The Sierra Club addresses livestock agriculture

sierra-club-mtg-10-18-2016Remember the very beginning of Cowspiracy, where the producers interview Bruce Hamilton representing the Sierra Club? Hamilton gives a litany of all the dire consequences of climate change, ending with a prediction of “climate wars.” He is then asked, “what about livestock and animal agriculture?” to which Hamilton innocently (and seemingly obliviously) responds, “well, what about it? I mean —”. This is the lead-in to Cowspiracy’s general theme that environmental organizations are either clueless or hypocritically silent about livestock agriculture and the environment.

If the producers of Cowspiracy had showed up at a local Sierra Club meeting last week, instead of interviewing Hamilton, Cowspiracy might have taken a very different turn. The Sierra Club’s own report of this meeting clearly states in its suggestion about “behaviors you can change”: “Cut down on red meat and dairy consumption.” That’s not quite “go vegan for the planet,” but it’s something I can agree with and quite an advance over “what about it?” Perhaps Cowspiracy itself strongly influenced this change.

I found out about the meeting almost two weeks ago. I received an enticing invitation from the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter to a discussion asking “how we can work together to reduce our environmental impact through our eating habits.” What made the event even more enticing was the offer of a free vegan meal. I thought that I could make a few suggestions about eating habits and the environment, and free vegan food is always a plus, so I went.

sierra-club-food-10-18-2016The place was packed, perhaps 100 to 150 people, and the “light vegan meal” was quite tasty. There were three speakers: Dr. Pete Newton (Colorado University), Dr. Rich Conant (Colorado State University), and Alex Funk (the National Young Farmers Coalition). Newton and Conant both seemed to be quite aware of the livestock and climate change connection.

Newton’s talk was on “food miles,” but he did not try to defend the idea of the importance of growing local food, in fact quite the reverse. Food miles — the distance between where the food was grown, and the consumer’s plate — plays a very minor role in food’s total contribution to carbon dioxide, on the order of about 10%. Other choices would lessen your climate impact a lot more than eating locally — for example, not wasting food, and not eating beef or dairy products.

Conant wanted to decrease emissions from livestock production. Livestock are important to agriculture and the economy, but they are also a source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). He puts the figure of livestock’s contribution to GHGs at 8% to 18% of all emissions, citing the FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow and Mario Herrero, but mentioned that some estimates of livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions could be as high as 40%.

Concerning this last point, I got into a conversation with Conant and asked him where he got this 40% figure. He responded by citing, oddly enough, the FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow. When I responded that “I thought the FAO put the figure at 18% of emissions from livestock, which is quite a bit less than 40%,” he said that the FAO, in addition to the 18% figure from livestock, also attributed as much as 20% of all emissions to land use changes. (So presumably, if you thought that most land use changes were due to livestock — which is arguably true, given global deforestation for cattle ranches — you could add 18% to 20% and get 38%.)

I also asked Conant if he’d heard of the “Livestock and Climate Change” article (by Goodland and Anhang), which estimates that 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock agriculture. He hadn’t heard of it, but thought that this estimate was much too high.

I also got into a conversation with Pete Newton, the speaker who gave the talk on food miles. I asked, given the fact that livestock contributes to climate change, “why don’t we just tell people to go vegan?” His response was interesting. He said that the trend everywhere was towards greater meat consumption. Everyone knowledgeable about the situation was predicting that there would be more and more meat consumption in the years to come. All the developing countries were eating more meat as soon as they got additional income. If we want to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, it would seem to be futile to advocate decreased meat consumption. If you wanted to decrease emissions from agriculture, it would be relatively best to work on improving livestock practices rather than vainly advocating a decrease in meat consumption.

This meeting gave me a chance to better understand what “mainstream environmentalists” were saying and thinking about veganism. I found that there were a number of vegans (besides me) at the meeting, and got into a very pleasant discussion with one of them whom I had never met before. But the official message from the speakers was still rather discouraging. The overall message was “meat is here to stay and meat consumption is increasing; deal with it.” However, there is a clear acknowledgment that, in fact, livestock agriculture does play a substantial role in climate change and a willingness to talk about it.

6 thoughts on “The Sierra Club addresses livestock agriculture

  1. Drew Hensley

    How pathetic! Our amazing ability to deny facts on the ground and cherry pick or even twist data to suit our tastes, objectives and preexistent beliefs may be the root of all evil! That’s what got us here to begin with. When a candidate is getting clobbered in the polls and about to lose an election, they can tell themselves the game is rigged, they can deny global warming and anything else they don’t care to believe.

