The Forever Foodfight: Meat v Meatless

July 16, 2018


This post was inspired by a long twitter discussion by Mike Mann on the subject of agricultural impacts on climate.

First of all, in my presentations, when the question comes up in Q and A, as it always does, “What can I do about climate change?” – My first answer is not, “Give up Meat”.

That’s usually, my second or third answer. The first one is, “If you care about this issue, for God’s sake, Tell someone. Tell your family, your co-workers, your church, your garden club, your bowling team, your yoga class, and above all, your representatives, your newspaper editors, and your online community. Because our leaders have not been hearing from you, and our collective silence on this issue is dysfunctional.”

Then I usually say, “…and by the way, you should eat a lot less meat, – it will save you money and make you healthier.”

Very good discussion in the Guardian here, and worth your time to go to the link.


Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.

The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.

The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other recent research shows 86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans. The scientists also found that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing.

On the other hand:

Doug Boucher, Science advisor to Union of Concerned Scientists:

Movie night at my house last weekend, featuring Cowspiracy. The name says it all. The 2014/2015 movie by that name—“The Film That Environmental Organizations Don’t Want You to See,” according to its website—has uncovered an immense conspiracy between governments and the world’s biggest environmental organizations, to deceive the public about the principal cause of global warming. But the film’s premise is based on badly flawed—and almost unanimously rejected—interpretations of science. Let me explain…

According to Cowspiracy, the major source of global warming pollution isn’t fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, as the world’s scientists are telling us. No, it’s animal agriculture—not just eating cows, but all other kinds of meat, and eggs and milk and fish too. So the principal solution to global warming isn’t renewable energy. It’s for everyone to become a vegan.

Cows worse than fossil fuels? Not by a long shot

Central to Cowspiracy’s conspiracy theory is the supposed “fact” that a 2009 study found that 51% of all greenhouse gases are produced by animal agriculture.

A good deal of the movie is taken up with interviews with people from environmental organizations, such as the Rainforest Action Network, Oceana, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, who don’t seem to accept this “fact,” and therefore must be part of the conspiracy to cover it up. Greenpeace politely declined, twice, to be interviewed, proving that they’re part of the cowspiracy too.

Since the 51% figure is key to the film’s conspiracy theory, let’s look at the study that it comes from. Ironically, in light of Cowspiracy’s thesis that environmental NGOs are hiding the science, this study proposing this figure on which they rely so heavily was not published in a scientific journal, but in a report by an environmental organization, the Worldwatch Institute. The report’s authors, Jeff Anhang and the late Robert Goodland, were not named in the movie but were described simply as “two advisers from the World Bank.”

How did Goodland and Anhang come up with 51%, rather than the scientific consensus that livestock are currently responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gases (which includes direct emissions from the animals as well as emissions from feed production, land use change, and manure)?

The biggest single difference is that Goodland and Anhang also count the carbon dioxide that domesticated animals breathe out—i.e., respiration. You probably remember the basics of this from biology class. The biosphere is basically powered by the photosynthesis done by plants, which take up CO2 molecules from the atmosphere and use the sun’s energy to link those molecules together, making sugars, starches, fats, and (adding in other elements) proteins, DNA, and all the other parts of the living world. In doing so, they release oxygen, which now makes up about 21% of the atmosphere.

The planet’s “heterotrophs”—animals, fungi, and most bacteria and other microbes—can’t photosynthesize, so they need to get their energy from eating or decomposing the molecules produced by photosynthesis. Generally heterotrophs do this by reversing the process of photosynthesis—taking in oxygen, using it to break apart the energy-rich molecules created by the plants, and releasing CO2 back to the atmosphere. This is the process of respiration.

But Anhang and Goodland’s addition of the CO2 produced by livestock to the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, ignores a simple but critical point: plants respire too. They do both of the fundamental processes, not only photosynthesizing but respiring as well.

This respiration is how they get the energy they need to maintain themselves, take up water and nutrients, and carry out all the other chemical reactions needed to live. In the process, they release most of the CO2 that they’ve taken in. And what they don’t is almost all released after they die, by respiration done by decomposers such as fungi and bacteria.

