UC Davis: Don’t Blame Meat Consumption for Climate Change

Despite oft-repeated claims by sources ranging from the United Nations to
music star Paul McCartney, it is simply not true that consuming less meat and
dairy products will help stop climate change, says a University of California
authority on farming and greenhouse gases.

UC Davis Associate Professor and Air Quality Specialist Frank Mitloehner says
that McCartney and the chair of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change ignored science last week when they launched a European campaign called
“Less Meat = Less Heat.” The launch came on the eve of a major international
climate summit, which runs today through Dec. 18 in Copenhagen.

McCartney and others, such as the promoters of “meatless Mondays,” seem to be
well-intentioned but not well-schooled in the complex relationships among human
activities, animal digestion, food production and atmospheric chemistry, says

“Smarter animal farming, not less farming, will equal less heat,” Mitloehner
said. “Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor

Mitloehner traces much of the public confusion over meat and milks role in
climate change to two sentences in a 2006 United Nations report, titled
“Livestock’s Long Shadow.” Printed only in the report’s executive summary and
nowhere in the body of the report, the sentences read: The livestock sector is
a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured
in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents). This is a higher share than transport.

These statements are not accurate, yet their wide distribution through news
media have put us on the wrong path toward solutions, Mitloehner says.

“We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by consuming
less meat and milk.

“Rather, in developed countries, we should focus on cutting our use of oil and
coal for electricity, heating and vehicle fuels.”

Mitloehner said leading authorities agree that, in the U.S., raising cattle and
pigs for food accounts for about 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions,
while transportation creates an estimated 26 percent.

“In developing countries, we should adopt more efficient, Western-style farming
practices, to make more food with less greenhouse gas production,” Mitloehner
continued. In this he agrees with the conclusion of “Livestocks Long Shadow,”
which calls for replacing current suboptimal production with advanced
production methods at every step from feed production, through livestock
production and processing, to distribution and marketing.

“The developed world’s efforts should focus not on reducing meat and milk
consumption,” said Mitloehner, “but rather on increasing efficient meat
production in developing countries, where growing populations need more
nutritious food.”

Mitloehner particularly objects to the U.N.’s statement that livestock account
for more greenhouse gases than transportation, when there is no generally
accepted global breakdown of gas production by industrial sector.

He notes that “Livestock’s Long Shadow” produced its numbers for the livestock
sector by adding up emissions from farm to table, including the gases produced
by growing animal feed; animals’ digestive emissions; and processing meat and
milk into foods. But its transportation analysis did not similarly add up
emissions from well to wheel; instead, it considered only emissions from fossil
fuels burned while driving.

“This lopsided ‘analysis’ is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly
confused the issue,” Mitloehner said.

Most of Mitloehner’s analysis is presented in a recent study titled “Clearing
the Air: Livestocks Contributions to Climate Change,” published in October in
the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Agronomy. Co-authors of the paper are UC
Davis researchers Maurice Piteskey and Kimberly Stackhouse.

“Clearing the Air” is a synthesis of research by the UC Davis authors and many
other institutions, including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, California
Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. Writing
the synthesis was supported by a $26,000 research grant from the Beef Checkoff
Program, which funds research and other activities, including promotion and
consumer education, through fees on beef producers in the U.S.

Since 2002, Mitloehner has received $5 million in research funding, with 5
percent of the total from agricultural commodities groups, such as beef

About UC Davis

For 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service
that matters to California and transforms the world. Located close to the state
capital, UC Davis has 31,000 students, an annual research budget that exceeds
$500 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers.
The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100
undergraduate majors in four colleges Agricultural and Environmental Sciences,
Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science and advanced degrees
from five professional schools Education, Law, Management, Medicine and
Veterinary Medicine.

Photo Caption: Frank Mitloehner, air quality specialist with Animal Science at
UC Davis, measures the gases produced by livestock.

Photo Credit: UC Davis photo

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