The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a draft report that, once again, questions the value of livestock production and animal protein in the diet.
The report, titled “Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, ” looks at many human activities and attempts to not only tie them to climate change, but to suggest ways those activities can be changed to mitigate the effects of climate change on the globe. The latest report is one of a series that has come out every seven years, says Chuck Rice, a Kansas State University (KSU) distinguished professor and soil microbiologist, and one of the lead authors of the agriculture chapter.
It is the fifth such report to be produced, and according to IPCC, it was a four-year effort involving 235 authors from 58 countries. The report is voluminous—the chapter on Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses alone is 181 pages—and the report covers many sectors of the global economy, including energy, transportation, buildings and industry.
For background, the IPCC was established in 1988 as an international body for assessing the science related to climate change. It is a function of the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations (UN) Environment Program to, as a factsheet says, “provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation. The assessments are policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive: they may present projections of future climate change based on different scenarios and the risks that climate change poses and discuss the implications of response options, but they do not tell policymakers what actions to take.”
While the report is rich in opportunities for analysis, let’s look at the agriculture chapter. “Agriculture globally contributes about 10% to 12% to greenhouse gas emissions,” Rice says in a KSU news release . “If you add in forestry, it moves it up to around 25%. Agriculture is significant but not the major contributor and has declined slightly, percentage-wise, since the last report in 2007, not so much because agriculture has changed that much but because the energy sector is contributing more.”
Rice says it’s important to remember that the IPPC report’s authors are not creating new science but rather assessing the current state of the science on how agriculture, forestry and land use contribute to and can mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. They conducted literature reviews and summarized key points of the science that’s occurred since the last report in 2007.
"Climate change" is controversial
He acknowledged that the words “climate change ” can be controversial among some people, but added, “As far as greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations in the atmosphere, I don’t think there’s any controversy. Those are true measurements. The science is really solid on that. What people might question is, what’s the impact of those greenhouse gases?
“It is certainly clear by 97% of those climate scientists that the increases in greenhouse gases such as CO2, nitrous oxide and methane, have resulted in about a 1.5°F increase in global temperatures. That’s an important point, that it’s global. There’s a lot of variation around the globe. In time, our atmosphere goes through natural cycles and what the scientists are saying is that what we’re doing is enhancing those cycles,” Rice says.
The 18 authors of the agriculture and forestry chapter make some key recommendations. They include soil carbon sequestration through land management changes, no-till farming being chief among them; increasing crop yields and livestock feeding efficiency; reducing food waste; and…drum roll, please … pursuing changing human diets away from food animal production. 
Rice acknowledges that this recommendation may be controversial, but the authors determined that changing human diets away from food animal products could help in mitigating greenhouse gases, according to the KSU release.
Here’s the logic behind that recommendation. “Methane emissions from livestock are a major contributor to agriculture’s footprint,” Rice says. “Approximately 40% of agriculture’s emissions are due to livestock and if we could reduce livestock that would reduce emissions.”
However, Rice says the report acknowledges that there are social and political barriers to all of these options. “Certainly the consumption of meat would be a social barrier. Traditionally, as countries increase their personal income, meat or protein consumption goes up,” Rice says in the release. But because livestock production is a contributor to greenhouse gasses, Rice says it had to be put on the table.
As you might expect, the beef industry’s statistics are a little different and take exception to the linear logic expressed by the report’s authors. According to the beef industry life-cycle assessment conducted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and, important to this conversation, certified by NSF International, the beef industry in the U.S. has made and continues to make significant improvements in its energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the life-cycle assessment report, from 2005 to 2011, the beef industry in the U.S. reduced water use by 3%, reduced resource consumption and energy use by 2%, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2%. “From 2005 to 2011, improvements in crop yields, machinery technology, irrigation techniques, fertilizer management, nutrition and animal performance have resulted in lowering the environmental footprint of the beef production process and improving on-farm sustainability,” according to an NCBA factsheet.
What’s more, beef industry sustainability expert Jude Capper says that, in 2007, cattlemen were significantly more environmentally sustainable than they were 30 years ago. Her analysis shows that today’s farmers and ranchers raise 13% more beef from 13% fewer cattle. When compared with beef production in 1977, each pound of beef produced today produces 18% fewer carbon emissions; takes 30% less land and requires 14% less water. In short, between 1977 and 2007, U.S. beef producers reduced their overall carbon footprint by 16%.
It’s important to recognize that the 40% figure quoted by Rice is a global estimate and the NCBA statistics are U.S. estimates, so making any direct comparison is difficult. And it’s not my goal to engage in “statistics ping-pong,” nor is it my goal to cast aspersions at Rice or the other authors of the agriculture chapter in the IPCC report.
But the statistics from NCBA and Capper do emphatically point out that, in the U.S. at least, farmers and ranchers are achieving the goal of increasing crop yields and livestock feeding efficiency. That, to me, makes the recommendation to move human diets away from food animal products shortsighted at best and socially and culturally dangerous at worst.
This is not the first time the UN has taken aim at livestock producers , and I’m certain it won’t be the last. But, if the UN really wants to make progress in mitigating climate change, perhaps it might be better served to aggressively pursue exporting the U.S. agriculture production system to the rest of the world, instead of aggressively trying to destroy it.
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