As a result, the CO2 that plants take out of the atmosphere, goes back into the atmosphere, whether or not they are eaten by animals. Thus, livestock (and other animals, including both wild and human ones) don’t add to the amount of CO2 that gets emitted into the atmosphere. This is why scientists reject Goodland and Anhang’s counting of livestock respiration as an additional anthropogenic source of greenhouse gases. It’s not additional—it would happen anyway, so you’re not justified in adding it in.


20 Responses to “The Forever Foodfight: Meat v Meatless”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Methane emissions are up to 100 times worse for the climate than CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, the oil and gas is sector is the top source of US methane emissions, ahead of agriculture.

    • indy222 Says:

      Exactly WHO’s EPA published this? Obama’s, or Trump’s? Makes a difference. I’m not grinding any axe here, just want to know if it’s trustworthy.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.”

    Simply. Not. True.

    This is yet another example of overgeneralization, and taking world-wide data and saying it applies to everyone. It does not. If you live in the U.S., for example, all meat and dairy production (that’s beef, chicken, pork, turkey, processed meats, lamb, etc) produces, according to the EPA, about 4% of our GHG-equivalents emissions. That means the figure for GHG emissions has been corrected to account for the methane. (The EPA uses a correction factor of 25 for methane – argue with them, not me, about that, it’s frigging complicated, and scientists, tho perhaps not Sir Charles, agree on that amount).

    I do not know what GHG-eq. contribution of meat and dairy is in Europe, or the rest of the 1st world.

    I do know that land use is included in this Science study, and that makes for a huge contribution in some parts of the world, where, for example, one-time forest burning to clear an agricultural field is attributed to meat production as if it was an annual or eternal occurrence. Not sure if that should be counted that way.

    “The new analysis shows that … meat and dairy … uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. “

    I am highly sceptical of such statistics. They certainly do not apply to the U.S., because we know from the EPA that non meat farming is actually responsible for 60% of our agricultural GHG emissions. I would suspect that the definition of “farmland” is of interest here. Huge amounts of grasslands are used for grazing beef. But grassland is not supposed to be counted as “farmland”. More investigation needed here.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      There is more impact from food animals than just GHGs: Livestock require a lot of feed crops (especially now that they are forbidden, since the discovery of prion diseases like BSE, from mixing animal parts waste into feed), like corn, corn, alfalfa and corn, so end up having a large footprint of arable land.

      Personally, my compromise is having a low-meat diet rather than go full vegetarian. I enjoyed my red beans and rice this evening.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        The feed crops and their transportation, and the meat processing, and its transportation are already included in the EPA figures.

        Let’s talk about corn. Beef cows and dairy cows eat “corn”. But a lot of that “corn” is not the kernels we eat – it is the stalks, ie chaff. That’s making good use of a by-product of human agricultural waste. Same with other human food crop chaffs like soy.

        That is not to say that actual grains – what humans could also eat – does not go to livestock – some of it does. So what? We do not have a food shortage. Starving kids in Africa and America are not getting corn because that corn is going to cows. They are not getting corn for a bunch of other reasons.

        Meanwhile, a metric gazillion ton of corn is raised in the US for gasoline. Now THERE is actual agricultural farmland that can (and will) be put to better use. Like raising crops for humans and animals.

        • J4Zonian Says:

          Red herring.

          A number of us have noticed that the quality and integrity of your arguments drops tremendously as soon as meat is mentioned, Ginger. Not worthy of you. It’s barely worthy of Bjorn McBorgerson and the other breakthrough boys who make excessive use of it, like insisting malaria is a worse problem than climate catastrophe. The world would be far better off, and civilization and millions of species would have a much better chance of survival if the rich would cut back drastically on eating meat. But it’s just stupid trying to make it an either/or proposition; we also have to stop driving, flying, and doing a lot of other things. But it’s all a pointless sub-argument until we recognize that political action to change all of society is the only thing that will save humanity. Voluntary personal action is great, indulge in it all you want. But don’t let it interfere with the political work that is vastly more important.

