The Climate Impact of Meat – The Property Chronicle
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The Climate Impact of Meat

The Analyst

When your ideology states that climate change is the most important thing facing the world and some pesky pandemic has the poor judgement to interrupt The Cause, you need to act fast. There must be something that connects the pandemic back to my virtue signaling venture, thought the novelist and vegetarian activist Jonathan Safran Foer, before penning ‘The End of Meat is Here’ in the New York Times this week. 

The canals of Venice are suddenly clear, gorillas and rhinos are saved, air quality of major world cities improved, and global CO2 emissions have dropped by some astonishing number, perhaps 17%. These are amazing developments, over and above what any green champion could have imagined – yet nobody is happy about them. The activists, the people they pretend to represent, or the politicians that got us into this mess seem more upset than ever. Being locked in our houses with society put on hold was not the great societal revolution that we imagined. 

What then? 

The pandemic had us reevaluating what is essential, writes Foer. And food is essential. And that slaughterhouse in South Dakota had a large corona outbreak. One thing led to another, and suddenly the pandemic teaches us that vegetarianism is inevitable. Braa-vo! 

His story is the same old, same old of meat’s alleged outsized impact on the planet. The channel is varyingly land usage, cows’ methane emissions or deforestation. Foer’s piece is also stuffed with typical Animal Rights complaints – most of which are conducive and perfectly consistent with a libertarian worldview.

Let me abstract from all that and focus on the core message: meat is bad because it wrecks the planet. 

Right off the bat, we are faced with the scientifically tricky question: does it? Despite Foer’s denouncements that his statement is “a banal truism” rather than “a refutable perspective” (if so, why bother writing an opinion piece about it?) what goes into the calculation of livestock emissions is not evidently clear. Investigating the research underlying the claim that animal agriculture accounts for a large share of global emissions, Frank Mitloehner, Professor in U.C. Davis’ Animal Science Department, writes

“For livestock, they considered every factor associated with producing meat. This included emissions from fertilizer production, converting land from forests to pastures, growing feed, and direct emissions from animals (belching and manure) from birth to death. However, when they looked at transportation’s carbon footprint, they ignored impacts on the climate from manufacturing vehicle materials and parts, assembling vehicles and maintaining roads, bridges and airports.” 

The statistical mischief came about because 

“they only considered the exhaust emitted by finished cars, trucks, trains and planes. As a result, the FAO’s comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock to those from transportation was greatly distorted.”

In contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates that all of agriculture (of which livestock is but one part) amounts to only 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – much lower than transportation and electricity production that account for over a quarter each. 

These same mischievous calculation techniques are employed to show that green energy has lower CO2 emissions than fossil fuels – considering the material use, duplicative and negative impact on grids, constant and inefficient maintenance, that is far from obvious. The trouble isn’t wind turbines as machines – they are already approaching their physical limits – but the wind as a source of energy; wind as powering society is, to quote Matt Ridley’s eloquence on the topic, “just not very good.”

Next up: the idea that the category “meat” produces more harmful impacts on the planet is laughably mistaken. Not all foods are created equal – and the hipster latte that power greenies’ yapping is often as big a climate villain as the “meat” they indignantly attack (no surprise there!). Chicken is on par with beer (strike 2, hipsters!), and not much better than tofu (third time’s a charm!). Or beans. And it’s probably better than cheese. From an emissions standpoint, asparagus flown in from Peru or Mexico is most definitely worse than eating free-ranging hens or their eggs.  

To complicate things, cows and goats often graze on land that’s unsuited for agriculture, because of poor soil, bad geography or uneconomically located fields – or sometimes as a part of a sustainable rotation of land use. The cattle farmer Joe Stanley writes that 

“grassland absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere as the grass grows, and sequesters it in the soil as organic matter; the more it’s grazed and trampled by livestock, the more it absorbs.”

A conclusion echoed by Britain’s National Farmers Union, observing that their beef production is much more environmentally friendly than commonly believed. 

Probably infuriating Mr. Foer even more, I may include the zero (or even negative) emissions from the consumption of wild boar and deer that my family hunts on our own grounds. The climate profile of game meat in overflowing rich-country forests beats almost any vegetable. That weak defense true believers brush aside as “exceptions that could never be scaled.” 

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