U.N. members agree to study livestock role in global warming

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2010:


COPENHAGEN–A draft agreement creating an international
working group under United Nations auspices to reduce global warming
emissions from agriculture may become a turning point in the
international struggle to reduce and mitigate climate change.
Though called “greenhouse gases,” because they trap heat,
the emissions at issue are produced chiefly by livestock, by the use
of fossil fuels in raising fodder for livestock, and by clearing
woodlands for grazing and fodder cultivation.
“Current agricultural production is estimated to contribute
30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than double that of its
nearest rival, transport, at 13.5%,” explained Ed Hamer, reporting
for The Ecologist.

Warned the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization in
a November 2006 report entitled Live-stock’s Long
Shadow–Environmental Issues and Options, “The environmental costs
per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to
avoid the level of damage worsening.”
The draft agreement to address agricultural practices was
quietly adopted as the global warming summit closed on December 18,
2009, after 12 days of discussion and often frustrating impasses
among 192 national delegations. The draft agreement “was riddled
with bracketed phrases at the close of the summit, leaving its
ultimate fate unclear,” wrote John Collins Rudolf of The New York
Times. “Yet as recently as April 2009, agriculture had yet to be
included on the agenda of the Copenhagen climate talks,” Rudolf
noted, “making the emergence of the draft agreement all the more
“Research by the group,” Rudolf said, “is to focus on
developing technologies and techniques to mitigate emissions from
crop and livestock cultivation, and adapting agricultural systems to
rising temperatures. The agreement further states that countries
should weigh the impact of their emissions-mitigation efforts on
‘food security,’ a byword for the access of poor people and nations
to adequate food supplies.”
“Measures to tackle deforestation and incorporate
agricultural issues seem to be the only real success story” from the
summit, assessed Jonathan Scurlock, chief climate change adviser to
Britain’s National Farmers’ Union, in a blog posting from Copenhagen.
The draft agreement was pushed by a de facto coalition
representing farmers, environmentalists, developing nations, and
animal advocates. “Agriculture is where poverty reduction, food
security and climate change intersect–and we all want it included in
the climate change agreement,” said Spurlock. “Much of the fine
detail can await further development by the UN’s subsidiary bodies,”
Spurlock added.
“Agricultural leaders presented a united front in
Copenhagen,” agreed William Surman of Farmer’s Guardian. “However,
debate raged over the best farming practice to deliver emissions
Warned Crop Protection Association chief executive Dominic
Dyer, “Up to half the world’s productive arable land could be lost
over the next 40 years due to the combined impact of rising
temperatures, salinity and water scarcity.” Because more food will
have to be produced from less land, Dyer claimed, “the adoption of
more intensive farming practices offers the most effective route to
mitigate and cope with the effects of climate change.”
But Soil Association policy director Patrick Holden argued
that “Permanent grassland grazed by ruminants represents a stable
ecosystem which is more carbon-friendly than ploughing it up to grow
crops to feed to intensively farmed chickens, pigs and poultry.”
Holden framed his contentions as a rebuttal of vegan and
vegetarian arguments, but implicit in a turn away from factory
farming would be a steep reduction in meat consumption. Up to 70% of
all cultivated land is used to grow feed crops for livestock, at
hugely inefficient ratios of conversion of plant protein to animal
protein. Agricutural economists estimate that about five times more
humans could be fed if all grain crops were used for human
consumption, while marginal farm land not suitable for grain
cultivation was left to livestock.
“At projected levels of population growth the world will be
home to more than nine billion people by 2050,” pointed out Rudolf
of The New York Times, “requiring a 70% increase in food production,
according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.”
“Climate change is a ticking time bomb for global food
security,” U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De
Schutter acknowledged. “We know that the impacts of climate change
will be felt disproportionately by some of the poorest countries and
by the most vulnerable within those countries. Small-scale farmers
and indigenous peoples, as well as those who depend on land for
their livelihoods, will suffer most.”
The presence in Copenhagen of a large contingent of vegan and
vegetarian activists was noted by media, including at a December 12
street demonstration by as many as 60,000 people that upstaged an
“Agriculture Day” event attracting about 300.
A sign proclaiming “Earth in Need: Delete Meat,” wrote Tom
Zeller Jr. of The New York Times, “was one of many promoting
vegetarian diets.”
“An action outside the Danish Meat Council drew attention to
Denmark’s dependence upon imported soya and cereals to feed its
800,000 intensively farmed pigs,” observed Ecologist correspondent
“Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of
greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s
resources. A vegetarian diet is better,” former World Bank chief
economist Nicholas Stern told the London Times during the
preliminaries to the Copenhagen global warming summit. Stern in 2006
produced an influential report comparing the potential costs of
global warming with the costs of control measures.
Agreed former U.S. vice president and longtime anti-global
warming crusader Albert Gore, to ABC broadcaster Diane Sawyer, “I’m
not a vegetarian, but I have cut back sharply on the meat that I eat.
It is absolutely correct that the growing meat intensity of diets
around the world is one of the issues connected to this global
crisis–not only because of the CO2 involved, but also because of the
water consumed in the process. We’ve all heard from our doctors for
many years that vegetables and fruits should occupy a bigger part of
all of our diets, and that’s important for a lot of reasons. I’ve
made those changes. I don’t go quite as far as Nick saying everybody
should become a vegetarian,” Gore said, “partly because it’s
difficult enough to get the agreement without adding that, but it is
a legitimate point of view.”
Despite the efforts of Stern, Gore, and the vegan and
vegetarian demonstrators in Copenhagen, and despite the potential
significance of the draft agreement to examine agricultural
contributions to global warming, the role of livestock production in
creating greenhouse gases was distinctly underplayed in mainstream
summit coverage.
Only 5% of web coverage of the Copenhagen summit,
worldwide, mentioned either livestock or meat. Only 2% of U.S.
newspaper coverage mentioned either livestock or meat. The New York
Times reported much more about the livestock contribution to global
warming than most U.S. mainstream media, but even The New York Times
mentioned livestock or meat in just 5% of Copenhagen summit reportage
–and only 5% of the 79 readers who posted response to that coverage
to New York Times web pages mentioned the livestock and meat angles.
This was consistent with coverage of Livestock’s Long
Shadow when published in 2006. Only 39 U.S. daily newspapers–just
3%–published more than a syndicated summary of the United Nations
Food & Agricultural Organization findings. The New York Times, one
of the few U.S. daily newspapers that is not heavily dependent upon
supermarket meat advertising, editorially endorsed the Livestock’s
Long Shadow findings, but more than a month after the report was

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.