WorldWatch Report: "Food" Animals Account for 51% of Worldwide Emissions

In 2006 the oft-cited report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, "Livestock's Long Shadow," estimated that 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) could be attributed to raising farmed animals for food. That number caused a lot of people to take notice, and more journalists and bloggers have been writing about the connection between global warming and our food choices, often encouraging readers to reduce their consumption of animals products, if not eliminate it completely. But in the November/December issue of WorldWatch magazine, a new report asserts that the impact is much greater: accounting for around 51% of emissions. The authors of this report, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, note that if their argument is indeed valid, then:

"...replacing livestock products with better alternatives would be the best strategy for reducing climate change. In fact, this approach would have far more rapid effects on GHG emissions and their atmospheric concentrations -- and thus on the rate the climate is warming -- than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy." ("Livestock and Climate Change," WorldWatch November/December 2009, p. 11)

The authors outline several what they call "overlooked, undercounted or misallocated" factors from the FAO's report that account for their significantly higher numbers. Some of the factors include:
  • Livestock respiration
  • Land use
  • Methane production
  • Outdated data (not taking into account increased livestock production & consumption)
  • Undercounting of official statistics
  • Flurocarbons needed to cool livestock products
  • Cooking of livestock products
  • Disposal of liquid waste and spoiled products
  • Production, distribution and disposal of byproducts, as well as packaging used for animal products
  • Carbon-intensive medical treatment of illnesses associated with animal consumption.
Not only do the report's authors advocate significantly reducing the production and consumption of animal products, but they also believe that replacing these animal products with animal product analogs should be emphasized.

While the article is an important read for everyone, it also offers an excellent opportunity for students to use their critical thinking skills to explore these issues more deeply. Since this report offers that the FAO report has some weaknesses, students could examine and compare both reports, looking at the data, the sources used, what kinds of factors were included, how conclusions were reached, and so on. Additionally, the authors' assertions of meat and dairy analogs as healthy, appropriate, environmentally-superior replacements for animal products offers a chance to discuss exactly what kinds of foods, produced in what kinds of ways, do the most good and least harm for people, animals and the earth, as well as looking at why the authors are making the recommendations that they do. (For example, why do the authors highlight analogs, rather than fresh, local, organic, whole plant-based foods?)

A discussion of the challenges of how and why people make the food choices they do (such as from habit, tradition and culture) would also be fruitful, as well as considering what kinds of systems, strategies and situations might encourage people to make food choices that have a lower climate change impact.

If you use this article for your humane education work, do let us know how you used it and what the result was.

~ Marsha

Image courtesy of Watje11.

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