decades. Consequently, when the US did its own analysis of carbon emissions, researchers found that the American livestock industry contributes only 2.8 percent to US GHG emissions. So, even if everyone in the US gave up meat entirely, it would barely put a dent in the country’s emission figures.

Secondly, in many cases it is the value of the extracted timber which drives such deforestation, not the beef production that might follow in its wake. Even if beef production ceased tomorrow, the logging would still take place.

Ireland: the animals eat grass, so emissions are negligible — wake up, Fed Farmers!

Thirdly, the UN report didn’t consider alternative land use after the loggers had gone. Indeed, researchers have since identified that changing to grassland actually provides the most effective sink and store of soil carbon — far superior to farmland and, surprisingly, even better than replanting forest. Indeed, the Irish Government has identified restoration of grasslands and pasture around the world as a priority with significant potential to mitigate Global Warming. In their analysis, they found that for UK and Irish livestock farms, the greenhouse emissions were negligible. This is in large part because our animals feed primarily on grass for much of the year.

Ploughing up grassland actually releases carbon from long-term soil stores, which makes the idea of switching from livestock to arable farming look decidedly un-green. Ploughing also increases soil erosion, runoff, and nutrient depletion — all factors that are ignored in the AMPAG narrative. Partly because of these environmental issues, the UK government has a target to increase the amount of permanent pasture in the UK as part of its greening agenda. “The principal aim of the new requirement,” says the Natural England Research Report NERR060 (pdf, 277KB), “is to ensure maintenance of grassland as one of the most important carbon sinks for climate change mitigation.”

Dairy: more efficient than raising meat (shh…)

Fourthly, there is the issue of dairy. Although most anti-meat advocates won’t come out and say it, dairy production is considerably greener than beef production even by their own dubious calculations. Primarily this is because dairy farming provides protein in the form of milk all year round, not just at slaughter. Besides which, the oft-repeated rhetoric that we can feed the world more efficiently with grains than animal products has another serious flaw: its calculations are based on meeting human energy requirements only, completely overlooking human protein needs.

There are other significant limitations on grain production: in temperate climates, grains produce just one harvest per season and to avoid nutrient depletion and disease build-up they have to be rotated with other crops such as potatoes or oilseed rape. Taking into account the reality of the whole farm cycle as well as human protein needs, New Zealand researchers recently found that in temperate climates dairy farming is actually the most environmentally sound way to feed a population.

So rather than seeing farm herbivores as the ultimate eco-vandals it might be time to start appreciating their virtues. Their ability to convert inedible grass into high quality protein as meat and milk should be seen as a gift — a bit of magic that traditional pastoralists recognised and revered.”

Including initial deforestation, human activities are alleged to account for 60% of total atmospheric methane concentration (1.7 ppm), with about a third of that being agricultural — which is divided 80:20 between livestock production and other farming. Of the livestock sector’s 16% share1 of aggregate atmospheric methane, beef accounts for about 41%, dairy for 20% and sheep/goats for 6%.

However, the total CO2 in the atmosphere is over 200 times the methane content and (even using the IPCC’s absurdly high GWP) all the world’s methane cannot account for more than 28% of the warming that CO2 is said to cause. So, if all livestock combined is responsible for 16% of that 28%, then livestock contributes only 4.66% of greenhouse-related temperature change. The entire world’s dairy herd therefore contributes a minuscule 0.93% while beef provides about 2% and sheep about 0.28%.

The canard that livestock farming accounts for 18% of total AGW is patently absurd. If that were the case, then methane would have to be responsible for 108% and CO2 absolved from all blame!

What convoluted reasoning behind government vegetarianism

And the major part of those trivial figures comprise the wholly theoretical ‘opportunity cost’ of the carbon sink provided by the notional trees that might have existed  — while  ignoring the sinks that the permanent grasslands themselves provide. They also rely on the much-derided and scientifically out-dated GWP of 28 for methane adopted by the IPCC’s TAR way back at the turn of the millennium.

A more convoluted and arcane reason for government-coerced vegetarianism would be hard to devise.

 

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