by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Climate change

Nov 19 2021

Weekend reading: in defense of eating beef

Nicolette Hahn Niman.  Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat (revized and expanded second edition). Chelsea Green, 2021. 

The Defending Beef cover

This is an updated edition of Hahn Niman’s 2014 book, which I wrote about in October that year.  Then, it was titled Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.

I did a blurb for the book when it first came out and it still holds for this new edition:

Issues related to the long-term health effects of red meat, saturated fat, sugar, and grains are complex and I see the jury as still out on many of them.  While waiting for the science to be resolved, Hahn Niman’s book is well worth reading for its forceful defense of the role of ruminant animals in sustainable food systems.

In my 2014 post, I said:

The subtitle says it all: “The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher.”

Really?

Really.  She’s not kidding.

As [my blurb] might suggest, I have a more cautious interpretation of the science she summarizes, but there are plenty of reasons why eating meat can help improve human nutrition, especially when the animals are raised as humanely and sustainably as possible, which the Nimans most definitely do on their beautiful Bolinas ranch. [Photos are here]

Vegetarians: does she convince you?

Let the debates begin.

Well, 7 years later the new edition focuses much more on arguments about the effects of beef production on climate change and whether plant-based meat alternatives are worth the trouble.

The big news:  Hahn Niman is no longer a vegetarian.

I may once have believed that if I followed a vegetarian diet, nothing would have to die for my meals.  I now see how wrong I was…My primary mission these past two decades has been helping, in whatever ways I can, build a more environmentally sound, nourishing and humane food system.  We have a long way to go.  I don’t urge people to eat meat.  But I certainly don’t urge refraining from it, either.  I encourage omnivorous eaters to seek well-raised meat.  Abandoning meat will not positively affect the food system and may diminish one’s health.  The greatest consumer impact will come from people who eat meat actually buying it from good sources. (p.244)

I am with her on all of that.

That meat has nutritional and ecological benefits is beyond dispute.  This books lays out her point of view about the reasons for these benefits in an especially thoughtful way that carefully considers the counter-arguments.

Whether you agree with her views or not, this is the book to read about these issues.

Oct 15 2021

Weekend reading: USDA’s action plans for climate change

Agriculture and climate change interact in two ways: (a) agriculture contributes to climate change, and  (b) climate change affects agriculture.

In May, USDA published its plan to address (a): “Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Strategy: 90-Day Progress Report.”

Secretary Vilsack explains:

We will look across climate science and research, forest health, outreach and education, existing programs, and new and emerging markets to advance climate-smart agriculture and forestry..Equity and justice will play a guiding role in our work…We will also prioritize actions that provide tangible, near-term benefts for low-income communities and communities of color.   I am confdent that in partnership with our country’s agriculture and forestry stakeholders, we can develop a strategy that is a win-win for our producers in building climate resilience, mitigating emissions, and conserving our natural resources.

Now the USDA has just issued its plan to address (b), formitigating the effects of climate change on agriculture.

USDA Secretary Vilsack explains:

As the “People’s Department,” USDA is preparing to help communities across the United States, both rural and urban, plan for and build resilience to the impacts of climate change.

People’s Department?  If only.

USDA’s strategy to help farmers deal with climate change will involve:

  • Investing in soil and forest health
  • Improving communication and accessibility on climate-smart strategies
  • Making climate data more broadly available
  • Increasing research
  • Leveraging the USDA Climate Hubs, USDA’s regional networks for helping farmers adapt to climate change

These reports are densely written and require much reading between the lines to figure out what USDA is really going to do and whether its actions have any hope of succeeding.

Let’s hope they do.

Sep 15 2021

Midweek reading: The Meat Atlas

Take a look at this.

The authors write:

It is clear that many (especially young) people no longer want to accept the profit-driven damage caused by the meat industry and are increasingly interested in and committed to climate, sustainability, animal welfare and food sovereignty causes. We consider this an encouraging step for our future and want to use this Atlas to strengthen their commitment with information.

