April 04, 2014 by Benjamin Sylvester
A new study published in Climatic Change, titled “The Importance of Reduced Meat and Dairy Consumption for Meeting Stringent Climate Change Targets,” indicates the … well, the importance of putting down the steak knife and wiping the milk off your moustache. I found this study through a friend, who found it on fastcoexist.com, and the study — not the article that includes it — makes some pretty clear points.
When you actually read the study (gasp!) and look at what the researchers are looking for, you’ll find that they are assessing future improvements in agricultural technology and its efficiency, human diet change, and also reductions in pollution in general. Regardless of any sort of technological improvements in the next 50 years, though, a dietary change is almost crucial to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane and nitrous oxide gases, which are much more potent than carbon dioxide. Since global food production is assumed to rise due to population increase and productivity of crops has the potential to rise as more countries introduce newer technologies that produce higher yields, the researchers looked at different feed-to-product ratios of various animals and correlated the data with different scenarios, such as increased productivity as well as baseline references from the Food and Agriculture Organization’s projections.
The clear message from this study is that a reduction in animal consumption is necessary to mitigate GHGs and avoid crossing the “2 C line” in global temperature rise, particularly by reducing beef and dairy consumption. This message is understandable, because the feed-to-product ratios, in light of other products, are much higher as beef and dairy cows globally need more land, water and feed to produce, and they contribute the largest amount of methane (apart from the Alberta Tar Sands). So, a reduction is completely necessary to reduce methane pollution, and if the researchers’ projections are correct, which is highly probable, then we can expect not to rise too far above the seven gigaton carbon dioxide levels of 2000 if we cut out beef and dairy in addition to mitigating other causes of pollution (e.g. transportation).
The problem I have is not necessarily with the study but with the claims made by fastcoexist.com. Like many other sites and blogs out there, it will use this study to assume a reduction in one thing will allow for a replacement with another. What I mean is that the website claims, “The study shows that if we do all of the above, and also replace 75 percent of the beef and lamb we eat with meats like chicken and pork, agricultural emissions could be reduced to five gigatons a year. If we replaced 75 percent of the beef and lamb we eat with cereal or grain, emissions would be reduced to three gigatons.”
The study didn’t say anything about lamb, first of all, and the researchers concluded that at most, by 2070, we could keep the level at 7.7 gigatons. More importantly to me, though, is the correlation made by assuming that giving up one meat product will allow for the increased consumption of another. To give the author of the Fastcoexist article credit, she did insinuate that by just eating grains and cereal we could reduce GHGs even further, which has been proven in various other research.
When you make a claim that says you can replace beef with chicken, you are making a huge faux pas, because the ratio of chickens to other farm animals is 9:1. Nine billion chickens are slaughtered in the U.S. alone every year for meat consumption. If we increase the number of chickens used for meat consumption, there is bound not only to be other problems with water, air and land pollution, but also with an increase in the number of animals that receive the most amount of cruelty and least amount of animal welfare protection out of all farm animals.