(Originally published September 30, 2014 on Examiner.com).
What follows is a response to “Save the Humans” by environmental “expert” DJ, singer-songwriter, musician and vegan Moby published on 09/29/14 online at HuffingtonPost.com (see http://huff.to/1rFaGD7 ). Again like the previous movie review, this column’s response reflects this column’s support of small farmers and the efforts these small farmers’ make (as well as those of chefs) to improve our food systems.
Moby very simply mindedly asserts in his editorial “Save the Humans” that “the role of animal agriculture in climate change is simple.” Unfortunately for this vegan DJ musician, who few would call an expert on the environment, livestock’s role in climate change isn’t that simple at all. Livestock managed poorly does hurts the environment, but livestock managed well actually benefits the environment in a number of ways including combating climate change via carbon sequestration and methane oxidation. Additionally Moby’s reliance on highly debated numbers further undermine the simple vegan solutions he has proposed in his essay. Like most vegans he cites numbers without undertanding how or why any of those numbers were derived or what they actually represent.
To begin with, the omnipresent 18% “Long Shadow” number Moby cites in his Huffinton post piece, like other vegans are wont to do, was revised downwards by the FAO in 2013 to 14.5%. The 2006/2013 FAO report used numbers to actually advocate for more factory farms, not less meat consumption. Thus the FAO’s 2006 eighteen percent number was somewhat contrived to argue against small farms so some of the methodologies for determining this number were very questionable at best. Therefore it has always been somewhat ironic that the FAO’s eighteen percent number has become the mantra for many vegans. Read this article from 2008 in the Guardian to better understand this irony: http://goo.gl/Xea5KZ More often than not, most vegans, probably including Moby, have never actually read the 2006 Long Shadow Report.
That original 18% number was also a global number, an average. The percent of greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions attributable to livestock are much lower on a percentage basis in developed compared to underdeveloped countries because agriculture is a larger percentage of underdeveloped countries’ economies. So if you take the EPA’s numbers in the US, the percentage of GHG emissions attributable to all agriculture including livestock is ten percent of emissions well below those of the transportation and energy sectors which are both around 30 percent. However in underdeveloped countries, the percentage of GHG’s from livestock and other agricultures emissions can be over fifty percent. Though numbers can be deceiving since countries emitting lower percentages in developed countries on a volume basis are emitting a lot more GHG’s than those in underdeveloped countries emitting higher percentages.
One factor thst drove up the global emission numbers in the 2006 report was (and still is) deforestation. (Rates of deforestion today though are about a third of what they were in 2004). Deforestation is a fairly complex issue in terms of what is driving it. A lot of deforestation is caused by land speculation and homesteading based on government policies. Rainforest land also isn’t very fertile, so more and more land has to be cleared once the land becomes infertile for crops. Cattle is placed on the land as well. This helps a homesteader make a claim. Here’s a good article that deals with the many facets of this issue: http://www.mongabay.com/brazil.html
Furthermore University of California-Davis Professor Frank Mitloehner Ph.D criticized the original numbers from the 2006 Long Shadow since those numbers for livestock were lifecycle emissions for livestock versus only tail emissions from vehicles. True lifecycle GHG numbers for transportation would have included emissions from extracting the fossil fuels, transporting the fossil fuels, building the roads, building the cars etc. So yes it was an apples to oranges kind of comparison between those two sectors. However, Mitloehner like the 2006’s FAO authors had the same goal and that was and still is greater “intensification” of livestock meaning more factory farms, not less meat consumption. So again the FAO’s authors numbers were skewed to justify this desire to “intensify” operations especially in underdeveloped countries.
