30 March 2010

When Something Smells Funny, Follow the Money

Sometimes I miss juicy controversies completely! For example, I only had an inkling that there was another paper "out there" about the connection between the livestock industry and global warming and climate change. Didn't know anything about it at all — until I received a message yesterday morning from a new online friend, Don LePan, author of Animals, a book I'm currently reading.

That's when I got some details. Apparently Frank Mitloehner is an academic who presented a paper entitled Clearing the Air: Livestock's Contributions to Climate Change* at a conference of the American Chemical Society "in which he questioned the Food and Agriculture Organization's 2008 estimate that our meat-eating ways are responsible for a higher percentage of the world's carbon emissions (they estimated 18%) than is the entire transportation category (an estimated 15%)."

Don continues:
Apparently the statistics deserve to be questioned; the UN has admitted flaws in the FAO's calculations, and arguments over what the true percentages are will doubtless continue for some time. [My note: The percentage is likely higher, as it appears the FAO paper left the slaughter industry out of the calculations.] The interesting thing about Mitloehner's paper, though, is that he doesn't stop at querying meat-eating's percentage contribution to global warming. He takes a big leap beyond that to broad prescriptions for world agricultural policy: "Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries....The developed world's efforts should focus not on reducing meat and milk consumption," says Mitloehner, “but rather on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries, where growing populations need more nutritious food.” Far from shutting down the factory farms, in other words, he wants to expand them.

Note that Mitloehner says nothing about dangers to human health from such things as the overuse of antibiotics, nothing about the damage to our water supply from the run-off of excrement from factory farms, and (of course) nothing about the issue of cruelty to animals. Even if we accepted the suggestion that our meat-eating habits in no way contribute to global warming, in other words, there are many, many reasons to oppose factory farming. Instead, Mitloehner endorses a call for "replacing current suboptimal production with advanced production methods — at every step from feed production, through livestock production and processing, to distribution and marketing."
Don then goes on to explain something that the media didn't, quoting The Outlook Series. The paper "is a synthesis of research.... Writing the synthesis was supported by a $26,000 research grant from the Beef Checkoff Program, which funds research and other activities, including promotion and consumer education, through fees on beef producers in the U.S."

Apparently, Mitloehner "has received $5 million in research funding, with 5 percent of the total from agricultural commodities groups, such as beef producers." As Don says, "that 5% may sound small — until one remembers that 5% of $5 million is still a hefty $250,000."

Now, before someone says, "Yeah, but climate scientists get funding, too," let me remind everyone that there is no lobby group out there paying scientists to make sure we keep climate change going, because anyone who understands climate change doesn't want it to keep going. Even the fossil fuel lobby groups — and the scientists they fund — if pressed (I'm sure of it!), would admit they don't want droughts and floods and famines and the end of life on Earth, they just want the fossil-fuelled economy — and their profits — to continue.

One of the points Mitloehner makes is that the FAO paper, Livestock's Long Shadow, adds up "farm to table" emissions for meat, but doesn't add up "well to wheel" emissions for transportation. Point taken. The only problem with this complaint is that it doesn't detract from the fact that the industrial livestock industry accounts for more anthropogenic methane emissions than any other source — leaving our switch to a veg diet as the fastest — and dammit, easiest — way for us to make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions.

You know, this blog is about compassionate climate action. So I encourage compassion for all the people who are going to have to retire early or transition to new careers because they're working in carbon intensive fields. I feel for them. I do. But governments can and should pave the way — maybe some of the $300 per ton carbon tax we'll soon see the need to charge could cover the costs of retraining! And we all need to be dreaming big, envisioning a new golden age of compassion towards all living things, and renewable and perpetual energy that ends all wars over fossil fuels.

p.s. I should also point out that Mitloehner is an associate professor and livestock air quality specialist in the department of animal science at the University of California in Davis. You know, that Upton Sinclair thing: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding."

* The paper's co-authors are UC Davis researchers Maurice Piteskey and Kimberly Stackhouse, and it was published in October 2009 in the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Agronomy.


Okay, I'm sorry, but I can't let this one go without a challenge. When Mitloehner says: "The developed world's efforts should focus not on reducing meat and milk consumption but rather on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries, where growing populations need more nutritious food," he forgets that these growing populations in developing countries could probably fend for themselves just fine without our skewed and lopsided globalized economic system. Plus, imagine trying to tell half a billion vegetarian Hindus in India that they have to increase the efficiency of their meat production! Dude, you just don't get it.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?