Why Global Prosperity Cannot Be Hurt by Methane Emissions From Livestock

Editor’s Note: This is the second article about the role of livestock farming in climate change by Kees Blokland, a noted social entrepreneur and founder of Agriterra, an agri-agency that provides expert advice to farmers and cooperatives. The first article addressed the noted recommendation, “eat less meat”, showing that, as a result of flawed data about land use, it is not the solution to fight climate change that its proponents claim; this new article addresses the role of livestock farming in methane gas emission. 

My article on cattle land use provoked the expected response that I was addressing just one of the critiques of livestock farming. “Debunking that argument does not alter the fact that there are many other disadvantages, such as the emission of methane gas”, argued the critics. “That is an important argument for reducing meat consumption and livestock farming”.

In this article, I want to go over a few more of these arguments and show that they too are only partially valid. For example, I plan to show that the criticized methane emissions can even contribute to the temporary cooling of the earth when they are reduced over time. This reduction in methane buys time to work on solutions for greenhouse gases of fossil origin. Moreover, one should also consider that the nutritional value of meat is so high that it actually works to more than offset the emission of methane and all greenhouse gases in production if one decides that making food healthy is also a worthwhile objective.

Any argument to put livestock farming and meat consumption in perspective always needs to consider that there are other goals that are also worth pursuing, such as increasing prosperity or the food security of the billions of people who still lack it. And this brings us to the political economy of livestock and meat. 

A trend is emerging within the climate movement that makes climate goals so absolute that eventually every new world resident or factory becomes a problem. Meat is becoming the cause of all evil. How did this come about? I also want to go into that.

But livestock produces a lot of methane and greenhouse gases, right?

“All well and good,” the critics say, “there’s a problem with greenhouse gases and livestock, isn’t there?” The climate footprint of beef is indeed very high: 2772 grams of CO2 equivalents per 100 grams of beef. However, that number needs to be qualified: Anne Mottet of the FAO compared the climate impact with the nutritional value of food products, including beef. Beef then has an emission per nutritional value that is comparable to rice or bananas. Not necessarily products that are also under fire from the climate movement. 

Chicken meat has slightly more nutritional value per unit of CO2 emissions. Better and comparable scores are also achieved with fish, pork, and cheese. 

All the above-mentioned products score better than mineral water, red wine or beer where the nutritional value is low, and so the relative CO2 production is high. 

In short, the nutritional value of meat compensates for its climate footprint. Of course, this is only important if feeding the world’s population is also an objective. 

If we want to achieve nutritional targets with the best climate efficiency, then meat is one of the options to cherish. The option becomes more important if we also consider that the land on which the livestock grazes can in many cases be used to produce no other food. However, there are those wedded to extreme positions who see climate as such a transcendent problem that every other objective is subordinated to it. Then Anne Mottet will not help.

Then there is the assumed interchangeability of greenhouse gases. Different gases are converted back to CO2 equivalents to add them up quantitatively, but this does not mean that they also add up qualitatively: Not all gases are the same, their origin matters. A different origin makes the gas different in its action on the environment. 

Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California (Davis), emphasizes that methane from livestock is a different type of gas than CO2. It is a flow gas that does not accumulate in the atmosphere. It will be decomposed after 12 years. 

In that way, it can help to gain time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After twelve years, the amount of methane emitted is equal to the amount destroyed by oxidation if the methane emissions per year remain constant. 

If the sector then succeeds in reducing methane emissions by, let us say, 10 percent or more, it will contribute to the global cooling. Less methane means that the natural carbon cycle is actively drawing on the supply of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Hence the cooling effect. Livestock can therefore also play a part in solving the climate crisis.

What about the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement?

The Paris targets are simply based on total greenhouse gas equivalents. Countries must limit their total emissions. Large, sparsely populated, and underdeveloped countries then have a home game. Small, rich, densely populated countries have a disadvantage. 

In the Netherlands, for example, the construction of houses is being stopped and the livestock population is proposed to be halved, now with the argument of too high nitrogen disposition from livestock farming on nature reserves. The Dutch agricultural sector, which is looked up to abroad, is seen domestically from the urban areas as a business sector that has had its day. Protesting farmers are considered “backward people” who resist the greatest challenge of our time: preventing climate change.

That is strange because the country uses highly productive and environmentally and climate efficient production technologies throughout the economy and certainly does so in agriculture. If people in all countries of the world would live, work and everything would be produced as in the Netherlands, CO2 emissions worldwide would fall to 39% of the current level. Humanity could manage by using 11% of the land area. The rest could become nature again with all the positive consequences for biodiversity. 

Admittedly, it is a simple calculation example. The reality is more complicated and getting there takes time for those other economies to develop to the Dutch level. Many people will have to wrest themselves out of poverty to work and earn like the Dutch. When that happens, the world population will have grown again and will take up more space. Global CO2 emissions would have tripled. Either way, even then, humanity would occupy far less land for agriculture and livestock than it currently does. 

