ANALYSIS - As the November 2015 Global Climate Change Conference COP21 concluded in Paris, 196 countries reached agreement on the reduction of fossil fuel use and emissions in the production and consumption of energy, even to the extent of potentially phasing out fossil fuels out entirely, writes Frank Mitloehner.
Both globally and in the US, energy production and use, as well as the transportation sectors, are the largest anthropogenic contributors of greenhouse gasses (GHG), which are believed to drive climate change. While there is scientific consensus regarding the relative importance of fossil fuel use, anti animal-agriculture advocates portray the idea that livestock is to blame for a lion’s share of the contributions to total GHG emissions.
Divorcing Political Fiction from Scientific Facts
One argument often made is that US livestock GHG emissions from cows, pigs, sheep and chickens are comparable to all transportation sectors from sources such as cars, trucks, planes, trains, etc. The argument suggests the solution of limiting meat consumption, starting with “Meatless Mondays,” to show a significant impact on total emissions.
When divorcing political fiction from scientific facts around the quantification of GHG from all sectors of society, one finds a different picture.
Leading scientists throughout the US, as well as the US Environmental Protection Agency have quantified the impacts of livestock production in the US, which accounts for 4.2 percent of all GHG emissions, very far from the 18-51 percent range that advocates often cite.
Comparing the 4.2 percent GHG contribution from livestock to the 27 percent from the transportation sector, or 31 percent from the energy sector in the US brings all contributions to GHG into perspective. Rightfully so, the attention at COP21 was focused on the combined sectors consuming fossil fuels, as they contribute more than half of all GHG in the US.
GHG Breakdown by Animal Species
Breaking down the 4.2 percent EPA figure for livestock by animal species, shows the following contributors: beef cattle, 2.2 percent; dairy cattle, 1.37 percent; swine, 0.47 percent; poultry, 0.08 percent; sheep, 0.03 percent; goats, 0.01 percent and other (horses, etc.) 0.04 percent.
It is sometimes difficult to put these percentages in perspective, however. If all US Americans practiced Meatless Mondays, we would reduce the US national GHG emissions by 0.6 percent.
A beefless Monday per week would cut total emissions by 0.3 percent annually. One certainly cannot neglect emissions from the livestock sector but to compare them to the main emission sources would put us on a wrong path to solutions, namely to significantly reduce our anthropogenic carbon footprint to reduce climate change.
US Population Replace Incandescent with Energy Star bulbs = 1.2 percent GHG savings
US Population “Meatless Monday” = 0.6 percent GHG savings
In spite of the relatively low contributions to total GHG emissions, the US livestock sector has shown considerable progress during the last six-plus decades and commitment into the future, to continually reduce its environmental footprint while providing food security at home and abroad. These environmental advances have been the result of continued research and advances in animal genetics, precision nutrition, as well as animal care and health.
UN’s FAO Committee Develops Global Benchmarking Method
How can emissions accurately and fairly be assessed to lay ground for a path for solutions?
In its quest to identify a sustainable, scientific path toward fulfilling the future global food demand, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has formed an international partnership project to develop and adopt a “gold standard” life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology for each livestock specie and the feed sector.
The ‘Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance Partnership’ (LEAP), engaged with more than 300 scientists from the world’s most prestigious academic institutions in this unprecedented effort to develop a global benchmarking methodology.
The first three-year phase project was finalized in December 2015 with six publically available LCA guidelines. This globally harmonized quantification methodology will not only allow the accurate measurement by livestock species and production regions across the globe today, but will also identify opportunities for improvement and the ability to measure that progress in each region going forward.
Efficiency and Intensification Key to Low-Carbon Livestock Sector
Addressing the 2050 challenge of supplying food to a drastically growing human population can sustainably be achieved through intensification of livestock production. Indeed, intensification provides large opportunities for climate change mitigation and can reduce associated land use changes such as deforestation. Production efficiencies reduce environmental pollution per unit of product.
The US livestock, poultry and feed industries are one of the most efficient and lowest environmental impact systems in the world. The research, technologies and best practices that have been developed and implemented over time in the US can also be shared with other production regions around the world.
It is important to understand that all regions have unique demands and abilities, and so require regional solutions. However, the advances in the US agriculture and food system can be adapted within these regional solutions. These significant environmental advances and benefits are in addition to the well-documented human health and developmental value of incorporating animal protein in the diets of the growing population.
The livestock sector is committed to continuous improvement of their environmental impact in North America, and to doing its part in transferring knowledge, technologies and best practices to enhance global environmental livestock impact by region.
Now is the time to end the rhetoric and separate facts from fiction around the numerous sectors that contribute emissions and to identify solutions for the global food supply that allow us to reduce our impact on the planet and its resources.
Frank Mitloehner is a professor of Animal Science and Air Quality Specialist at UC Davis. He recently concluded chairing a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations committee to measure and assess the environmental impact of the livestock industry.
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