Protecting California's natural resources and building climate-resilient communities and ecosystems are two of UC ANR's core public values so naturally we are proud to join our colleagues throughout the UC system to promote climate-smart strategies and engage in the UC's Cool Campus Challenge!
Many of the Challenge's actions such as turning off lights or taking public transit are proven through research to reduce carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. However, as scientists within the University of California, we are deeply concerned with the use of inaccurate data in a recent headline from the Challenge: “Globally, meat is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.” I have requested that the UC Cool Campus Challenge officially retract that headline and use the research-based information we provided below.
As reported by the US EPA and verified by many UC scientists, production of livestock in the U.S. contributes less than 4 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, whereas both the energy sector and transportation EACH contribute 28 percent.
In California, all agricultural activities produce just 8 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions; transportation, electricity and industry (e.g. cement) are the largest producers of greenhouse gas, accounting for 80 percent of all emissions. While meat production, even from efficient livestock production systems, does contribute to greenhouse gas production, cows and other ruminants digest many plants inedible to humans and graze lands that otherwise would not produce food – about 26 percent of the planet's landscapes.
Furthermore, in California, a sustainable food system could not exist without livestock. Livestock up-cycle agricultural byproducts from many of California's leading crops and food products, such as almond hulls, tomato pumice, rice bran, cottonseed and distiller's grain (Grasser et al. 1995, Oltjen and Beckett 1996, Sulc et al. 2014). In addition, cattle grazing—the number one land use in California—reduces fire fuel loads by consuming grass and can minimize greenhouse gas emissions from catastrophic wildfires, and also supports habitat for many of California's threatened and endangered species (Bartolome et al. 2014, Germano et al. 2012, Marty 2005, Weiss 1999).
While individuals may choose to eat less meat, research clearly shows that it is too simplistic to suggest that reducing meat consumption is a climate-smart strategy. Even if everyone living in the U.S. became vegan (consuming no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no fish), we would reduce our total GHG emissions by only 2.6 percent (White and Hall 2017). Livestock production systems in our state and throughout the United States are extremely efficient. It takes less energy and other inputs to produce meat and other livestock products in the U.S. than any other place in the world. Much less. For example, the U.S. is the top beef producer in the world, but direct GHG emissions from U.S. cattle are less than half that of the next highest producer, Brazil, which has twice as many cattle (USDA Foreign Agricultural Service).
UC's own researchers have conducted and continue to conduct peer-reviewed projects that lead to more efficient livestock-production systems—where GHG emissions can be minimized and livestock can better contribute to sequestering carbon on grazed lands (DeLonge et al. 2014, Byrnes et al. 2018) and using leftovers from production of a plant-based diet (Mottet et al. 2017). In fact, UC ANR is proud to work with California Department of Food and Agriculture on projects that support climate-smart agriculture, including livestock grazing, in California.
We should all strive to reduce our environmental impact on the planet by making climate-friendly choices, by applying research-based knowledge to understand where our choices make a real difference. UC ANR looks forward to working with UCOP, and the entire UC system, to improve understanding of the role of agriculture as both a contributor and part of the solution to GHG emissions. Along with this effort, we will constantly remind our stakeholders and partners to base their decisions and communications on the best available science.
If you'd like further information on UC ANR research related to climate change, check out the article in Western Farm Press: University of California leads climate change awareness. More details can be found in Climate Change Trends and Impacts on California Agriculture: A Detailed Review led by Tapan Pathak, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in climate adaptation in agriculture, with contributions from several other UC ANR academics.
As always, many thanks for all that you do!
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