Consider the source

Written by Steve Fairchild on .

Livestock got off easy during the global cooling scare of the 1970s. I was reviewing archived stories in major publications the other day. The global-cooling/new-Ice-Age headlines stretched from about 1970 to 1979. Those stories focused largely on smog and air pollution from manufacturing and transportation. It wasn’t until the global warming scare of the 1990s that livestock got herded into the spotlight. You may recall the attention drawn to methane distributed by cow flatulence during that time—and even today.

Frank Mitloehner, an air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, recently wrote a white paper called Livestock’s Contributions to Climate Change: Facts and Fiction. (http://mfa.ag/P9rdvkh). It’s a measured response to the idea that livestock production is the lead contributor of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the paper, Mitloehner pointed out that globally and in the United States, it’s energy production and use along with transportation that are the largest man-derived emissions of so-called greenhouse gases.

But that’s not the drumbeat you’re accustomed to hearing. That’s because the idea of curbing meat production fits squarely into environmentalist and animal-rights-driven agendas.

Indeed, your typical Meatless Monday campaign may remind you that livestock production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the combination of all forms of travel combined. Cut meat consumption by just 15 percent, goes the Meatless Monday logic, and you’d remove greenhouse gasses equivalent to removing 240 million vehicles from the road, etc. You get the idea.

Mitloehner has been digging in the numbers, though. The often-quoted figure of that livestock emit 18 to 50 percent of greenhouse gasses isn’t quite right. Mitloehner has found, from diverse sources including the Environmental Protection Agency, that livestock production in the United States is responsible for just 4.2 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s compared to some 27 percent of such emissions contributed by the transportation sector. If it’s reducing emissions that the typical Meatless Mondayer has on the mind, not leaving the house to bother anyone would be more effective.

According to Mitloehner, “Breaking down the 4.2 percent EPA figure for livestock by animal species, shows the following contributors: beef cattle, 2.2 percent; dairy cattle, 1.37 percent; swine, 0.47 percent; poultry, 0.08 percent; sheep, 0.03 percent; goats, 0.01 percent and other (horses, etc.) 0.04 percent (http://mfa.ag/4WuEYvk).

“It is sometimes difficult to put these percentages in perspective,” Mitloehner reported. “However, if all U.S. Americans practiced Meatless Mondays, we would reduce the U.S. national GHG emissions by 0.6 percent.”

What’s more, as Mitloehner pointed out, the U.S. livestock industry has outpaced the rest of the world in livestock production efficiency since the middle of the 20th century. We produce more meat and milk with fewer resources—less land, less feed—than ever.

I’ve shared some of these statistics with you before, but they are worth repeating:

In 1950, the United States had about 22 million dairy cows. These cows produced 117 million tons milk. In 2015, the U.S. had 9 million dairy cows. These cows produced 209 million tons of milk. So, as Mitloehner points out, in 2015, it took 59 percent fewer cows to produce 79 percent more milk compared to 1950.

The same exercise works for beef. In 1970, our domestic herd was some 140 million head of cattle that produced 24 million tons of beef. By 2015, the herd was 90 million head. Remarkably, with 36 percent fewer animals, the total meat production was still 24 million pounds.

These increases are the result of better understanding of genetics, animal nutrition and feed technology. In a word: efficiency.

Regardless of your view of global warming, global cooling, Meatless Mondays, grass-versus-grain, conventional, organic or the rest of it, efficiency is the way forward.

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