Global-warming debates shouldn’t exclude role of livestock

The struggle to halt global warming ordinarily focuses on fossil fuel consumption and use, currently exemplified by the Alberta tar sands and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico. It would be foolish to disregard that, but what if the rapidly expanding livestock industry has been overlooked as a major contributor to global warming?

Since I last wrote about global warming, I have had my attention drawn to a paper published in World Watch that provides a strong argument that animal agriculture is significantly undercounted as a contributor to global warming. What makes this study interesting is that, in contrast to unsupported claims about methane sometimes made by vegan and animal-rights activists, it grounds its arguments squarely on carbon dioxide.

The World Watch paper, authored by environmental scientists Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, concludes that livestock contributes at least 51 percent of annual greenhouse-gas emissions, and provocatively advocates substituting meat and dairy products with analogs as the fastest way to avoid the planet reaching a climatic tipping point. The paper argues that there is not enough time, nor sufficient political will, to make necessary changes in energy and transportation before irreversible climate changes are upon us.

Photo by Andy Wright, Sheffield, England

Photo by Andy Wright, Sheffield, England

The sources, and thus the solutions, to global warming constitute a legitimate debate. I am under no illusions that I will be settling anything here. But although the ideas under discussion are far from settled, they are scientifically grounded and merit strong consideration. And what if this paper is correct? We do ourselves no favors by dismissing it.

The starting point for the World Watch paper is the authors’ critique of a lengthy report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is often cited by vegan and animal-rights activists for its attribution of livestock as responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Interestingly, the paper criticizes the FAO report for badly underestimating animal agriculture’s contribution.

Livestock do exhale and trees are cut down

The World Watch paper cites seven sources that are undercounted by the FAO, the most significant of which are overlooked respiration by livestock, forest destroyed to create grazing lands, undercounted methane and an significant undercounting of the number of livestock. Adding up undercounted and additional misallocated sources, greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to livestock total about 32,500 million metric tons as measured in carbon dioxide equivalents. The FAO report’s estimate is about 7,500 million metric tons.

Livestock respiration is the single biggest source undercounted, contributing 13.7 percent of the global total of greenhouse-gas emissions, itself comparable to the FAO estimate of all livestock-related emissions. Professors Goodland and Anhang wrote in World Watch that the FAO report incorrectly considered livestock respiration to be not a contributor to, or possibly a net subtraction from, global warming because it viewed respiration as part of a biological cycle. They wrote:

“[L]ivestock (like automobiles) are a human intervention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe. Moreover, while over time an equilibrium of CO2 may exist between the amount respired by animals and the amount photosynthesized by plants, that equilibrium has been never been static. Today, tens of billions more livestock are exhaling CO2 than in pre-industrial days, while Earth’s photosynthetic capacity (its capacity to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by absorbing it in plant mass) has declined sharply as forest has been cleared. (Meanwhile, of course, we add more carbon to the air by burning fossil fuels, further overwhelming the carbon-absorption system.)”

Moreover, chopping down forests removes carbon sinks, leaving more carbon dioxide to remain in the air and release the carbon that had been stored. Often this is not accounted for in determining greenhouse-gas sources. Estimates of the number of livestock range up to 70 billion and that takes a lot of space — the livestock advocacy organization International Livestock Research Institute estimates that 45 percent of the world’s land surface is dedicated to the industry.

Surprisingly, the FAO report so often cited by vegan and animal-rights activists concludes by calling for intensified factory farming! Because this is buried on page 236, it is understandable that few are aware of that. The FAO report sees the current heavy consumption of meat as a given:

“If the projected future demand for livestock products is to be met, it is hard to see an alternative to intensification of livestock production. Indeed, the process of intensification must be accelerated if the use of additional land, water and other resources is to be avoided. The principle means of limiting livestock’s impact on the environment must be to reduce land requirements for livestock production, including the implicit water, nutrients and other resources represented by land. This involves the intensification of the most productive arable and grassland used to produce feed or pasture; and the retirement of marginally used land where this is socially acceptable and where other uses of such land, such as for environmental purposes, are in demand.”

The practical effect of concentrating livestock production in smaller areas at current levels would be more inhumane factory farming. That is no solution, from an environmental or moral standpoint.

Can consumers induce market changes?

Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to global warming, regardless of whether we accept that livestock contributes at least 51 percent of greenhouse gases. A solution to global warming must include addressing this aspect of the problem. The World Watch paper proposes three “market incentives” to tackle the problem:

  • Because food companies already suffer from global warming-amplified weather disruptions, it is in their interest to act to slow down global warming.
  • Because rising petroleum prices and terminal decline in petroleum production will have potentially catastrophic effects on livestock production, food companies can be ahead of the competition by replacing livestock products with alternatives sooner.
  • Food companies can produce and market soy- and seitan-based alternatives to a wide variety of traditional meat and dairy products.

