The enemies of climate? “It’s cars, not cows”

“The main cause of greenhouse gas emissions is farms and meat production,” some people say. We are so used to hearing assertions like that, repeated as a mantra, that many of us now tend to assume them to be true.

Some people think that farms are the worst problem for the climate. Yet this is not the case, especially if one compares the emissions of the livestock sector with those of transport, energy sector, or of part of the agricultural sector. Finally, the American writer Paul John Scott also does it precisely. On the pages of the Star Tribune web magazine, he reiterates a couple of very important points when it comes to breeding and climate change.

Somebody thinks that #livestock is the problem for the #climate, but this is not the case, especially if you compare its #emissions with those of #transport or the #energy sector. Click To Tweet

Avoiding animal foods, a weak argument

First of all, Scott points out, the “scientific” arguments against meat consumption are very weak, given that they generally derive from the so-called “nutritional epidemiology”. This, in practice, is based almost exclusively on questionnaires and therefore on observational rather than experimental studies. An epidemiological study can show only associations, not cause-effect relationships.

It must be kept in mind, because it is often this type of “research” that leads many people to ban meat, cold cuts, and animal foods from their own diets or, worse, from that of their children. And we all find ourselves believing that a diet without animal products is healthier. Yet meat, eggs, and dairy products are unquestionably superior to the refined carbohydrates and vegetable oils at the center of the diet of most of the western world population, including the Italian one.

From health to the environment

After health, we focused on the environment, putting all the blame for the ongoing climate crisis on the steak. “But the ongoing campaign to shame the world and bring it to give up animal food in the name of climate change is a pure vegetarian projection, a low-calorie mixture of facts and hypotheses. It throws on our shoulders the anxiety we feel about rising sea levels, shifting a legitimate fear of greenhouse gases towards an unfounded fear of meat”, Scott writes: “The vegetarian appropriation of the climate crisis is largely rash. Climate change will require our general attention, collective sacrifice, and unprecedented political courage. Disruptive changes will be needed to make fossil fuels reflect their costs for the environment and to move to a society with 100% renewable energy. These will be quite painful without having to fight the perception that food activism may have hijacked the agenda”.

The ongoing campaign to shame the world and lead it to give up #AnimalFoods in the name of #ClimateChange is a pure #vegetarian projection. Click To Tweet

Attention to Veg-business

In his discussion, Scott could not leave out certain “Veg” initiatives which, beyond thinking about the good of the climate and the planet, are evidently driven by important economic interests. In fact, appeals to save the climate of certain “meat-free” campaigns have been joined by appeals from Wall Street to buy new surrogate meat products. Like the now-famous vegetable burgers of Beyond Meat (22 ingredients, 240 million dollars collected, Nasdaq: BYND) and Impossible Foods (21 ingredients, 300 million dollars collected, privately), both with climate change at the top of their advertising campaigns.

And what about the EAT-Lancet commission, so criticized by scientists and institutions that nowadays it´s hard to still hear about it, that with its “universal diet” has proposed to the whole world an almost vegan diet, very unbalanced in terms of nutrition and totally careless of the cultural and environmental differences that characterize the various global food regimes. Well, as Frederic Leroy and Martin Cohen have already done very well, Scott also remembers the multibillion-dollar business that hides (not too much) behind “studies” of this type, with sponsors ranging from Kellogg’s to Nestlé, from PepsiCo to Cargill and Unilever, passing through Dupont and going to Google and Deloitte. “You may be wondering what can persuade these engines of capitalism to support the closure of every steakhouse, oyster bar, and barbecue,” Scott writes ironically.

The real culprits of the climate crisis

Cattle breeding contributes to climate change. Ruminants, in particular, have a second stomach for the digestion of fibrous plants – which humans could not digest, and through the anaerobic pathway, they expel methane. This gas has a greenhouse effect 28 times higher than CO2 (source IPCC) generated by cars, plants, and factories. But unlike this, which remains in the atmosphere for several centuries, after a dozen years at most, it no longer leaves a trace of itself.

But be careful, because even if we talk about methane emissions, farms could (and should) be exonerated from the accusations of being the public enemies number one. Wetlands, for example, are in fact another natural cellulose digester (and a concentrate of biodiversity), and therefore one of the largest natural sources of methane on the planet. Not to mention the methane sources of human origin such as landfills, oil fields and, surprisingly, an agricultural practice that would exponentially increase its effects on the climate if the vegan utopia became reality: rice fields.

