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Is Vegetarianism Worth It? Part 2 - Sierra Daily

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Sierra Daily

Feb 20, 2013

Is Vegetarianism Worth It? Part 2

Meat and veg

Last week I trolled my friends in the plant-eating community with a post entitled "Is Vegetarianism Worth It?," the basis of which was a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that suggested that the carbon difference between carnivorous and vegetarian diets was much less than is usually assumed. The post prompted a very thoughtful response from Robert Goodland, who has served as lead environmental advisor to the World Bank, as follows:  

A shocking headline, "Plant-based diets may not be environmentally friendly," appeared last week above an article about a new French study (first published January 13, 2013).  Even more surprising was the publisher of that headline -- Occupy Monsanto -- an environmental group that would normally be skeptical of such a study. Hundreds of publications have published similar articles. However, the French study doesn't conclude what most have said it does.

The French study actually compares greenhouse gas emissions said to be attributable to livestock products versus emissions attributable to fruits and vegetables -- and it concludes that a meal consisting of vegetables and fruits low in caloric density could be responsible for as much greenhouse gas as a meal consisting of meat.       

Yet vegetables and fruits are rarely eaten instead of meat. The French study failed to compare analogous products, such as beef versus one of its many plant-based substitutes, which normally consist primarily of calorie-dense grains and legumes, rather than fruits and vegetables. 

Further, the French study relied entirely on estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that livestock are responsible for up to 18% of worldwide anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, while all other food production is responsible for up to 12% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.   

Over time, the Sierra Club, like other environmental groups, has publicized a range of environmental perspectives on food.  It's understandable that little seems settled when it comes to food and climate change.  The myriad of views about food -- let alone the range of views about climate change -- make it exceptionally hard to determine the truth when food and climate change are looked at together. 

For example, the Sierra Club has publicized the "Meat Eaters' Guide" published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which pegs greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock at about 5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas in the U.S. The Sierra Club has also publicized the FAO's much higher estimate. 

In fact, the EWG's estimate fails by its assignment of too much weight to methane attributable to ruminants and not enough weight to deforestation for feed production and for grazing cattle, and by its omission to count other amounts of greenhouse gas attributable to all livestock products.   

Those mistakes could be explained by a view that apparently preceded development of the "Meat Eaters' Guide," and which was written into it, stating that most people simply "aren't going to give up meat". It's phrased as a fact -- but it's actually an opinion, and it's as misplaced as a similar opinion would be in a professional environmental assessment of chlorofluorocarbons or coal.  One way to tell that it's not a fact is by viewing a video featuring Bill Gates making a prediction that a large-scale replacement of livestock products with better alternatives could occur within the next five years.   

Similarly, the FAO's widely-cited estimate of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock was published in an FAO report that included no analysis of alternatives, which is a standard tool in environmental assessment.  The FAO report simply prescribed one key action  -- and that's more factory farming (see p. 236): "The principle means of limiting livestock's impact on the environment must be... intensification."   

That FAO prescription was made even though one of its co-authors, Cornelius de Haan, served as lead author of the World Bank's 2001 livestock strategy that advised institutions (see p.65) to "avoid funding large-scale commercial, grain-fed feedlot systems and industrial milk, pork, and poultry production." 

That leap from avoiding factory farming over to expanding it seems inexplicable, especially considering that the FAO report pegged the adverse impacts of livestock at a higher level than the World Bank report did. The best explanation may be that the FAO report was authored by livestock specialists, rather than by environmental specialists. As a rule, environmental assessment of activity entailing significant environmental risk is most reliably performed by environmental specialists. 

On the other hand, reports published by the FAO are normally considered authoritative, given the FAO's status as a UN specialized agency. Yet the Sierra Club has cited in one place after another an assessment of livestock strikingly different from the FAO's -- and which has been authored by environmental specialists employed by two other UN specialized agencies, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation. I'm one of those specialists, and the New York Times published my critique of the FAO's partnership with global meat, dairy, and egg industry associations.     

The latest version of our analysis was published in the January 2013 issue of Nature Climate Change.  There, we've cited the warning from both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) that the next five years may be the world's last real chance to reverse climate change before it's too late.   

We've also cited the IEA's estimate that US$18 trillion of spending is required in the next 20 years to reverse climate change by replacing fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy infrastructure. This suggests that focusing mainly on energy usage while neglecting to address food and agriculture could end up guaranteeing climate catastrophe.  

In the domain of food and agriculture, an astonishing 45% of all land on earth is now estimated to be used for livestock and feed production. Yet reforestation and regeneration of forest can proceed quickly and at relatively low cost, unlike action to replace fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy infrastructure (though such action should still be taken over the long term).   

In fact, we've proposed that large-scale reforestation and regeneration of forest could absorb all of today's excess atmospheric carbon -- while sufficient land can be freed up by replacing at least 25% of today's livestock products with better alternatives (i.e., fulfilment of Bill Gates' aforementioned prediction).  So the food industry is the key to reversing climate change in the short term as needed. 
Indeed, the food industry is more exposed to climate change's risks than any other industry.  Yet food companies develop better foods as a matter of course.  They control lots of land on which livestock and feed production can (and should) be reduced, and they can sell carbon credits from reforesting land.   

One wouldn't know it from most reports on the new French study, but promising activity is actually underway in the food industry to replace livestock products (that is, meat, dairy, and egg products) with better alternatives.  Consumers have an equal role in their capacity to act themselves to replace livestock products with better alternatives--Robert Goodland

Illustration by craftvision/iStock

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber

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