By: Eric Mittenthal
It is a commonly used refrain amongst activists and the media: “Meat causes more global warming than everything else combined” or “contributes 51% of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.” After hearing these numbers repeated regularly, many people believe they’re fact, but research from Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., professor at at University of California Davis, who also happens to be the Chairman of the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO) Partnership on Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance, suggests that not only are these numbers far off from reality, they’re irresponsibly misleading.
In a presentation at the Institute of Medicine Food Forum Workshop on Sustainable Diets. Mitloehner explained that many of the figures commonly cited about the environmental impact of meat production are based on worldwide data that produces skewed results because of inefficiencies in third world countries. According to the EPA, livestock production contributes 3.4 percent of the greenhouse gases in the U.S. compared to 31 percent due to energy production and 26 percent from transportation. What this means is that while what you eat can have an impact on greenhouse gases, it is not nearly as significant as what you drive. Based on the data, if everyone in the U.S. cuts out beef one day a week as the Meatless Monday campaign suggests, it would have a .2% impact on greenhouse gases. An impact to be sure, but a very minimal one.
Impacts of Large vs. Small Scale Production
Much of Mitloehner’s research has focused on the environmental impacts of large vs. small scale production. While many activists believe modern production is bad for the environment, Mitloehner suggests the opposite is true. For instance, it takes five Mexican dairy cows to produce the same amount of milk as one California dairy cow. The environmental impact of those five Mexican cows is significantly higher than the one California cow. The same impacts are seen in meat production. U.S. producers have utilized feed, health and genetic efficiencies to increase the amount of meat per animal thus decreasing the number of animals needed. In developing countries, where these efficiencies aren’t utilized, the environmental impact is significantly higher and that is why many of the carbon footprint numbers that are reported are higher, because they take these foreign inefficiencies into account.
What Does It Mean for Me?
For average people, this means that to really make a difference on the environment and climate change, they should pay most attention to their energy consumption such as heating and cooling in your home and their transportation choices. These contribute the most greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. There is also some impact from meat production, but if your primary focus to benefit the environment is reducing your meat consumption, the reward will be minimal.