This Atlas is intended to support all those who seek climate justice and food sovereignty, and who want to protect nature. Revealing new data and facts, and providing links between various key issues, it is a crucial contribution to the work done by many to shed light on the problems arising from industrial meat production.

They aren’t kidding about data, facts, and issues.  The graphics alone are worth viewing.  Three examples.

Pesticide applications, global:

Diseases transmitted by animals to humans: A chronological list

Trends and investment in plant-based meat alternatives

And here’s what The Guardian highlights: meat and dairy firms emit more greenhouse gases than Germany, Britain, or France.

 

Sep 3 2021

Weekend reading: food and climate change

I recently ran across this useful website: Climate Change Resources, with live links to each of these sections.

But it also has a general section on the impact of food production and consumption, with ideas about what to think about:

It also links to the World Resources Institute’s How to sustainably feed 10 billion people by 2050, in 21 charts.

This, in turn comes from a WRI report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050.

We have plenty of work to do.  And here are plenty of ideas about where to start.

Aug 24 2021

How much do cattle contribute to greenhouse gases?  It depends on who’s counting, and what.

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about a beef industry ad promoting the idea that eating beef promotes sustainability.  The ad claimed that beef contribute only 2% of greenhouse gases.  In rebuttal, I cited the widely quoted figure of 14.5%.

Two readers argued for a correction.

The first, Stephen Zwick, describes himself as a “regenetarianist,” a “huge soil nerd,” and independent of industry interests.  He sent lengthy and highly technical notes.  These, in my interpretation, boil down to:

He says:

Enteric methane is a distraction. Poor land management destroying soil sinks and reducing photosynthesis via desertification, deforestation and ocean acidification are also a huge problem. And yes, cattle and palm oil are part of the problem in tropical regions (see The Deforestation Process... )…Cattle is a very conspicuous driver, though it’s not really the primary driver. Human greed is…So, in other words, we need better regional and system data, and we can’t really make universal claims.

The second set of comments comes from Greg Miller, the chief science officer of the National Dairy Council.

While FAO estimates livestock emissions at 14.5% based on LCA [life cycle assessment], the emissions from transportation are only from the tailpipes (not LCA), so comparing apples and bananas – FAO did this, but later retracted because it is an inappropriate comparison, that now keeps getting repeated, thought you should know.

He cites this source on greenhouse gas emissions from the dairy sector:

And he cites this reference:  Recht, L. 2021 An Inclusive Transition to a Sustainable and Resilient Meat Sector, which talks about how to raise cattle sustainably.

How to make sense of this?

The percentage of greenhouse gases due to animal agriculture depends on who is doing the counting, and what factors and assumptions go into the estimations.  Low estimates predictably come from the beef and dairy industries (Stephen Zwick does not, which is why I am quoting him).  The Environmental Protection Agency also produces low estimates: 1.3% of total emissions for dairies.

In contrast, the Humane Society uses 18% (referring to carbon dioxide equivalents), as does Cowspiracy.

A new paper in Sustainability argues that the correct estimate is 16.5%.

It matters whether we are talking about carbon dioxide or methane.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends “strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 [methane] emissions” and notes that the growth in atmospheric methane is “largely driven by emissions from the fossil fuels and agriculture (dominated by livestock) sectors.”

I was interested to see yesterday’s Politico, which had a report about the current politics of methane emissions. (behind a paywall).  It notes:

While oil and gas production is the main reason methane emissions have boomed since 2007, agriculture (namely livestock operations) remains a massive source of the potent greenhouse gas, accounting for 40 percent of methane emissions worldwide. ..Senate Democrats plan to include a “methane polluter fee” in their $3.5 trillion budget resolution that would hit energy producers that vent or burn off excess methane and compressors used to pressurize and transport natural gas.