The authors estimate that if 25 percent of current livestock products were replaced with alternatives by 2017, a minimum of 12.5 percent reduction in global anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions would be achieved, roughly equaling the goal of international climate treaties. The authors note that meat alternatives taste good and are often healthier — to that I have no argument as it dovetails my personal experience. But, in essence, the authors conceive this as a marketing solution, both to induce consumers to switch from meat-based diets and as “investment opportunities” for food companies that promote themselves as helping to slow global warming. They wrote:

“By replacing livestock products with analogs, consumers can take a single powerful action collectively to mitigate most [greenhouse gases] worldwide. Labeling analogs with certified claims of the amount of GHGs averted can give them a significant edge.”

I fear this is slipping too close to an “individual” solution rather than a “systemic” solution. Although these ideas seek to bring change to industry, ultimately it is based on individuals changing their individual behavior. And it is based on “market solutions,” although it is unconstrained markets that have allowed the livestock, energy and other industries to grow powerful enough to run roughshod over the environment and be indifferent to the climatic damage to which they are major contributors.

Environmental damage is an external cost for corporations in the present-day capitalist system — that is, the costs of environmental destruction is borne by society, not by the company inflicting the damage — and until that externality changes, market solutions based on changes in consumer patterns and awareness can only go so far.

In answer to this, it is argued that greenhouse-gas emission taxes could be imposed to accelerate a reduction in reliance on fossil fuels and promote reforestation. An additional argument is that large-scale livestock die-offs are occurring more frequently and that global warming may cause such declines in livestock population that reductions in meat and dairy consumption may become involuntary.

Professors Goodland and Anhang in their paper acknowledge that reductions in energy and transportation are desirable but that bringing about changes in the livestock industry is the fastest way to halt the buildup of greenhouse gases before we reach the climatic tipping point. Their paper concludes with a declaration that the “case for change” is not only a public-policy or ethical case, but “also a business case.”

Given the short-term mentality of modern business, driven by uncontrolled market forces, it will be difficult for business leaders to come to such understandings; indeed, agribusiness and energy corporations are the most energetic in denying the existence of global warming, even as the weather grows ever more erratic. That 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate warming is human-caused, while only 45 percent of the general public does so, is a testament to the power of entrenched industrial interests and the bottomlessly funded corporate misinformation industry. Activities remaining at the individual level are powerless against this power.

A permanent long-term solution requires a transformation in economic systems, not tinkering with consumption patterns. Yet time is not a luxury we possess. There is no alternative to tackling global warming and the enormous danger that hangs over humanity today, and the solutions suggested by Professors Goodland and Anhang provide tangible objectives, in addition to the no less difficult tasks environmentalists face in confronting the energy and transportation industries.

We ignore concrete ideas at our peril. And what if animal agriculture does account for half of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions? There is too much at stake to ignore any aspect of the problem.

12 comments on “Global-warming debates shouldn’t exclude role of livestock

  1. Paul Gilman says:

    “I fear this is slipping too close to an ‘individual’ solution rather than a ‘systemic’ solution. Although these ideas seek to bring change to industry, ultimately it is based on individuals changing their individual behavior.”

    The revolution will only be meaningful if we radically alter the way we interact with each other, as well as how we interact with the environment. Once we seize the means of production, what will we do with the people who still want corp style fast food, and chemically based foods? Let them make that garbage themselves? Poisoning all around them? They may be so brain dead, that they won’t be able to produce such food, and their health will be improved by just relying on all the organic food that will be available


    • Perhaps the people who want to eat fast food hamburgers will have to join a collective that produces them. Loath though I am to make predictions on the specificities of a post-capitalist society, I would imagine there would be less demand for unhealthy fast food. People will be less stressed from not having to be overworked and having more control over their lives; the vast advertising and marketing industries will be radically shrunk without the need to create artificial “needs”; people will have more time, not having to work long hours to satiate someone else’s lust for profits; and there would be more education and less corporate pseudo-science.

      In a democratic, egalitarian society (and I do hope to live in one some day), people would be free to eat badly if that is their desire. But the inducements for people to eat badly would be greatly reduced. No doubt that there would be a radical restructuring of social relations, and a social revolution would be incomplete if the environment is not front and center.

