Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

F&D A matter of meat

Making real changes to tackle climate change only gets tougher



Living in post-postmodern times means revisiting our revisited attitudes and values about darn near everything. That includes things held near and dear to our hearts about sustainability, the environment, and how we're all going to live peaceably and pleasantly on this planet without totally screwing it up.

This idea was pretty evident at Globe 2010 in Vancouver, which recently wrapped. Globe is the biennial conference that brings together civil society leaders - policy makers, business types, NGOs and the like - to discuss "the business of the environment."

One of the themes that kept popping up during the three-day event, and at other enviro-type conferences I've attended lately, is the concern that when it comes to the general public - that's you and me - the shine has worn off enviro issues. Been there, done that, heard about it, now what?

The negative impact of humans on the planet is a given, the headlines are stale and nobody wants to face the boring old grunt work of real behaviour modification. Besides, we're too busy shopping.

And we're confused. Our ennui with all things environmental has been further clouded by ranting blowhards, polarized debates, hacked e-mails and lousy - and often inaccurate - media coverage. That, plus more and more detailed scientific research rife with nuances and tangents, is leaving people scratching their heads if not paralyzed into downright catatonia.

Just as the pressure in the pressure cooker mounts, what seems to be lost on the lethargic crowd is that rather than abandoning our efforts to shrink our collective enviro footprint, we should be re-doubling them.

Given this is a food column, I'll give you one food-ish case in point, with able assistance from the Columbia Journalism Review : meat.

Remember the highly circulated and much-laughed-over enviro report from a few years back that the production of livestock is responsible for about 18 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions - more than those coming from all the vehicles, planes and trains on Earth?

The report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization, was equally acclaimed by vegetarians as justification to switch to a meat-free diet and by climate change deniers as justification for yet another form of inaction, as in, don't worry about driving that gas-guzzling Hummer - your pork chop is more complicit.

Recently, this UN report was revisited by an associate professor specializing in air quality at the University of California, Dr. Frank Mitloehner.

The criticism Mitloehner levelled, which a UN spokesperson fully agreed with, was that the Long Shadow report compared apples and oranges.

Essentially, it analyzed the production of greenhouse gases throughout the entire life cycle of animal protein products (meat as well as eggs and dairy products), which meant everything from changes in land use to transportation and the fertilizers used, in addition to the more direct and giggle-producing factor of greenhouse gases emitted by animal manure and farts, more genteelly known as "cow burps."

By comparison, the UN report only calculated the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels in the aforementioned transportation modes, not the entire life cycle of same, such as emissions from manufacturing planes or cars, or those from the asphalt used in airport runways and roads.

Why not calculate the entire life cycles? Simply because the data is not available - something I find mind-blowing.

No wonder people grow confused and catatonic, for the press quickly and inaccurately glommed on to the UC Davis info, reporting that eating meat isn't related to climate change. Meat and dairy not tied to global warming, blared one newspaper headline.

But it is. First, the rest of the UN report on livestock production and greenhouse gas emissions held up factually under Dr. Mitloehner's and his team's scrutiny, plus other studies have concluded similar results.

It's also worth noting, as the CJR does, that this new research was funded in part by the Beef Checkoff Program, a consumer education program in the U.S. supported through fees levied on beef producers.

As for Dr. Mitloehner's total research since 2002, 5 per cent of his US$5 million in research funding has come from agricultural commodities groups, such as beef producers - not necessarily a bad thing, just one more of those subtle and potentially sideswiping details consumers should be aware of when assessing such reports, and likely aren't.

About the same time as all these goings-on, we have people up in arms in England over a plan to farm 8,100 cows "American-style" in England's largest dairy, a huge complex inside hangars.

Wonder where all their excrement goes? The animals would be kept on a bed of sand, "continuously cleaned and recycled" say the owners. They, meaning the cows not the owners, would be fed by-products from a local sugar beet factory and an ethanol/biofuel plant. Yummy.

As for the greenhouse gas emissions, they'll match those from 3,000 houses, say the protestors, in addition to the 280,000 litres of milk to be produced every day.

Now this is industrial agriculture at its finest - enough to send you scuttling to a box of rice milk or a bottle of Avalon milk in a hurry.

Meantime in New Zealand, the population of beef cattle now nearly numbers that of people (4.1 million compared to 4.3 million) while dairy cows, at 5.8 million, outnumber the humans by a long shot.

Here in Canada, we have about 1.4 million dairy cows, and some 5.3 million beef cattle. If we use the average accepted number of 110 kg of methane produced per cow per year, that equals one hell of a lot of methane, especially given greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture increased just over 23 per cent between 1990 and 2007 (the last period the federal government has statistics for), accounting for about 7 per cent of the total increase in Canada's GHG emissions during that time.

As for the Long Shadow's contention that cars and trucks and planes are bad in terms of greenhouse gases, the fact is they are and remain so. Only our behaviour and policies are going to change that, if and when we get around to it.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who more and more eats less and less meat, and sure stays away from the industrial stuff.