The University of California and VOX Media have been producing a video series this past year that explores issues related to global climate change and UC's work to mitigate its effects. Previous episodes have examined food waste, nuclear power, goods movement and more. Episode 8, “The diet that helps fight climate change,” compares the greenhouse gas emissions of livestock and transportation globally, using some statistics that have been questioned by our UCCE scientists.
Data – and the way in which it is presented – matters a great deal. Although the video stresses moderation and doesn't explicitly urge consumers to go vegan, it states that if the world was to reduce its meat consumption, that decision alone could offset the emissions from a billion cars on the road by 2050. For the U.S., however, this contention is misleading, as the impact would be considerably smaller.
It's true that livestock emit methane and nearly all aspects of agriculture have a carbon footprint; however, U.S. animal agriculture is much more efficient than in other parts of the world. In the U.S., livestock are responsible for 3.8 percent of GHG emissions while transportation accounts for 26.4 percent, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. In California, 5.4 percent of GHG emissions are attributed to livestock and 37 percent to transportation, according to the California Air Resources Board.
While it is vital that scientists in UC ANR, and elsewhere, assist ranchers to continue diminishing the carbon hoofprint, it is also important to recognize that meat can serve as a high-quality protein source as part of a nutritious diet. The VOX video does note that not all livestock is raised equally, and that rangeland can be used to sequester carbon, but it neglects to mention that grazing cows also provide numerous ecosystem services, such as eating plants that could fuel wildfires and crowd out native wildflowers.
It should also be noted how livestock fit into the larger food system picture. Almost 60 percent of the world's agricultural land is grazing land and is unsuitable for producing crops. Ruminants serve a valuable role in the food system by converting the forages humans cannot consume into a nutrient-dense food.
UC ANR advisors and specialists continuously strive to improve livestock production practices; however, that is only one of many approaches we need to pursue to solve the challenges of climate change. Time, research and money should be invested where they will produce the most benefit for society. Encouraging people to focus on livestock, rather than on much larger sources of GHG emissions, can lead to policies that slow our efforts to develop more effective climate change solutions.
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