UN report on livestock and climate change gets lost in translation

Panel of climate change experts say meat production must be sustainable — but few noted that distinction

“Eat less meat” was the phrase of choice for describing a new report from the United Nations’ climate change panel.

Those three words appeared in headlines in publications such as Time magazine, the National Post, and the Times of London. But the report itself said something different, said the science director of the Beef Cattle Research Council.

“They didn’t say, ‘Don’t eat meat’ — they said sustainable meat is an important part of the sustainable diet,” said Reynold Bergen. “The mainstream (media) didn’t pick up on that. It’s a 1,000-page report and I doubt many people actually read it.”

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The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created to be the gold standard when it comes to factual, solidly documented and non-partisan information on global warming. Its latest report — titled Climate Change and Land and prepared by 107 experts from 52 countries — does draw links between meat consumption, land use, and climate change.

“The implications of dietary choice can have severe consequences for land,” the report states. “For example… if every country were to adopt the U.K.’s 2011 average diet and meat consumption, 95 per cent of global habitable land area would be needed for agriculture — up from 50 per cent of land currently used. For the average U.S. diet, 178 per cent of global land would be needed.”

In addition to pointing out it would take a massive expansion of livestock production if everyone on the planet ate as much meat as the average American, the report also says beef production produces more emissions than pork or poultry.

But again, the production system is key.

“Some dietary choices require more land and water, and cause more emissions of heat-trapping gases than others,” said Debra Roberts, one of the co-chairs of the panel’s trio of working groups.

“Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change.”

The key word here is ‘sustainable,’ said Bergen.

“The good news for Canada is the beef that we produce is as sustainable as any place in the world,” he said. “Beef does produce greenhouse gases. But not all beef from all places in the world is equal. Canada is a world leader in producing low-carbon beef.”

But John Basarab, a senior research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, said the panel is off the mark in putting livestock production of any sort into the climate change spotlight.

The majority of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by burning hydrocarbons, said Basarab, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta.

“We are taking carbon that has been in the (ground) for hundreds of years, burning it in an inefficient process, and increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere — and yet cattle get blamed as the major contributors to greenhouse gas,” he said.

He said scientists and climatologists at the University of California, Davis calculated that if all cattle production in the entire U.S. was eliminated, it would only reduce American greenhouse gas emissions by two per cent.

“It was almost zero, it would have relatively no impact,” said Basarab. “All of the business of cattle being the major contributors to greenhouse gas does not stand up to scientific evidence.

“This is becoming more clear and I don’t know why the UN or politicians in our own country are taking this line.”

In fact, the parts of the climate change panel’s report that prompted the ‘eat less meat’ headlines were largely from the chapter on food security. That section dealt with topics such as land degradation and the loss of productive soil — issues that not only threaten the global food supply but cause more carbon to be released into the atmosphere.

“Human diets can impact global warming and so they were encouraging a shift towards less carbon-intensive diets,” said Bergen. “But when we are encouraging people to shift their diets, we need to be really aware of how that can impact land use and land exchange.

“They don’t want to see the Brazilian rainforest levelled because the consequences of that would be way worse than a dietary change.”

Feeding the world itself is going to be more and more difficult as global warming increases, the reports states. It says more than 800 million people are malnourished (versus two billion who are overweight or obese) and that number will jump in the years ahead because of crop failures caused by heat or drought and less productivity, particularly in tropical regions.

The panel’s report says a multi-pronged approach will be needed to counter that threat. Along with “sustainable diets,” the amount of food loss and waste — estimated at about 30 per cent of food production — needs to be slashed.

On the other hand, it says, food production will have to become more resilient. The keys to that are increasing soil organic matter (and reducing erosion), improved land management (both for crops and livestock), and “genetic improvements for tolerance to heat and drought.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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