More Meat, More Problems: The Relationship of Livestock Production and Diet on Climate Change and Potential Mitigation
by Christopher Hyner, Staff Contributor
Livestock production’s contribution to climate change is significant. Some say livestock production and related activities account for 51% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions while many others downplay its contribution to 18% (which is still greater than emissions from the transportation sector).
In the 2009 report, Livestock and Climate Change, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang claim that it is indeed the life cycle and supply chain of animals raised for food that are the leading human-causes of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, they attempt to show that efforts to reduce human consumption of meat, dairy, and egg products are a more effective strategy of mitigating climate change than the more mainstream approach of reducing the burning of fossil fuels and replacing it with clean renewable energy (This is not to say that pursuing clean renewable energy is not worthwhile, rather, doing so on an individual level to achieve climate change mitigation is much more difficult when compared to widespread policy change).
One area of livestock production Goodland and Anhang draw attention to are changes in land use. With the ever-increasing demand for livestock products, natural forests are being routinely destroyed to form grasslands and create space for livestock and feed crops. Carbon storage of forests is dramatically decreased when forests are converted to degraded grassland. Specifically in developing countries where growth for livestock products is greatest, while rainforests normally store at minimum 200 tons of carbon per hectare (not taking into account the roughly equal amount stored in the soil), the amount of carbon storage is reduced to 8 tons of carbon per hectare when razed to make way for livestock. As a matter of perspective, each hectare of grazing land supports on average no more than one head of cattle. It is argued by Goodland and Anhang that if a significant amount of land used for grazing livestock and growing feed were reclaimed and left to regenerate as forest, it could potentially mitigate as much as half of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases.
This mitigation potential is possible, but not solely by relying on current climate negotiations. Goodland and Anhang argue that because of the urgency in slowing climate change, direct change in the industry will be more effective than recommending changes in policy to governments – that is, influencing consumer behavior, particularly in countries where demand for livestock products is greatest, by informing individuals about the impacts of consuming livestock products. This will play an even greater role in adaptation efforts as the effects of climate change become more intense.
“Because of the urgency in slowing climate change, direct change in the industry will be more effective than recommending changes in policy to governments”
State actors have a major role to play. But instead of focusing solely on commitments and efforts to reduce emissions as a result of energy use, focus must be placed on ways to incorporate changes in livestock production – specifically on land use. One might suggest that this is possible by overhauling the Kyoto Protocol (or any subsequent agreement resulting from the upcoming Paris talks in 2015) and adding in an enhanced version of its land use provision. A major facet of the Protocol that has received little attention in ongoing climate negotiations is compensating for emissions by increasing the number of a country’s carbon sinks. Otherwise known as Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (“LULUCF”), LULUCF is said to account for roughly 36% of livestock production’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Article 3.3 and 3.4 of the Kyoto Protocol allows the net change in carbon stocks and greenhouse gas emissions by sources and removals by sinks resulting from direct human-induced land-use change and forestry activities to be counted in order to meet emissions reduction commitments. Exactly how livestock production practices and LULUCF carbon accounting can be integrated is still being deliberated.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its 2013 report, Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock, places emphasis on livestock production’s impact on climate change and may offer several approaches. The FAO focuses mainly on the importance of new technologies’ potential for generating a more efficient livestock industry and financial incentives to adopt such mitigation technologies and practices. Additionally, the report acknowledges that reducing land-use changes and improving grazing management practices in grasslands can contribute to mitigation via carbon sequestration. In applying these mitigation strategies, countries could account for these reductions under a modified LULUCF provision that includes the major livestock producing countries.
“Reducing land-use changes and improving grazing management practices in grasslands can contribute to mitigation via carbon sequestration.”
Although important, relying only on the FAO’s mitigation recommendations or other similar mitigation strategies is not enough to resolve the conflict between livestock production and climate change. Dietary changes with the support of these and other mitigation efforts can, however, dramatically reduce livestock production’s contribution to climate change, and thus, eliminate a significant amount of anthropogenic impacts. Interestingly, the FAO in its report also includes market friction instruments (e.g. labeling schemes) as a way to help consumers and producers better align their consumption and production preferences with the emission profiles of livestock products. This may be a subtle nod to the point that Goodland and Anhang (and others) raise – that if we really want to mitigate climate change, we can do so on an individual level by changing our dietary choices. In other words, if we are informed about the relationship between what we eat and the planet, we might choose to eat in a way (e.g. eating a plant-based diet) that can radically decrease the impacts of climate change.
Ultimately, rather than only negotiating overly complicated climate policy changes, influencing consumer behavior and encouraging individual efforts can be a more effective strategy. If we do not make these dietary choices on our own, we may be forced to adapt as the harmful effects of climate change threaten livestock production in turn.