Livestock Questions and Answers

Why should people act on your article when an agreement may be forthcoming this December in Copenhagen to reverse climate change by reducing fossil fuel?

Because of the high amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the life cycle and supply chain of livestock products, even major progress in reducing fossil fuel use would not eliminate the need to reduce meat and dairy consumption.

Your article recommends meat and dairy analogs, which would be made from crops such as soy and wheat. But isn’t the farming of crops such as soy just as big a problem as meat?

The largest adverse impacts in growing soy and other crops come from the conversion of carbon-absorbing forests and other sensitive habitats in one place or another. But meat and dairy analog projects need much smaller quantities of soy and wheat than those presently grown for meat and dairy projects. Therefore, today’s trend of increasing worldwide soy and wheat production would be stopped if analogs replace meat and dairy products. Already-converted land would be more than enough to supply soy and wheat for analog projects. We recommend against any more forest being converted for the purpose of growing crops – or in fact for any other purpose.

There are already campaigns underway for “Meatless Mondays” and the like. Why wouldn’t they suffice?

Recommending that meat not be eaten one day per week suggests deprivation. This is not how any food product is normally marketed. Consumers tend to act on marketing that pitches for them to buy food that is tasty, economical, easy to prepare, and healthful. When a brand advertiser markets such a product, it normally pitches that the product be eaten all the time. For example, Coca-Cola is not advertised to consumers as a beverage to switch to from Pepsi-Cola once a week, but all week long.

Isn’t methane the key greenhouse gas from livestock – and if so, then why does your article not focus more on methane?

Methane is important, but so are other GHGs. For example, the impact of any CO2 exhaled by livestock may be larger than the same amount of CO2 emitted from any other industry. That’s because other industries emit CO2 with particulates – such as sulfates – believed to have a cooling effect that offsets CO2’s warming effect, while breath has no such particulates. It is also important to focus on emissions attributable to carbon reduction foregone by using land to graze livestock and grow feed. That’s because a foregone reduction of any magnitude has exactly the same effect as an increase in emissions of the same magnitude. More important, carbon reduction available from land used for livestock and feed is the only feasible way to absorb a significant amount of today’s atmospheric carbon in the near term.


Your article suggests that NGOs’ estimate of 50 billion livestock may be more credible than the estimate of 21.7 billion in the FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow. Why should people believe in an NGO estimate over the one contained in Livestock’s Long Shadow?

After our article was submitted for publication, we discovered that the FAO’s own statistical division says that there was 56 billion livestock in 2007.

The article claims that biofuels can substitute for coal. How is that possible?

If more land is used to grow crops for biofuels (which may happen whether or not it is desired), care is needed to have the use of biofuels replace coal usage, rather than become added to it. This is possible to envisage. In the past, biofuels and coal have both contributed to global energy supplies but their fungibility has been limited. However, they have recently become more substitutable for each other, as the capacity for biofuel production has been ramped up in many countries, the construction of new coal-fired power plants has been halted in some countries (including in the U.S.), and cars that can run on either electricity or biofuel – or both – have become increasingly available. This trend of increasing substitutability can be expected to continue.

Why should methane be accounted for under a different timeframe than carbon dioxide?

Each GHG should be accounted for in proportion to the time it survives as a GHG in the atmosphere. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the choice of the timeframe in accounting for different greenhouse gases is a policy decision, not an issue of science. Using a 20-year timeframe for methane is supported by the following IPCC recommendation: If the policy emphasis is to help guard against the possible occurrence of potentially abrupt, non-linear climate responses in the relatively near future, then a choice of a 20-year time horizon would yield an index that is relevant to making such decisions regarding appropriate greenhouse gas abatement strategies. In addition, if the speed of potential climate change is of greatest interest (rather than the eventual magnitude), then a focus on shorter time horizons can be used.

Can’t methane be managed by mitigating it rather than avoiding it?

The livestock sector has reacted to discussions of the climate risks for which it is responsible by stating that it is working on developing new feed for livestock, and on converting manure to biogas. Such efforts would reduce methane emissions. However, developing a new feed is still at the stage of research and development. Even if it moves to implementation, it is likely to be more expensive to grow than present feed, and unlikely to be taken up quickly in many parts of the developing world. While there are already some active projects to convert manure to biogas, even if the number of such projects was dramatically increased, and new feed implemented, these measures can mitigate at most a few percent of GHGs worldwide. If at the same time the number of livestock doubles, as the 2006 FAO report projects, then GHGs from all other aspects of the livestock sector might double, while GHGs from other industries are reduced. This would make the percentage of GHGs attributable to livestock even more unacceptable than it is today.

Why is it important to account for GHGs from cooling meat and dairy products?

The 2006 FAO report excludes GHGs attributable to refrigerants used for livestock products, such as chlorofluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons. Most of these gases have a global warming potential that is hundreds or thousands of times stronger than that of CO2. Much more refrigeration is needed along the supply chain for livestock products than is needed for alternative products.

Why is it important to account for GHGs from cooking meat and dairy products?

The 2006 FAO report excludes GHGs attributable to cooking livestock products. Even with the most efficient cooking methods, meat typically requires cooking at higher temperatures and for longer periods than do meat alternatives. However, meat is often cooked using stoves, barbeques, and street vendors’ facilities, which in developing countries are often fueled by charcoal or kerosene. These methods are widespread and often culturally ingrained, but also highly inefficient and carbon-intensive. They entail periods of heating and cooling for each cooking event, so are even more carbon-intensive per unit of thermal energy used than are coal-fired power plants. Deforestation is often exacerbated by the production of charcoal. Therefore, GHGs from cooking livestock products are significantly higher than those from cooking alternative products.