  2. immanuelness says:

    Hi Pete,

    Great article. Looking forward to your draft for WUSA/Journal of Labor and Society.

    solidarity, Manny

    On Wed, May 22, 2013 at 12:20 PM, Systemic Disorder wrote:

    > ** > Systemic Disorder posted: “The struggle to halt global warming > ordinarily focuses on fossil fuel consumption and use, currently > exemplified by the Alberta tar sands and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline > to the Gulf of Mexico. It would be foolish to disregard that, but what if > the r”

  3. Ken says:

    Ah the saga of the farting bovine: Does not the biomass remain relatively constant whether eaten by livestock or other herbivores, fungi, and bacteria? I live close to a virginal area of west coast rain forest. In the 5,000 or so years since the withdrawal of the last ice age, only about half a meter of soil has accumulated. The rest of the biomass exists as vegetation and composting as C02 and methane. The excess of global warming gasses comes from the wasteful burning of forests, oil, coal, and gases.

    Global environmental remedial actions require global solutions, class cooperation and the elimination of national boundaries.

    • The biomass hasn’t remained constant; the point of the paper discussed is that the number of livestock is vastly higher than would naturally occur had animal agriculture not become a huge industry. And farting (i.e., methane) isn’t the point of the paper — it’s increased carbon dioxide resulting from respiration of the artificially high number of livestock, clearing of forests & etc. The single biggest cause of the wasteful burning of forests is the expansion of cattle ranching. So there are connections.

      I do agree with your conclusion — global problems can only be solved through global solutions and cooperation across borders.

  4. Alcuin says:

    What about the increased carbon dioxide that results from the respiration of the massive number of human beings? Not to be in the camp of the anarcho-primitivists, but they do have a point … the “artificially high number of livestock, clearing of forests & etc.” is the result of the increasing horde of humanity. I still maintain, in the immortal words of Pogo, that “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

    • You have a good point there. I suspect the increased respiration from livestock is far above that of humans, but I can’t say I know that. At the end of the day, human activities are the cause; I reiterate that the relative contributions of this or that activity remains a open question. I’ll be returning to this subject periodically, and I encourage readers to bring interesting reports and papers to our attention.

  5. This all makes far too much sense to have any chance of being implemented. When only 45% of the public understands the concept of anthropogenic climate change, and a far higher percentage will not give up the products of agricultural concentration camps no matter how unhealthy or immoral they are proven to be, we have a bit of a hill to climb here, don’t we?

    Occasionally, I indulge in the mental exercise of imagining a planet earth with a population of only one billion, achieved by a general understanding of intelligent family planning. (In theory, human procreation patterns can be changed almost as quickly as dietary habits.) In this fantasy, mankind atones for his past sins against nature by treating animals the way they really want to be treated; i.e., he leaves them alone, in expansive natural habitats. Man becomes an island in a vast ocean of biodiversity, and uses his technology to protect our unique ball in space instead of to destroy it. I know – it’s a silly fantasy. At this point, it’s all I’ve got left.

    • We do have rather a steep hill to climb, but we have no choice, as you well said. A component of that climb is putting out actual facts, however unwelcome those facts.

      Here, incidentally, is another case for educating women in every corner of the world — when women have access to public education systems and real opportunities for higher education, the birth rate dramatically declines. (Of course, access to modern birth control plays a major role, but this goes hand-in-hand with access to education.) Almost every country where this is so has a steady population, or even a declining one. (The U.S. is a notable exception, but only because of immigration.)

      I don’t purport to know what the carrying capacity of Earth is, but if we pollute it beyond repair, destroy its biological diversity and strip-mine it of its natural resources, the capacity will be much lower than today’s global population. Please keep “indulging” in your mental exercises, and all of us had better do more to act.

  6. The hill we have to climb seems to be getting steeper, at least here in the good ‘ole U.S. of A. At precisely that moment when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is releasing its latest report – confirming that that last 30 years are “most likely” the warmest in 1,400 years and attributing that warming with 95% confidence to human activity – we find ourselves talking about circuses and clowns.

    And because the latest climate data can be interpreted to show a slight slowing in the rate of change of surface warming (but most assuredly not in total warming), the climate change deniers are out in force, luring a gullible public into the false sense of security that their wonderful way of life doesn’t need to change one bit.

    I’m afraid that all we’re doing here is placing ourselves on the right side of history. And I’m not even sure that matters when we’re all going to burn in Hell.

    • The IPCC report, even with its strong conclusions, was actually watered down in politically motivated negotiations before its release, so it represents the minimum that could be agreed to and thus truly scientific conclusions are stronger than the report.

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