The precise percentage contributed by animal agriculture?  I’m not sure it matters.  Everyone agrees that cattle produce more greenhouse gases than produced by any other food (as a result of burps, deforestation, feed production, manure, etc).

Raising cattle more sustainably and regeneratively is a really good idea.

That’s where policy needs to be directed.

Aug 16 2021

Least credible ad of the week: “Beefing Up Sustainability”


My colleague, Lisa Young, forwarded this ad to me from the weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

In case it’s too small for you to read, the ad makes some eyebrow-raising points:

  • “If all U.S. livestock were eliminated and every American followed a vegan diet, greenhouse gas emissions 0would only be reduced by 2%, or 0.36% globally.”
  • “Plus, cattle play an important role in protecting and enhancing our ecosystems by increasing carbon storage, improving soil health, mitigating wildfires, and providing habitat for wildlife.”
  • “We all play a role in a more sustainable future, but eliminating beef is not the answer.”

This, in case it is not instantaneously obvious, is part of the beef industry’s well documented effort to fight concerns about the well documented role of beef production in climate change.

The ad is paid for by the Beef Checkoff, one of the USDA-sponsored marketing and promotion programs funded by what is essentially a tax—the “checkoff”—on producers.  I recently wrote about how the Beef Checkoff funds research in this industry’s interest.

The ad cites research studies supporting its statements, but these are cherry-picked.

Estimates of the percent of greenhouse gases contributed by lifestock production vary, but the most widely accepted range from 14% to 18%.  Beef accounts for at least 10%.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, for example, says:

Total emissions from global livestock: 7.1 Gigatonnes of Co2-equiv per year, representing 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic GHG emissions…Cattle (raised for both beef and milk, as well as for inedible outputs like manure and draft power) are the animal species responsible for the most emissions, representing about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions…feed production and processing (this includes land use change) and enteric fermentation from ruminants are the two main sources of emissions, representing 45 and 39 percent of total emissions, respectively.

The New York Times describes foods that have the largest  impact on climate change.

Meat and dairy, particularly from cows, have an outsize impact, with livestock accounting for around 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases each year. That’s roughly the same amount as the emissions from all the cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined in the world today.

In general, beef and lamb have the biggest climate footprint per gram of protein, while plant-based foods tend to have the smallest impact. Pork and chicken are somewhere in the middle.

A study published in Science calculated the average greenhouse gas emissions associated with different foods.  The New York Times summarizes its results:

Beef production creates emissions of methane as well as carbon dioxide from multiple sources: feed production, cow burps, manure production, etc.

Beef production that involves grazing on grasslands could meet sustainability goals, but beef cattle raised in feedlots cannot.

There are plenty of environmental reasons for eating less beef, and these are on top of health reasons.

The Beef Checkoff ad does not tell the whole story, alas.

Addition

Lisa reminds me that the cost of a full-page color ad in the Wall Street Journal runs around $200,000.

May 25 2021

Biden’s USDA looks like it is doing plenty about climate change

I got a press release from the USDA last week: USDA Releases 90-Day Progress Report on Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today published the 90-Day Progress Report on Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry.

The report represents an important step toward in President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad and shift towards a whole-of-department approach to climate solutions. The Order, signed January 27, states that, “America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.”

This report is the result of a presidential executive order in January requiring the USDA to say how it plans to promote climate-friendly agriculture.  It pretty much summarizes what the USDA has been doing and intends to do more of in the future.

Actually, the USDA has a lot to say about climate change.  It just wasn’t allowed to, at least publicly, during the previous administration.

For example, the USDA published Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry in May 2016.

The agency has web pages devoted to climate-change topics; each of these comes with additional pages on sub-heading topics.

It looks to me as though this agency is taking a lead role on climate change, at least in some ways.

But what about meat?  Politico notes that the Biden administration is keeping hands off that issue.

President Joe Biden is not going to ban red meat. In fact, his administration isn’t doing much to confront the flow of harmful greenhouse gases from the very big business of animal agriculture.