From bison to fracking

In addition, an estimated 80 million wild bison lived on the Great Plains in North America. Numbers that are close to the 90 million beef cattle now bred in the United States, 75 of which bred in the prairies. At the end of the Upper Pleistocene, 150 species of megafauna are believed to have existed in the Americas, including mammoths, big cats, giant sloths, and bears that are far larger than today. Regression calculations suggest that emissions from these oversized animals and herbivores would have created methane levels close to those emitted by farm cattle today.

“And so our atmosphere has proven to be able to manage emissions and dejections from the animal kingdom, as well as those from wetlands,” Scott points out: “If that methane had not been expelled from livestock, it would have been released when the ‘uneaten grass was beginning to rot”. The problem, underlines the American writer, are rather the “artificial methane sources such as landfills, air conditioners, agricultural rice fields and, at extraordinary levels, the losses in the natural gas production chain – urgent issues in the fight against climate change.”

In fact, it is believed that gas losses due to fracking emit a staggering amount of methane every year: 13 Tg (teragrams), or thirteen million tons of this powerful greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere. It is double the methane released every year by cows raised all over the world. “EAT-Lancet should push us to abandon rice and gas boilers,” Scott says, “But that wouldn’t advance the vegetarian imperative.”

Even only the #GasLeaks from #fracking emit 13 million tonnes of #methane annually - double that released by #cows raised worldwide. Click To Tweet

Direct and indirect emissions

The problem often lies there: emissions of livestock and of transport for example are compared by comparing indirect emissions of the former with the direct emissions of the latter. Which obviously doesn’t make sense. And why are cattle and transport compared (another thing that doesn’t make much sense)? Because in 2006 FAO compared direct and indirect emissions of cows with direct emissions of cars only, thus estimating that livestock was responsible for 18% of all the greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, that is more than the emissions produced by transport. It didn’t help to correct this figure almost immediately downwards, which soon became 14.5%: the damage was already done. From that moment on we are forced to hear repeated that farm animals are more “polluting” than transport (sic).

Still, there are more reliable data around. “When considering recognizable and direct emissions, the livestock climate burden decreases,” Paul John Scott emphasizes: “The EPA estimates that 9% of all direct emissions in the United States are from agriculture, compared to 20% coming from industry, 28% from electricity and 28% from transport. Only 3.9% are due to livestock.” A big difference compared to FAO estimates, which to date still does not have reliable and correctly comparable data between the two sectors.

It makes no sense to compare direct and #IndirectEmissions from #cows with #DirectEmissions from #cars alone. Click To Tweet

It’s cars, not cows

We all, or almost all, want to mitigate climate change and its effects. But to do this it is necessary to go beyond ideological positions and commonplaces. Of course, the noisy and omnipresent vegan-animal rhetoric, supported by billionaire interests, does not help the dissemination of correct information on the subject. But reflections like those of Paul John Scott are an incentive not to further trivialize complex topics. And to remember that animal husbandry is part of the solution, not the problem.

Then, if there are people convinced that they are doing their duty for the climate and the environment by eating a soy burger (and a thousand other ingredients) instead of meat, then go ahead. But it is not by closing in one’s own veg complacency that the situation (climatic and beyond) can be improved. If anything, it is by facing reality, and understanding that cars, trucks, ships, planes, factories or coal-fired plants are much worse for the climate than animals grazing or in stable. As soon as we become aware of it, we will not only be able to do more for the climate, the environment and biodiversity, but also to return to eating healthier and more balanced truly “natural” foods. Not expensive hyper-processed products with a nice V on the packaging, natural only in marketing campaigns.

#Cars, #trucks, #ships, #planes, #factories or #coal-fired #PowerPlants are much worse for the #climate than #animals grazing or in barns. Click To Tweet

Journalist specialized in sustainability, climate change and environmental issues, he writes for various newspapers, magazines and websites. He worked in 2007 at the Center on Sustainable Consumption and Production, born from the collaboration between UNEP and Wuppertal Institut. Graduated in sociology, for years he has been focusing his work on the impacts of food production, starting from those related to animal husbandry and animal production. At the end of 2018 he has published the book “In difesa della carne” (“In defense of meat"), published by Lindau.