The growth path to a prosperous world takes several decades and is accompanied by new discoveries to limit CO2 emissions. It would already achieve halving current levels of CO2 emission with historical values ​​for the annual increase in climate efficiency.

Recently, the opportunity costs have been introduced in the analysis of the climate impact of food. Hannah Ritchie addressed this in her medium OurWorldInData. So, in addition to direct CO2 emissions from livestock, now we also look at CO2 storage that cannot take place because the land in use is not nature.

Benjamin Houlton’s lab at UC Davis found that grassland already provided more assured CO2 sequestration than forestland, especially if the area is prone to wildfires. This is because the CO2 in grassland is stored underground in the roots, while in forests it is stored in dead leaves. 

Even if we go along with the idea that CO2 storage can only take place in uncultivated land, we only have to look at the graph that Hannah Ritchie herself published about it to see at a glance how much benefit there is to use beef, dairy or to produce chicken meat the Dutch way. The opportunity costs are low, as are the CO2 emissions per kilo of Dutch beef. That has everything to do with intensive livestock farming, which means a lot of meat and little land per animal. Intensive livestock farming saves land that can be used for nature.

So just like in my article on land use, if we look at greenhouse gas emissions, it appears that there are benefits if global agriculture and livestock farming are intensified, productivity and income increase, in short, if there is economic development. 

Added to this are the other benefits mentioned: grassland as an optimal place for carbon sequestration and meat as a great food.

So why all the anti-meat sentiments?

Frédéric Leroy, who has been a professor of food science and biotechnology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel since 2008, has analyzed this question. He reports on his findings on the blog Aleph 2020. There you will find more of Leroy’s arguments, which is fed with information from a consortium of over 40 experts who marvel at how livestock farming has come to be seen in such a bad light.

He shows, inter alia, the complex relationships behind the campaign between people, institutions, industries, and authorities. On one of his Twitter threads on the topic that was criticized for appearing to present a conspiracy theory, he argued that there was no conspiracy. “My whole thread is based on self-declared materials by the main actors involved,” he said. “The reason I wrote this up is because the ideas are profoundly dangerous and because some wish to materialize them in policy.” 

His main criticism focuses on the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, which addresses the question: Can we feed a future population of 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries?

On October 30, 2019, Leroy published on Twitter the figure illustrating the links between institutions: “For people thinking that EAT is a frivolous creation of a wealthy animal activist with wild ideas, buying in the experts she needs: it is not. EAT’s origins go back to Strong’s Stockholm conference & Earth Summit. Same players. Took some decades to bring the machine up to speed.” 

The Stockholm conference took place in 1971, so 50 years ago. Leroy’s publications show how climate considerations gave rise to an argument against livestock farming. Later considerations of animal protection, natural resource management, veganism, and deforestation were added and mixed with the interest of the industry to reduce the costs of processed food. That is how things have gained momentum. 

Ethan Brown, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Beyond Meat, in a publication of the UN Environmental Program UNEP that classifies meat as the ‘most urgent problem’ to tackle, argues: “These four things kept coming back to me: human health, climate change, natural resource, and animal welfare implications of using animals for meat. And what fascinated me is that you can simultaneously tackle all these concerns by simply changing the protein source for meat from animals to plants.”

In my two articles on Impakter I have nuanced the health argument, the climate and the natural resource argument. Yet the movement that sees meat as a problem continues to grow and finds support in the progressive movement. Animal husbandry is seen there as the biggest obstacle in the implementation of climate change mitigation. 

It is true that anti-cattle husbandry and anti-farmer sentiments fit into the left-wing tradition. Since Marx and Lenin, there has been if not active opposition, at least an ambivalent attitude towards the farmers. Distrust because they owned or would claim property if they were to break out of poverty. Yet, at the same time, the farmers were allowed to sacrifice their lives in the Communist revolution and in the Soviet Union.

The modern revolution, i.e. the post-pandemic recovery movement, is being fought under the banner of ‘building back better’. But once again, the ranchers are being sacrificed. Climate targets are made so absolute that a billion poor farmers and their families in developing countries are also deprived of prosperity. 

Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish skeptical environmentalist, insists in his book False Alarm on the contradiction between the huge investments required to contain the rise in temperature and the necessary increase in wealth. With its focus on animal husbandry and the anti-meat campaign, the progressive movement is abandoning the pursuit of broad prosperity in the developing world. And yet climate goals would be best served by economic development and intensification of production, especially in the poor parts of the world.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. In the cover photo: Meat has night nutritional value Source: Museo del Jamòn, Madrid Spain


About the Author /

Kees Blokland has been the founder and managing director of Agriterra since 1997. He worked in the 1980s through the FAO and the Dutch government in Nicaragua. He founded Via Campesina and Banco del Campo. He promoted AgriCord, Agri-ProFocus (Netherlands Food Partnership) and ACODEA (Spain). He was member of the Task Force Rural Africa convened by the commissioners of Agriculture of the EU and AU. He is a graduate from the Free University of Amsterdam in Economic Sciences and Cultural Anthropology. He holds a Ph.D in Social Sciences from the Leiden University Netherlands.

Scroll Up