Meat-eaters aren't causing climate change, UN admits
Vegetarians less smug after scientist points out cow farts are not as destructive as they thought
The UN has retracted yet another of its headline-grabbing claims about climate change after a scientist criticised the assertion that producing meat creates higher carbon emissions than transport.
The claim was used in campaigns and a UK government report on the economics of climate change by Lord Stern to persuade people to stop eating meat in order to combat global warming.
The UN body responsible for the error this time is not the much-criticised Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (currently in the dog-house for sexed-up claims about vanishing glaciers and the extent of flooding in the Netherlands), but the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Its 2006 report, Livestock's Long Shadow, claimed: "The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents). This is a higher share than transport." The figure for transport was quoted at 13 per cent.
Vegetarian rocker Paul McCartney and IPCC head Dr Rajendra Pachauri duly spoke at a European Parliament hearing in December 2009 entitled: Global Warming and Food Policy: Less Meat = Less Heat. They encouraged people to eat less meat to make a personal contribution to the fight against climate change.
McCartney and his supporters already faced criticism from people concerned at the one-size-fits-all nature of the campaign. For example, in marginal environments, such as the Arctic Circle and semi-arid regions, meat or fish are the only realistic way for people to obtain enough protein to avoid being malnourished.
But this week, air quality scientist Frank Mitloehner criticised the methodology of the FAO report. He said that while the figure for meat production included emissions from all associated activities, such as growing fodder, methane from farting cows and meat processing, the figure for transportation only included emissions from the burning of fuel - ignoring carbon produced by the manufacture of vehicles or building of roads etc...
He says transportation actually contributes 26 per cent of carbon emissions in the US, while raising pork and beef are only responsible for three per cent.
"We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by consuming less meat and milk," said Mitloehner, of the University of California, Davis. "Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries.
"The developed world should focus on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries where growing populations need more nutritious food. In developing countries, we should adopt more efficient, Western-style farming practices to make more food with less greenhouse gas production."
Pierre Gerber, one of the authors of Livestock's Long Shadow, admitted to the BBC: "He [Mitloehner] has a point - we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn't do the same thing with transport."
The FAO is reviewing its findings and will have a revised figure by the end of the year. Until then, evangelical vegetarians will have to fall back on the old 'red meat gives you bowel cancer' argument. ·
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