Friends of Science Calgary

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Domestic Livestock and Climate

New report contributed by Robert Lyman © 2020. Lyman’s bio can be read here.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Reports from international organizations have focused media attention on the role potentially played by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the production and consumption of livestock. Anti-animal agriculture advocates have used this to argue that livestock production should be severely regulated and taxed and that humans should sharply reduce or eliminate meat from their diets.

Much of the confusion about the role of livestock-related emissions is the result of attributing to livestock the deforestation to create pastures. However, deforestation causes a unique one-time carbon dioxide release from the burning and decomposition of woody vegetation. When calculating emissions intensity, one should apportion the emissions out over the accumulated animal products during the entire period of pasture use. In the case of many countries, this may be hundreds or thousands of years, so the emissions per kilogram of carcass weight approach zero.

Using a different methodology (i.e. one based on life cycle analysis) than the international organizations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quantified the impacts of livestock production in the U.S. as accounting for 4.2% of all GHG emissions, far below the 18% and up range often cited. In fact, in countries like the U.S. and Canada, the emissions properly attributable to beef cattle are only 2.2 % of the total, with another 1.4% to dairy cattle.

The attack on livestock production and use has sometimes focused on the alleged adverse effects of methane emissions from ruminant animals (i.e. burping and flatulence) on the climate. However, high methane content in the atmosphere does not correlate with high livestock concentrations. Strong emitters seem to be wetlands in Siberia, humid tropical forests, and rice paddy fields in China. Livestock emissions are totally dwarfed by methane leaking from the massive clathrate deposits below the permafrost in Siberia, on continental shelves and in the deep ocean.

The livestock industry is already subject to carbon dioxide taxes, which allegedly represent the environmental costs of carbon dioxide emissions. Accordingly, it is very difficult to see, from a climate policy perspective, what additional rationale there would be for taxing meat.

Would regulating Canadian’s meat consumption or browbeating meat-eaters reduce emissions? Not in an open economy. The meat would still be grown and exported.

People may individually choose a diet that they consider right for their nutritional, health and taste needs. Governments, however, have no justification in restricting or taxing the production or consumption of meat in Canada for climate reasons.

2 Comments

  1. An excellent article. However, an important point is missed. Cattle and other ruminants have developed a complex digestive system which can process grass and other plant materials into food for themselves. In turn the ruminants provide food for other animals which lack the ability to use those plant materials as food. Why would we want to halt part of nature’s intricate and bountiful food chain which supports all life on earth?

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