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The Myth of Meatless Mondays - Alleviating the consumer’s conscience without affecting climate change

The following is reprinted with permission from the Animal Agriculture Alliance in the United States (www.animalalliance.org). For its full collection of Meatless Monday resources, visit  http://animalagalliance.org/current/home.cfm?Section=Meatless_Monday&Category=Current_Issues.

The Myth of Meatless Mondays – Alleviating the Consumer’s Conscience Without Affecting Climate Change
Judith L. Capper, PhD, Washington State University

In July, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report claiming that everybody should eat less meatand dairy products in order to mitigate climate change. It was an interesting report, not least because it recommended that if consumers were going to eat meat, they should choose “meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed as they are generally the least environmentally damaging”. Working within the sustainability arena, I firmly believe that any production system has a role within agriculture provided that it is environmentally conscientious, economically viable and socially acceptable. However, the EWG’s promotion of organic or grass-fed systems as having a low environmental impact is ironic given that such systems actually have a greater carbon footprint per unit of meat or milk produced compared to their conventional counterparts.

The EWG report is powerful because it contains data – and as we all know, if a claim can be supported by data (regardless of accuracy), then it appears to have a greater validity. According to the EWG’s calculations, lamb has the greatest environmental impact of all protein sources examined, generating 39.3 lb of carbondioxide equivalents (CO2-eq) for each lb eaten, and beef has the second-highest emissions, generating 27.1 lb of CO2-eq per lb consumed. Cheese generates the third-highestemissions at 13.5 lbof CO2-eq per lb eaten. Yet just as it’s possible to replace ground beef with tofu and make something that looks like a burger but tastes like soy, the EWG’s attempt to usepoor-quality data and erroneous assumptions to create a vegetarian ideology is a poor substitute for real science.

The report demonstrates a lack of basic livestock production knowledge. Crucially, EWG has not accounted for differences in herd dynamics, growth rates, and total time required for animals to reach slaughter weight – the most important factors that affect the carbon footprint of a unit of meat. According to my calculations, differences in the number of offspring weaned and the time taken to rear each to slaughter weight when compared to maternal requirements would result in lamb having a carbon footprint approximately 48% lower than of that of beef, rather than the 45% increase that the EWG cites.

The EWG claims that national carbon emissions would be reduced by 4.5% if everyone in the U.S. chose a vegetarian diet .  This is an impressive achievement given the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites livestock production (including poultry and horses) as accounting for only 3.1% of total U.S. emissions. Where does that extra 1.4 percent come from?

Let’s do the math based on the EPA numbers. The EWG report focuses on the impact of red meat and dairy, so if we remove poultry and horses from the EPA’s 3.1% figure, we get a total red meat and dairy impact of 3.05%. Divide that by 7, and the impact of one meatless day per week is equal to 0.44% of the U.S. carbon footprint – and that’s assuming that the U.S.population of 311 million peopleall adopt this lifestyle change.

0.44% is minuscule. It’s a tiny fraction of the impact that we could make on the national carbon footprint. But if we put it in consumer-friendly numbers, it’s like taking 5.7 million cars off the road each year, or planting 4.5 billion trees. Sounds far more compelling now doesn’t it? But how does that compare to the impact of powering the MacBook upon which I’m currently writing this post, the drive off-campus for lunchorall the other environmentally damaging actions I’ll execute before the day is out?

Although livestock systems are often demonized as having a negative effect on the environment, its important to understand just how far the U.S.livestock industry has come in reducing its carbon footprint.Improved milk yield conferred by advances in nutrition, management, welfare and geneticsmeans that compared to 1944, the carbon footprint of a modern gallon of milk is reduced by 63%.  Despite the greater amount of milk produced nowadays, this has helped the dairy industry to reduce its entire carbon footprint by 41% between 1944 and 2007. The beef industry has also improved productivity, with cattle growing faster and being finished at heavier weights.Between 1977 and 2007, this reduced the carbon footprint of a lb of beef by 18%, with concomitant reductions in land use, water use and energy use.

Comparing the carbon footprint of different meat products is an elegantly futile competition in which nobody wins. According to the EWG report,beef is a better choice than lamb and chicken is better than pork. Yet who fancies chicken Wellington for dinner? Or egg pot pie? Or a pea McMuffin? Moreover, the ideathat we can mitigate climate change on a diet of tofu and lentils is somewhat ironic given their propensity to produce increased methane from the human gastro-intestinal tract. We have at best a tenuous grasp on the immediate or long-term environmental consequences of the majority of our actions. Forget demonizing specific foods, or suggesting that one single action can save the planet.  We need to understand and quantify how all our choices have consequences – andact accordingly.

Biography – Jude Capper

JUDE L. CAPPER, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Dairy Science in the Department of Animal Sciences at Washington State University (WSU). Born in the UK, she undertook her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harper Adams University College (UK) before doing post-doctoral research at Cornell University. Her current position is split between teaching, extension and research, with her research focusing on modeling the environmental impact of livestock production systems. Current research includes comparisons of historical and modern production practices in dairy and beef industries; and the effect of technology use and management practices upon environmental impact.

http://animalagalliance.org/current/home.cfm?Section=Meatless_Monday&Category=Current_Issues

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Posted by FFC on October 6th, 2011 :: Filed under Activism,Beef cattle,Feeding the world,Global Warming,Meatless Monday,Misconceptions,Organics,Sheep,Vegetarian
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