The Agriculture Department’s newly published “climate-smart agriculture and forestry” outline says almost nothing about how Biden aims to curb methane emissions from livestock operations. But environmentalists argue that any effort to shrink the farm industry’s climate footprint is half-baked if it relies on voluntary efforts and doesn’t address America’s system of meat production.

May 3 2021

Industry policy influence of the week: meat and dairy vs. climate change

Thanks to Sinead Boylan in Australia for alerting me to this paper about the influence of the meat and dairy industries on climate change policy.  The authors are Environmental Science colleagues at NYU.

The Study: The climate responsibilities of industrial meat and dairy producers.  Oliver Lazarus & Sonali McDermid & Jennifer Jacquet.  Climatic Change (2021) 165:30.

Method: The authors examined the role of 35 of the world’s largest meat and dairy companies in actions related to preventing climate change. But in particular, it investigated “the transparency of emissions reporting, mitigation commitments, and influence on public opinion and politics of the 10 US meat and dairy companies.”

Its overall conclusion: “all 10 US companies have contributed to efforts to undermine climate-related policies.”

Through a questionnaire, it found (these are direct quotes):

  • All 10 US companies have contributed to research that minimizes the link between animal agriculture and climate change (Q11). Three companies—Tyson, Cargill, and Smithfield—have contributed directly to what Brulle (2014) called “climate change countermovement organizations” or organizations that have minimized the link between agriculture and climate change (Q13).
  • Four companies—Tyson, National Beef, Smithfield, and Hormel—have each made statements linking climate change regulation with potentially harming their profitability, either in an SEC form or in an annual report (Q17…).

Through researching OpenSecrets

  • Nine of the 10 companies have spent at least $600,000 on lobbying activities since 2000, with five of those companies spending over $14 million each…Tyson has spent the most on lobbying—$25 million—over the last two decades.
  • Cargill has spent $21.5 million; Smithfield Foods, $21 million; Dean Foods, $16 million; and Dairy Farmers of America, $14 million….
  • Combined, the companies have spent a total of $109 million on lobbying activities since 2000.
  • The other nine US-based companies [the tenth, Koch Foods, did not report] have spent a combined $26 million on political campaigns since 2000.
  • Dairy Farmers of America has spent the most, at $6.3 million since 2000. California Dairies has spent $5 million; Dean Foods, $4.3 million; Cargill, $4 million; and Tyson, $3.2 million.
  • Since 2000, Tyson has spent more on Republican candidates in every election cycle but one, and a similar pattern was observed for most of the companies examined here.
  • US meat and dairy companies act collectively…Together, six of these [trade] groups—the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the International Dairy Foods Association, and the combined expenses of the American Farm Bureau Federation and its state groups—have spent nearly $200 million in lobbying since 2000, lobbying yearly on climate related issues like cap-and-trade, the Clean Air Act, and greenhouse gas regulations and reporting rules.
  • A recent sustainability report published by the US pork industry noted that “pork production contributes just 0.46% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere” (Pork Checkoff 2020).
  • In 2019, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association published a 21-part series, “Tough Questions About Beef Sustainability,” that, among other things, claims US beef production accounted for just 1.9% of total US emissions in 2014 (Beef Research 2019)

Their analysis also suggests: “the level of influence generally corresponded with emissions. Tyson, for example, is the largest emitter of the 10 US companies.  Tyson received the highest total influence score in response to our 20 questions at 15, tied with National Beef Packing Company, the fourth highest emitter.”

Overall: “In the case of the USA, our analysis provides evidence to suggest that the 10 largest meat and dairy companies have worked to frame the conversation, influence climate-related policies, and minimize the link between animal agriculture and climate change.”

Comment: This issue matters because animal agriculture is estimated to contribute 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions.  This, and industry behavior around this issue, is a reason why sustainability needs to be part of Dietary Guidelines, and “eat less meat” is good dietary advice for people in industrialized economies.