  2. Nancy Stocker

    What you seem to say is that, even though Conant didn’t agree with your specific percentage impact, he accepted the idea that meat eating contributes a lot to global warming. He also acknowledged how hard it is to get people to change eating habits. This is especially true in an overweight era when many “diet gurus” are claiming eating wheat and other starchy carbs will give you a belly and eating meat will help you control your weight and lose the belly.

    Conant’s approach seems to be, “Change what you can.” My guess is both approaches are right–reduce the impact of meat, and reduce meat consumption as much as possible. The question is how to get people to change their habits/culture/values. Smoking and the amount of driving one does are both things people “should” change. Few do. Changing eating choices is likely similar.

  3. Annie Leymarie

    Hello Keith (?),

    In their latest report (The State of Food and Agriculture – Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, 2016), the FAO write that:

    “Annual anthropogenic GHG emissions that are classified in IPCC reports as originating in “agriculture, forestry and other land use” (AFOLU) are caused mainly by deforestation, livestock production and soil and nutrient management. They have been estimated at 21 percent of total global emissions. While this was less than the 27 percent recorded during the 1990s, the apparent reduction is due to the fact that emissions have grown more rapidly in other sectors.”

    They also write that “The contribution of food systems to total GHG emissions varies among countries and regions, according to the structure of local supply chains. Estimates by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) indicate that in high-income countries emissions from the pre- and post-production stages equal those from production. In contrast, agricultural production is still the dominant stage in terms of GHG emissions in developing countries (Vermeulen, Campbell and Ingram, 2012).”

    Whilst the report provides the Global Warming Potential figure used for nitrous oxide, it doesn’t seem to specify which figure has been used for methane – though this can make big differences in figures obtained.

    There seem to be very little or no mention in the whole report of advantages of shifts to plant-based diets other than in the following paragraph; “There is increasing evidence that dietary patterns with low environmental impacts are also healthier. Common features of such diets are the diversity of foods eaten, a balance between energy intake and energy expenditure; the inclusion of minimally processed tubers and whole grains along with legumes, fruit and vegetables, and meat, if eaten, in moderate quantities. Healthy diets also feature dairy products in moderation, unsalted seeds and nuts, small quantities of fish and aquatic products, and very limited intake of processed foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt and low in micronutrients (FAO and FCRN, 2016)”.

    The emphasis is put throughout the report seems to be in increasing livestock productivity (intensification), as in the following paragraph: “In both ruminants and monogastrics, improvements in feed conversion efficiency and husbandry, and the selection of highly efficient animal breeds, have played key roles. Reducing the number of animals required to produce a fixed level of output can yield significant efficiency gains. For example, a 28 percent overall reduction in annual methane emissions in the United Kingdom between 1990 and 1999 can be attributed largely to reductions in cattle numbers and the increased productivity of dairy cows (DEFRA, 2001). Strong disparities in resource-use efficiency and GHG emission intensity still exist between animal farming systems and across regions (Herrero et al., 2013), suggesting significant potential for gains”.

    Best wishes,

    1. Keith Akers Post author

      Very interesting! Thanks!

      By recommending “feed conversion efficiency and husbandry” I think they mean to suggest “factory farms.” Unfortunately, cattle emit methane as part of the natural process of digestion. In feedlots they can be fed corn instead of grass and can be fattened up and slaughtered more quickly, and thus emit less methane. So the relatively more “humane” alternative of grass-fed beef is unfortunately worse from a climate perspective than feedlot beef, although getting killed as a teenager still doesn’t seem to be a very appealing life for an animal.

  4. Annie Leymarie

    Hello again and sorry – I went a bit too fast with previous comment, as I am reading the recently-published FAO report. It does contain the following sentence too:

    “Reducing emission intensity along the entire food chain will require significant changes in consumer awareness, as well as price incentives that favour food items with much smaller environmental footprints. Rebalancing diets towards less animal-sourced foods would make an important contribution in this direction, with probable co-benefits for human health”.

  5. Carolyn

    What hypocrites! I was outraged to learn of the animal ag footprint affecting our planet, and even more outraged that it has never been presented to us in the past, despite clear evidence. No doubt it conflicts with the meat and dairy industry agenda and profits. I for one, will never trust another government entity to tell me what to eat. As for The Sierra Club, I am done supporting them until they start being honest about this important issue. I also switched to a plant-based diet several months ago and encourage everyone I know to do the same.


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