          Please stop letting your guilt make you so defensive about this subject and just eat less of it. It’ll be so much simpler for you and us.

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            “if the rich would cut back drastically on eating meat. ”

            The poor and middle class eat meat too, you know. Not sure why you insist on this as a class issue. 😦

            Meat happens to be quality food. Which is why nearly every human wants it in their diet. And much of it comes from animals feeding on foodstuffs otherwise useless to humans – grass, chaff, scraps.

            I write so much about this issue because there is so much baloney being written about. I try to correct inaccuracies in order to put perspective and scale to the issue of GHG emissions. So we can solve what is important instead of focusing on relatively insignificant problems and well-meaning but irrelevant personal action programs that will accomplish virtually nothing.

            Hopefully that translates into getting people to stop worrying about meat and get more exercised about the burning of fossil fuels.

            Oh, and here is a tip: try to criticise me as a person less, and frame your unhappiness as an unhappiness with my *arguments*, not me personally.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            JFC, GB! “…try to criticize me as a person less, and frame your unhappiness as an unhappiness with my *arguments*, not me personally”?

            That is NOT an appropriate response to the arrogance, condescension, and downright insulting narcissism displayed towards you by Jeffy here.

            “A number of us have noticed that the quality and integrity of your arguments drops tremendously as soon as meat is mentioned…” (WOW! Worthy of Trump)

            “Not worthy of you…”

            “Please stop letting your guilt make you so defensive about this subject…”

            Those are fighting words where I grew up, and the only appropriate response is “GFYS Jeffy!” and an invitation to the parking lot. That’s the “simpler solution” that Jeffy needs, not encouragement to continue with his endless repetition of meaningless crap like “…we also have to stop driving, flying, and doing a lot of other things. But it’s all a pointless sub-argument UNTIL we recognize that political action to change ALL of society is the ONLY thing that will save humanity”.

            As I’ve said before, Jeffy is actually a subconscious rational fatalist who is stuck in denial and bargaining—he deep down KNOWS that we will NOT take “political action to save all of humanity” in time. He needs to recognize that fact and stop with the Gish gallops—it’ll be so much simpler for all of us. In the meantime, grow a set and earn some respect from the “number of us” who recognize Jeffy for what he is.

  3. oncejolly Says:

    There is no real disagreement between Doug Boucher and Poore and Nemecek (the authors of the study highlighted in the Guardian). The latter provide a revised estimate of the share of GHGs attributable to animal products for the year 2010. They estimate that the food chain accounts for 26 percent of total anthropogenic GHGs, with animal products accounting for 58 percent of this subtotal. This implies that animal products account for about 15 percent of the total. Although he is referencing an earlier study using an earlier reference year, this is the same figure that Boucher provides.

  4. J4Zonian Says:


    ”red herring” was not referring to you, even though your name is Ginger. It referred to your argument about ethanol, which though related, (see below) is a separate problem. That’s also called whataboutery.

    I didn’t say ”you’re a jerk or anything remotely like it. There was nothing ad hominem or personal in my post. I said ”…the quality and integrity of your arguments…”

    Criticism of your arguments about meat triggers defensiveness. which is already on display as illustrated by your opening arguments. It’s exactly the poor quality arguments, like the ones used by the others I mentioned, that’s the problem. As I made clear, I respect you and your views tremendously, and on every other subject you make sense and contribute logical, entertaining, and informative points; so this is absolutely NOT an attack on you. It’s a critique of the poor quality of arguments you (and others) use when meat is the subject. That was quite clear from the wording of my post, and your leaping to the opposite, completely unwarranted conclusion is exactly what I’m talking about.

    No One has suggested here that we should pay no, or even less, attention to fossil fuels (of which more are used to produce meat than equal amounts of plant foods, btw). People are only suggesting that we also pay attention to other aspects of warming as well. As we absolutely must if we want civilization to survive.

