By Tom Collins
OTTAWA — “Cow farting” was recently back in the news and its negative odour is still lingering.
New York state Democrat representative and socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez launched the proposed Green New Deal back in February to promote clean energy programs and her website announced the following shocker: “We set a goal to get to net zero, rather than zero emission, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.”
That blew up in her face and the inference to banning cows and airplanes was removed.
However, the poor cow suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for weeks. The truth about cows and their greenhouse gas emissions are often oversimplified and misconstrued, said an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa.
Activists like to say that livestock produce more greenhouse gases than exhaust from all cars, trucks, planes and every other mode of transportation combined. But that’s a myth.
Political studies assistant professor Ryan Katz-Rosene — who has written papers on this topic — said much of the misinformation comes from an oft-quoted 2006 study from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). That study said livestock was responsible for 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, a higher number than transportation.
However, the study was flawed. The authors considered the entire life cycle of livestock (including feed production, fertilizer production, converting forests to pastures and transportation of the meat), but for transportation, only looked at vehicle exhaust and not the entire life cycle, such as manufacturing cars and car parts.
That incorrect information is still being quoted today, despite the fact the senior author of the study has even corrected it.
Updated FAO statistics say that 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse emissions comes from the livestock sector, which still takes into account the entire life cycle. While the FAO says feed production is the main source of emissions, many news stories only blame livestock flatulence and burps.
However, the numbers aren’t as bad in developed countries. The United States Environmental Protection Agency says 28.9 per cent of greenhouse gases in the U.S. in 2017 came from transportation, 27.5 per cent came from electricity production, 22.2 per cent came from industry, 11.6 per cent from commercial and residential buildings, and 9 per cent from agriculture. Of that 9 per cent, only one-third came from livestock emissions. In other words, three per cent of carbon dioxide produced by the United States is produced by all livestock. According to the International Energy Agency, only 0.52 per cent of worldwide total emissions in 2017 came from U.S. livestock and it’s still being debated if even all of the world’s emissions are having any significant effect on climate.
While activists would like to have society believe the planet would be better off if we got rid of animal agriculture, science doesn’t back it up. A 2017 study found that if the entire U.S. population went vegan, it would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6 per cent.
Katz-Rosene also pointed out that we get a lot of non-food products from animals (such as wool from sheep) that would need to be replaced.
“We can’t just assume that getting rid of animal agriculture would reduce emissions by (14.5 per cent). It wouldn’t,” he said. “The notion that we need to phase out animal agriculture is completely unrealistic.”
Katz-Rosene, who has a small organic farm in Quebec, added that: “Methane from ruminants is a problem in terms of scale because we have so many livestock. There is a fair case to be made that the number of ruminants and livestock exceeds the capacity of the earth right now. That’s not to say we need to go zero, cold turkey. We really need to think critically about the amount of meat and livestock we have in the world, but we also need to recognize the really important role that livestock and meat play in the world, in the economy, in nutrition, in food security.”
Katz-Rosene said farmers can combat the misinformation by explaining the value of their livestock to agricultural landscapes, such as how well-managed pasture land has a high level of biodiversity, how soil plays an important role in sequestering carbon in a well-managed agricultural system with livestock, and that farmers are a key demographic to combat climate change and biodiversity loss.
“Explain not just the economic value, but what is the role that ruminants play in upcycling food,” he said. “They can eat materials that are inedible to humans. That’s an important upcycling role, because they turn fibrous materials we can’t get any nutrition from as humans into really highly nutritious meats.”