The non-peer reviewed numbers from the late vegan activist Robert Goodland’s World Watch report are even more dubious than the 2006 Long Shadow report because Goodland only counted the half of cycles that contributed to emissions without counting the other half of cycles that mitigated emissions. Goodland also spun scenarios to further dramatize his vegan agenda. Consequently his numbers are only really accepted by other vegans wishing to further that agenda. See http://goo.gl/t9aGI2 for the peer reviewed critique of these numbers (requires paid access). At least, Moby, unlike many other vegans, doesn’t rely on these dubious statistics. Here’s another good critique of the WorldWatch report pointing out its many methodological flaws: http://goo.gl/iSb1Pq .
With animal emissions, how animals are managed is what’s important. In concentrated facilities like the FAO long shadow report advocated for, natural methane and carbon cycles can’t occur. On pastures though methane is mitigated from methane oxidation, perennial grasses sequester carbon, and nitrogen isn’t over applied, so nitrous oxide also isn’t an issue. Again the problem is that factory farming turns symbiotic relationships into toxic messes. What’s even more ironic is that vegans also use reports like the FAO’s pro-factory farm one the 2006 FAO Long Shadow report to argue against pastured livestock. The most extreme abolitionist vegans do this because their goal is no livestock period so they’ll use whatever sources they can to further their goals even if those numbers come from factory farming advocates. Read this to understand these issues better:http://exm.nr/1rrdpQy Also read Judith Schwartz’s “Cows Save the Planet”http://goo.gl/RLWqrQ to understand how livestock properly managed may actually be part of the solution to the problems of global warming. Livestock on the land is also essential to build healthy fertile soils.
In general all these stats have to be put in context so that one understands how the numbers are derived. Arguments against industrial livestock without also arguing against industrial agriculture are a bit misplaced, since it is because the grains are subsidized that those grains are used for food. Feeding ruminants grains makes them sick and increase digestive problems which, in turn, along with concentration is what requires the continuous low level use of antibiotics. Low level use is what creates antibiotic resistance and this is a real issue. Instead pastured livestock living on fields don’t require these antibiotics because their diets aren’t making them sick, and they aren’t concentrated. Using synthetic NPK fertilizers on crop lands used for feed, ethanol, and food consumption (especially HFCS and soy lecithin in processed foods) on no-tilled soiled compacted due to use of glyphosate is the main cause of nitrous oxide- http://goo.gl/x6I8HH -as well as the main reason for nitrogen run off into water ways that create dead zones. Not recognizing the problems with industrial agriculture as a whole when making simple minded statements like let’s just use these GMO grains to feed people doesn’t really address the large issues involved
Again many vegans use pro-factory arguments to argue against pastured livestock. These vegans cite stocking numbers that aren’t accurate, and also look at water foot prints that don’t take into account that “green” water numbers include rainfalls. Pastured animals eat grasses on lands that aren’t irrigated. Cattle and sheep get 70 to 90% of their water from green forages (different types of grasses). Typically any supplements aren’t irrigated either. Rotational grazing techniques prevent over grazing, allow for higher stocking rates, and can be done on land that isn’t suitable for crops. Additionally perennial grasslands sequester carbon unlike tilled crop land that release CO2 into the atmosphere. Please watch this video from Carbon Nation:http://vimeo.com/80518559 Healthy grasslands and other crop lands with healthy soils also absorb more water which helps mitigate drought. Healthy soils also have microbes called methanogens that oxidize methane. You want to exacerbate desertification? You take animals off of the land all together or put them in CAFO’s and feedlots.
Cattle, unlike pistachios, almonds and avocados, also may be raised in a variety of climates where there is rainfall. Almost all almonds in the world are raised in drought stricken California that require constant irrigation. Each almond takes a gallon of water to grow. See this article for further information on the impact of almond growers: http://goo.gl/8JWFCR
Again understanding numbers does matter. Throwing numbers out there without fully understanding how those numbers were derived or what they mean is more a political act of spinning to further an agenda than a real act to fully understand the breath and complexity of problems in order to come up with real solutions. Blaming cattle for all that ails us is easy to do, but is more tilting at windmills that distract from the real problems at hand.