Why is it important to account for GHGs from waste management related to livestock products?

The 2006 FAO report excludes GHGs attributable to waste management related to livestock products – that is, the distribution and disposal of inevitably large amounts of waste livestock products throughout the wholesale, retail, and consumer food chain. GHGs from the waste management of livestock products are significantly higher than GHGs from the waste management of alternative products. Much more than in alternative products, a large proportion of livestock products becomes waste in the form of bone, fat, and past-the-due-date spoiled products. Some such waste is converted into rendered products, in processes that typically use significant amounts of energy. The FAO report does not make clear whether it accounts for GHGs resulting from that energy usage. The FAO report states explicitly that it does not account for GHGs resulting from the disposal of some livestock waste in waterways, where it kills algae that absorb carbon, as well as other aquatic life that then emits GHGs while rotting. The FAO report states that lack of data makes extrapolating the amount of resulting GHGs impossible. In addition, the FAO report does not account for GHGs emitted from livestock waste disposed of in landfills or incinerators, either of which would emit significant amounts of GHGs.

Why is it important to account for GHGs from livestock byproducts?

The 2006 FAO report excludes GHGs attributable to the production, distribution, and disposal of by-products, such as products made of leather, feathers, skin, and pelage, and their packaging. Processes in the production of these byproducts are responsible for a much higher volume of GHGs than processes in the production of alternatives.

What would be the effects on health and nutrition from replacing livestock products?

Health and nutritional outcomes among consumers would generally be better than from livestock projects, in light of the greater affordability of analogs (while poor malnourished people may not be able to afford meat and dairy products), and in light of the high incidence of obesity and overweight conditions and chronic degenerative diseases linked to livestock products, but not to meat and dairy analogs.

How did you come up with the idea of replacing livestock products with analogs?

Meat and dairy analogs make it easy for people accustomed to eating meat and dairy products to improve on their existing preferences. These analogs enable individuals in (and from) every region of the world to retain their family recipes and cultural traditions in food virtually unchanged.
Many people who partly or fully stop eating livestock products begin by consuming meat and dairy analogs, and most continue to consume them. Many tell of how trying analogs persuaded them that they could replace livestock products in their meals.

A significant measure of success in marketing analogs has already been achieved. Improvements in various attributes of analogs can potentially be achieved, which could help lead to greater success. Dairy consumers regularly see dairy analogs as possible choices side by side with dairy products, while meat consumers do not regularly see meat analogs next to meat products. This may help explain why sales of dairy analogs have increased much faster than sales of meat analogs. For example, sales of soy milk have increased in the U.S. and in some other countries by over 20% per annum in recent years, while the increase in sales of meat analogs has been much smaller.

Many examples exist of analogs being avidly sought by consumers. For example, among foods, margarine is now often preferred over butter. In the apparel and furniture sectors, inexpensive knock-offs generally achieve a much higher volume of sales than the expensive designer versions on which they are based. For the small percentage of consumers unable to consume foods made of soy or gluten, other protein-rich foods are readily available.

Doesn’t chicken have a lower carbon footprint than beef, meaning that replacing beef with chicken would be a good alternative to replacing all meats with analogs?

One conceivable strategy would involve distinguishing between different types of livestock products according to the amount of GHGs for which they are responsible and then substituting livestock products with a smaller GHG footprint for livestock products with a higher GHG footprint. However, this would not be an effective strategy – because each kilogram of every livestock product is responsible for almost the same amount of GHGs. There is little variability between types of livestock when it comes to livestock respiration, land used to grow feed, and most of the other factors discussed in this article, which are responsible for most of the GHGs attributable to livestock products generally. The main factors involving significant variability are enteric fermentation, grazing, and the amount of feed required to produce beef and dairy products. However, the difference that these factors make in total GHGs attributable to beef and dairy products vs. other livestock products is relatively insignificant. Therefore, eating chicken instead of beef (for example) would not result in any appreciable slowing of climate change.

When the FAO estimated that 18% of GHGs worldwide were attributable to livestock, it was perhaps reasonable for them to recommend measures to mitigate emissions rather than broadly avoid them. With the new, much higher estimate in this article, broadly avoiding emissions attributable to livestock becomes critical. It is now possible to understand that the dramatic expansion of the livestock sector in recent decades may imperil humanity and that there may be no way to manage the climate risk of either the food industry or the world at large other than by replacing livestock products with better alternatives.

The 2006 FAO report recommends no action to prevent what it predicts will be a doubling of livestock production within several decades. Yet action seemed warranted five years before the publication of the 2006 FAO report, when in 2001, one of its authors co-authored Livestock Development, a proposed development finance strategy that would “avoid funding” of large-scale livestock projects.

With the estimate of GHGs attributable to livestock made in the previous article, it may be even more important now than when the 2001 Livestock Development report was published for development finance institutions to implement a strategy of not funding large-scale livestock projects. No action to prevent a doubling of livestock production is inconsistent with the commitment to reducing GHGs by signatory nations to the Kyoto Protocol, and with actions being taken in other industries and economic sectors to reduce the GHGs for which they are responsible.


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