Genome Alberta

Livestock Blog

A companion site to Genome Alberta's
Bovine Genome Sequencing Project
August 28, 2014 2:51 PM

Cheeseburgers and Cowspiracy: putting livestock and climate change in perspective

Filed Under: Cow Pam Baker

Why, yes, this is a blog dedicated to livestock genetics and as odd as it may sound, this story does indeed involve some livestock gene manipulation. But let’s put first things first here at the intersection of climate change and farm gasses.

For awhile now, different environmental groups have pointed to the act of eating a single cheeseburger as the greatest environmental threat ever. Not just the deadliest environment killer on your plate but in the entire scope of all the things human beings can do to bring about an environmental apocalypse. Apparently we are all going to die from an onslaught of burger joints.

“The documentary film ‘Cowspiracy,’ released this week in select cities, builds on the growing cultural notion that the single greatest environmental threat to the planet is the hamburger you had for lunch the other day,” writes Jayson Lusk in his post on the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal.

Duh duh dun cue the disaster movie music and watch this official trailer of the movie if you dare. I bet you’ll never eat meat or trust your neighboring farmer ever again. 

 “As director Kip Andersen recently told the Source magazine: ‘A lot of us are waking up and realizing we can choose to either support all life on this planet or kill all life on this planet, simply by virtue of what we eat day in and day out. One way to eat takes life, while another spares as many lives (plant, animal and otherwise) as possible,’" Lusk continued.

But wait, the alarm is sounded even louder and this time directed not at the lowly burger but at cattle ranchers. 

“James McWilliams, vegan author of the 2013 book The Politics of the Pasture, argues that modern agricultural, and the cattle industry in particular, are part of a global food-supply system so damaging that the only moral solution is to give up eating meat entirely,” Lusk tells us in his post.

Just so you know, according to the author bio on that post, Lusk is a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University and author of Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate.

But is this claim repeated endlessly by various environmental (and apparently vegan) groups factually correct? Is the raising of cattle and other livestock this devastating to the planet? Not according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to the EPA report on Agriculture Sector Emissions, and mind you, that agency is often and loudly accused of being over-protective of the environment and outrageously restrictive by opponents – certainly no one thinks of them as cuddly friends of any industry – says this (I added the bolding for emphasis):

“In 2012, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture accounted for approximately 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have increased by approximately 19% since 1990. One driver for this increase has been the 55% growth in combined CH4 and N2O emissions from livestock manure management systems, reflecting the increased use of emission-intensive liquid systems over this time period. Emissions from other agricultural sources have either remained flat or changed by a relatively small amount since 1990.”

Oh my. Well that sounds hardly worth playing the disaster music.

If you want to deep dive into the details on how they made that measurement and what it all means, read that report but also read the agriculture chapter in the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks.

Yes but, some will say, those metrics are just in the U.S. What about in the entire world?

According to a scientific paper written by Sharon Friel, Alan D Dangour, Tara Garnett, Karen Lock, et al, which, by the way, tilts against meat production: “The agriculture sector contributes 10–12% of total greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. Deforestation and other changes in land use contribute an additional 6–17% of global emissions. Production of foods from animal sources is the major contributor to emissions from the agricultural sector.”

While that paper argues for the restriction or banning of meat in the human diet (for reasons beyond climate change too, such as health reasons), its findings on the percentage of agriculture emissions in total emissions largely agree with those of the EPA.

So what industries produce more emissions than agriculture? According to the EPA, electricity production is responsible for 32%, the transportation industry emits 28%, other industries combined are responsible for 20%, and commercial & residential emit 10% (roughly the same as agriculture).

Odd, don’t you think that no one is calling for us to abandon electricity or stop working in buildings or cease living in homes.

No, the calls for cuts in emissions in these other industries is exactly that – for cuts, i.e. curtailment not elimination of these industries. Yet environmental groups are pushing for government regulations that likely will aim for extreme restrictions if not eventual elimination of meat production. I’m not saying they will succeed with any of these efforts, but that is the goal.

“Each to his own, you might say. But these ideas are working their way into government policy proposals,” writes Lusk in his Wall Street Journal post. “For example, Angela Tagtow, a self-described ‘environmental nutritionist’ formerly with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, was recently tapped to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture's effort to revise federal dietary guidelines. This is a sign that the new recommendations are likely to go beyond nutritional science to incorporate environmental considerations. Many observers believe that meat will be specifically targeted for scrutiny.”

If we believe that respectable and even renown opponents (those of the non-titillating documentary ilk) of the agriculture industry agree that agricultural emissions are markedly less than those of other industries and certainly far less than is needed to fuel Armageddon, then why all the fear mongering?

I don’t know the answer to that. But do let me make it clear that we all must address climate change and do so quickly. That is a very real threat and all industries must take responsibility for cleaning up their act.

But I also want to make it clear that many people in the agriculture industry are already working on that. One of the many advantages to selective breeding and livestock genetics is producing higher meat yields per animal. That essentially means more meat on fewer animals. You might want to read my earlier post (and watch the video in it) on Belgian Blues for an idea of some of things happening on that front, from producing more meat per animal to lowering calories and cholesterol in that meat too.  

Further, as I wrote in another earlier post titled “Farmers Go Green: Using Genetics to Deflate Cow Gas,” geneticists are already working on producing cattle that emit less, um, noxious fumes. Curtailing methane emissions will help slow or reverse climate change.

There’s also the matter of reducing one of the main drivers of agriculture emissions identified by the EPA as “the 55% growth in combined CH4 and N2O emissions from livestock manure management systems, reflecting the increased use of emission-intensive liquid systems over this time period.” Once healthier alternative systems are identified and put in place, these emissions can be steadily, and maybe even quickly, decreased.

So, yes, work needs to be done by the agriculture industry to reduce emissions just as it needs to be done in other industries.

But throw out the burgers? That suggestion is full of hot air. Pass the ketchup please.  

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