Debates surrounding the role of livestock production and environmental degradation got a shot in the arm yesterday with the release of a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Through their International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, the UNEP published a report on June 2, 2010 called Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production – Priority Products and Materials. The authors set out to answer a basic question: “how [do] different economic activities influence the use of natural resources and the generation of pollution?” (p. 9). They analyzed industrial production processes, product and consumption categories, and materials and resources, consulting a wide variety of studies conducted in particular countries and at the global scale. The group concluded that the two most important priority areas in terms of environmental and resource impacts are (1) food and agriculture, and (2) fossil energy carriers used for heating, transportation, metal refining, and the production of manufactured goods.
This excerpt from the discussion about food and agriculture points to livestock production specifically, and implicitly recommends that we eat less meat and dairy, and eat closer to home:
Food production is the most signiﬁcant inﬂuence on land use and therefore habitat change, water use, overexploitation of ﬁsheries and pollution with nitrogen and phosphorus. In poorer countries, it is also the most important cause of emissions of greenhouse gases (CH 4 and N2O). Both emissions and land use depend strongly on diets. Animal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives. In addition, non-seasonal fruits and vegetables cause substantial emissions when grown in greenhouses, preserved in a frozen state, or transported by air. As total food consumption and the share of animal calories increase with wealth, nutrition for rich countries tends to cause higher environmental impacts than for poor countries. (p. 78)
The meat industry is predictably quick to respond to this publication. Pundits argue that like the FAO’s 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, this one is equally flawed for overemphasizing the role of animal agriculture in environmental degradation. As evidence of these claims, commentators continually reference a speech by UC Davis Professor Frank M. Mitloehner’s at a National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in March 2010. Professor Mitloehner argued that the FAO’s oft-cited statistic that the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of global CO2 emissions is inflated because it was calculated as a sum of emissions throughout the animals’ lifecycles, including those emitted in the in the process of feed production. He said that the same kind of lifecycle analysis was not conducted for the transportation sector, meaning, “This lopsided analysis is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue”.
I’ve written a bit about this issue here. The meat industry loves to use Mitloehner’s argument to exonerate the livestock sector, and often goes a step further to say that decreased meat consumption would only lead to increased hunger in the world’s poorest countries. Agribusinesses see traditionally poor countries as sites for exploitation of people and resources, or as exciting new markets where middle classes are growing, like in China and India. From this neoliberal point of view, the way to combat hunger is to open national markets to unfettered agricultural trade, and to let agribusiness firms restructure economies such that “the market” becomes the grand (and fairest) distributor of agricultural goods and resources. The argument that less meat equals more hunger is based on a logic that only industrial livestock production can provide meat for the masses, and that this particular form of agricultural development is the saving grace for curing the ills of hunger and poverty. I’m afraid the apples and oranges that are constantly being conflated these analyses are industrial meats on the one hand and let’s call them locally-produced, small-scale meats on the other.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions and a whole host of social and political inequities, the scale and mode of livestock production that is the problem is large-scale, industrial, and commercial in nature. This CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) mode is the fastest growing form of livestock production in the world, as agribusiness exports the so-called “factory farming” model to the global South, dramatically restructuring agricultural economies and societies along the way. Hungry people already placed outside of the reach of the market, become even more vulnerable when agribusiness, in cohort with governments, significantly changes the agricultural economy of a place such that small-scale producers are considered redundant. For instance, when “the market” controls prices, costs, and standards, it becomes increasingly difficult for small-scale farmers to buy and sell livestock, and to conform to the global industry standards that are set by international institutions in an attempt to standardize the entire planet, all in the name of profit.
Food and agriculture analysts, both at institutions such as the UN and FAO, and in the popular press, need to be very specific when making calls for decreased meat consumption as a priority for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial production, based on long-distance grain trade and market monopoly or oligopoly at any stage of production, is the apple here – a rotten apple that needs to be tossed to the compost pile where the magic of microorganisms can break it down and create something useful. No doubt, people need to eat (and be sold!) less of this kind of meat. The orange in the analogy is small-scale livestock farming, whether it involves animal grazing or feeding. Rather than reducing this form of meat production and consumption, we would do well to learn from it, fund it, and support it, through agricultural and social policy, NOT just through the market. Well-intentioned “vote with your dollar” food campaigns not only give the vote only to those with the dollars to spend, but also place the onus of fixing a flawed agricultural system squarely on consumers. Real change will only come from combining consumer food movements with policies that work for the good of people, not profits, and that hold agribusinesses and their “markets” accountable for the crises they have created.
 Professor Mitloehner originally published his analysis with two co-authors in Advances in Agronomy in 2009.