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Jumping to conclusions on global warming

Few topics have evoked as much comment as a UN Food and Agriculture Organization study that claimed meat production is responsible for 18 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the world.

The 2006 study brought down a hailstorm of derision from columnists, commentators and bloggers who had a field day ridiculing attempts to measure cow flatulence and to impose cow taxes and “meatless” Mondays.

So it was no surprise when many of those latched on to a report quoting Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a University of California Davis animal scientist, saying the UN study was flawed. Mitloehner’s comments quickly shot around the media world.

“Meat, dairy diet not tied to global warming.” “Do critics of UN meat report have a beef with transparency?” “Now it’s cowgate: expert report says claims of livestock causing global warming are false,” were some of the headlines that resulted.

The problem is that if you read portions of the paper published by Mitloehner and two associates at UC Davis and a university press release you find that’s not what the authors said.

Mitloehner’s main concern: The United Nations FAO report did not compare apples to apples in finding that meat production is responsible for more greenhouse-gas emissions globally than the transportation industry.

The authors of the UN report prepared a “life cycle analysis” of the livestock industry, calculating the impact of emissions from pasture to plate, but only considered the emissions from fossil-fuel combustion from driving in the transportation industry.

“This lopsided ‘analysis’ — that did not measure emissions from well to wheel — is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue,” said Mitloehner

The air quality expert did say he believes efforts like the campaign launched by music star Paul McCartney and the chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called “Less Meat = Less Heat” are misguided.

“Smarter animal farming, not less farming, will equal less heat,” he said. “Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries.”

But some pundits have taken Mitloehner’s comments too far, according to an interview in the Columbia Journalism Review. “I didn’t say there is no reduction in greenhouse gases associated with animal protein consumption, but that it is a relatively small contribution and that consumers can do other things that have greater impact on this.”

The world needs to pay more heed to scientists who are systematically trying to get to the bottom of global warming, but it needs to hear what they’re saying and not grab at the first politically expedient comment that comes to mind.

(The UC Davis press release notes the researchers received a grant from the Beef checkoff program to complete the study.)


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