Frank Mitloehner, UC
Davis: Cows Not to Blame for Climate Change
March 24, 2010
oft-repeated claims by sources ranging from the United Nations to music
star Paul McCartney, it is simply not true that consuming less meat and
dairy products will help stop climate change, says a University of
California authority on farming and greenhouse gases.
UC Davis associate professor and air quality specialist Frank Mitloehner
says that McCartney and the chair of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change ignored science last week when they launched a
European campaign called "Less Meat = Less Heat." The launch came on the
eve of a major international climate summit, which runs through Dec. 18
McCartney and others, such as the promoters of "meatless Mondays," seem
to be well-intentioned but not well-schooled in the complex
relationships among human activities, animal digestion, food production
and atmospheric chemistry, says Mitloehner.
"Smarter animal farming, not less farming, will equal less heat,"
Mitloehner said. "Producing less meat and milk will only mean more
hunger in poor countries."
Mitloehner traces much of the public confusion over meat and milk's role
in climate change to two sentences in a 2006 United Nations report,
titled "Livestock's Long Shadow." Printed only in the report's executive
summary and nowhere in the body of the report, the sentences read: “The
livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of
greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents).
This is a higher share than transport."
These statements are not accurate, yet their wide distribution through
news media have put us on the wrong path toward solutions, Mitloehner
"We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by
consuming less meat and milk.
"Rather, in developed countries, we should focus on cutting our use of
oil and coal for electricity, heating and vehicle fuels."
Mitloehner said leading authorities agree that, in the U.S., raising
cattle and pigs for food accounts for about 3 percent of all greenhouse
gas emissions, while transportation creates an estimated 26 percent.
"In developing countries, we should adopt more efficient, Western-style
farming practices, to make more food with less greenhouse gas
production," Mitloehner continued. In this he agrees with the conclusion
of "Livestock's Long Shadow," which calls for "replacing current
suboptimal production with advanced production methods — at every step
from feed production, through livestock production and processing, to
distribution and marketing.”
"The developed world's efforts should focus not on reducing meat and
milk consumption," said Mitloehner, "but rather on increasing efficient
meat production in developing countries, where growing populations need
more nutritious food."
Mitloehner particularly objects to the U.N.'s statement that livestock
account for more greenhouse gases than transportation, when there is no
generally accepted global breakdown of gas production by industrial
He notes that "Livestock's Long Shadow" produced its numbers for the
livestock sector by adding up emissions from farm to table, including
the gases produced by growing animal feed; animals' digestive emissions;
and processing meat and milk into foods. But its transportation analysis
did not similarly add up emissions from well to wheel; instead, it
considered only emissions from fossil fuels burned while driving.
lopsided 'analysis' is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly
confused the issue," Mitloehner said.
Most of Mitloehner's analysis is presented in a recent study titled
"Clearing the Air: Livestock's Contributions to Climate Change,"
published in October in the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Agronomy.
Co-authors of the paper are UC Davis researchers Maurice Piteskey and
"Clearing the Air" is a synthesis of research by the UC Davis authors
and many other institutions, including the U.N. Food and Agriculture
Organization, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of
Agriculture, California Environmental Protection Agency and the
California Air Resources Board. Writing the synthesis was supported by a
$26,000 research grant from the Beef Checkoff Program, which funds
research and other activities, including promotion and consumer
education, through fees on beef producers in the U.S.
Since 2002, Mitloehner has received $5 million in research funding, with
5 percent of the total from agricultural commodities groups, such as