    The reason you gave is not even close to why people want meat in their diet. Plants happen to be quality food, too, (fungi and bacteria, as well) which is just one reason every human on Earth wants and needs them in their diet. Your ”poor …people eat meat too”? More whataboutery. And obviously, rich people eat more meat, often in personally and planetarily unhealthy amounts they could easily cut.

    This is a global issue, so it seemed clear to me, but I should have specified ”globally rich”, who eat the vast majority of industrial meat. That includes most people who post here. For example, if one has just 4 things—a roof, a bed, clothes in a closet and food in a refrigerator—one has more than 85% of people on Earth have. Having a car or a house, which I suspect most people here do, puts people in a considerably smaller group.

    We also need to understand not only what’s happening now but what’s about to happen. Yes, some meat eaten on Earth—including most of what the globally poor eat—is raised on waste land and with waste, and is an ecologically appropriate food. A lot of meat eaten by the globally rich is not, and contributes more to global warming and other parts of the ecological crisis than its food value warrants. And everyone keeps saying that’s about to increase.

    Cherry picking
    You quote some (somewhat subjective and controversial and not completely agreed-on) numbers that in any case are only what may be happening now. If meat consumption increases, it’s extremely likely to be overwhelmingly industrial meat, and thus not ecologically appropriate. It will be destructive. We’re left with a choice between saying ”I got mine and to hell with all you brown, black and yellow people” or cutting the consumption of the rich AND keeping others from increasing beyond the means of what is about to be a very stressed planet.

    There are lots of issues related to meat at various levels. We need to make public transit more central and increase walking and bicycling by changing the landscape. Public support for those changes suffers—among other reasons, of course—because so many people eat too much to be in shape to even consider those as possibilities. Legalized corruption is responsible for the subsidies to meat and feed commodities that is a huge reason for that obesity.

    I agree that putting this in terms of personal action is a mistake. I shouldn’t have used the generic ”you”, which made it sound like I was talking to the specific you. I wasn’t. Political action is the main means by which we’ll avoid cataclysm, and that includes political action on food policy to favor permacultural plant production—perennials, in locally-optimal systems, drastically reducing use of synthetic fertilizer, tillage, groundwater and phosphate mining, etc.

    I understand that a lot of nonsense is written about meat—just like every other subject. It’s no reason to use the nonsense as a straw person. None of that nonsense appeared in rhymeswithgoalies’ post. It did in yours—no one but you mentioned starving children, etc.

    (However, yes, btw, the US and other rich countries, and rich people in all countries, do take food from poor people, largely so they can eat meat (and other luxury foods). This is especially harmful because they take inordinate resources compared to their benefits and do go mostly to the rich, exacerbating both real and symbolic inequality. That leads to instability, which is anathema to implementing solutions to the ecological crisis. The system of chemical industrial neo-colonialism IS a major proximal cause of poverty and starvation as well as ecological devastation, and the reality and symbol of meat is one of the main mechanisms by which it works—part of the narcissistic superiority of the mostly white globally rich class that causes this and most other problems.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      ” If meat consumption increases, it’s extremely likely to be overwhelmingly industrial meat, and thus not ecologically appropriate.”

      You have got it exactly 180 degrees wrong, if I understand your use of the word “industrial”. I am taking your use of that word to be equivalent to what people call “factory” farming?

      Because so-called factory farming is what is used, to the large extent, in the U.S.. And as you can see in the EPA chart, above, posted by Sir Charles, the GHG emissions of agriculture in the US, using “industrial” agriculture are FAR lower than the rest of world.

      I will repeat further – total livestock and dairy GHG emissions are less than 50% of the U.S. emissions, which are merely 9%. Compare those numbers to the numbers you are providing, and the conclusion is inescapable:

      industrial or factory farming is best for the environment. It is not ecologically inappropriate. It is not pretty, but it is efficient as hell.

      Indeed, this was the conclusion of the study I criticise the most – the Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations – “Livestock’s Long Shadow”. It is subsistence farming (which often includes burning of forest) around the world which is bad for the environment on a relative basis.

      Contrary to your argument, U.S. livestock farming does NOT take “inordinate” resources and does not go mostly to the rich. The poor and the middle class consume the vast majority of these foods.

      • Sir Charles Says:

        “the GHG emissions of agriculture in the US, using “industrial” agriculture are FAR lower than the rest of world.”

        The numbers are relative, Gingerbaker. The rest of the world also doesn’t produce that much oil and gas, mainly by fracking. So the GHG emissions of the US are tremendously high altogether.

        And when you take the missions per capita the US are still a leading country:

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Did I call it or what? Jeffy has now gone off on a HUGE rant (over 2 wide screens worth). He doubles down on his condescension towards GB, granting him some relief, although saying that someone who makes stupid arguments is not stupid is kind of stupid.

      What truly mystifies me about Jeffy is the degree of his Dunning-Kruger deficit about the ideas of “the rich” and “the poor” on the planet, although he does begin to show some understanding in his very last paragraph when he brings in “chemical industrial neo-colonialism”. GB also shows some confusion when he speaks of “subsistence” farming and slash and burn.

      Just because many people on the planet “live on less than a dollar a day” and are said to live at a “subsistence” level does not mean that they are “poor” or “starving”. ALL humans lived at the subsistence level in the beginning, and indigenous people by the billions still do so—-having a couple of pigs, some chickens, maybe a cow, hunting, fishing, gathering, growing some vegetables in a garden and maybe some small plots of grain have sustained what we call “agrarians” for millennia, and although they may not have a huge surplus, they typically have enough extra to barter or exchange (hence the “dollar a day” when the small portion of their productivity is monetized). These “subsistence” farmers have always practiced slash and burn to make clearings for small plots, but they are NOT the same as those who burn off huge swaths of rain forest for palm oil plantations, cattle pastures, and industrial farming.

      Jeffy needs to study some history, particularly the enclosure movement that pauperized the folks in Scotland, Ireland, and England, Before then, they “subsisted” adequately by sharing the commons—-afterwards they effectively became serfs, but without the guarantees provided under the old feudal system. Jeffy needs to read Ramp Hollow, a book about how the subsistence farmers of Appalachia were displaced in the 1800’s by the coal and timber interests and turned into wage slaves—a later type of “enclosure”. The book also talks about Jefferson’s concept of the agrarian—considering that Jeffy has usurped his name, he should bone up a bit there. He also needs to study how the farmers of Massachusetts rose up because they though the British wanted to take away their land and rights and how the southern colonies rose up because they thought the British wanted to take away their slaves (which they needed to work the land that they had already usurped from the commons—read Slave Nation).

      Enough for now—don’t want to encourage Jeffy to go off on another rant, so I won’t analyze the many idiocies in his long gallop. Like—“For example, if one has just 4 things—a roof, a bed, clothes in a closet and food in a refrigerator—one has more than 85% of people on Earth have”—-which is one of the dumber things he has proclaimed in his all-knowingness.

  5. indy222 Says:

    Thanks Peter, for stepping into this minefield. I’m always surprised to see how many people who are nominally on the right side of the climate issue, nevertheless are just as dogmatic and tunnel-visioned about their pet agendas. Thanks for adding a venue to puncture the “Cowspiracy” mania. I see a lot of it locally here, and they’re not very interested in the IPCC scientists take on the issue, not if it conflicts with their desire to use cows as another lever in favor of organic, no-till, soil-friendly vegetarianism. I’ve got no problem with organic, no-till, soil-friendly vegetarianism. It’s a great thing and genuinely will help climate too – but I do have a problem with those who will fudge the data to promote it. They are more dangerous to the climate cause than the Big Oil statements, because it gives fence-sitters an excuse to throw up hands and say “EVERYbody lies, I’ll just follow my instincts”.

  6. Gingerbaker Says:

    Yes, Sir Charles, I know.

    What is the main GHG emissions of the U.S.? Answer: CO2

    How much CO2 emissions are attributable directly to livestock? Answer: zero.

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