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Less meat, less heat?

Emissions

Cow heard

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Greenhouse gas emissions from meat and dairy production may not be as bad compared to other industries as previously thought, according to new research.

The findings contradict a 2006 report from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which suggested that livestock emissions account for approximately 18 per cent of global emissions -higher than the transportation sector. Since then, this comparison has been used to inform public policy and meatless-campaigns across the globe, like Europe's "Less Meat = Less Heat", which launched in 2009.

The new peer-reviewed report, partially funded by agricultural groups and presented recently at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in California, points out a discrepancy in the FAO's emissions assessment. Livestock figures were tallied from the entire lifecycle of the animals, including emissions from feed production, animal waste, and farm-related transportation and deforestation. Meanwhile, the numbers for transportation did not take this cradle-to-grave approach, leaving out emissions from oil drilling, for example.

"The United Nations did a great job of characterising the lifecycle contributions of livestock", said Frank Mitloehner, an air quality expert from the University of California, Davis and lead author on the report. "The problem is, they compared that lifecycle assessment of livestock only with the direct emissions from transportation."

Uneven spread

While Mitloehner agrees that the UN's 18 per cent figure could be an accurate representation of the global livestock contribution, he points out that the geographical distribution for the emissions is uneven.

In some areas - Brazil and Uruguay, for example - large swathes of land are cleared of trees in order to raise cattle, which could increase the livestock carbon footprint there to 40 or 50 per cent, he said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, livestock contributes just 3 per cent in the US (partly because the transportation industry dwarfs livestock in that country) and in Australia the figure is 11 per cent, according to the Department of Climate Change.

Mitloehner suggested a more tailored approach to curbing emissions. Cutting down on meat or dairy consumption "would have some impact, just like changing any other human activity," he said. But, changing other habits, like getting rid of the car, could have a greater environmental impact in geographical areas where emissions from transportation exceed those from livestock, he added.

A good point

The FAO's Pierre Gerber, an author of the 2006 report, told the BBC last week: "I must say honestly that he has a point - we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn't do the same thing with transport, we just used the figure from the IPCC."

The FAO is scheduled to release a more-detailed report in late 2010 that compares emissions from different regions of the world, as well as various diets.

"Consumers want to make decisions based on the best available science. If they want to eat less meat, then they should be able to do that, but they should be able to base that decision on the best available data," Mitloehner said.

But while the new research has ignited some debate regarding the calculation of emissions - and the need for standardised practices - Australian CSIRO and Global Carbon Project researcher Josep Canadell said that while the comparisons between the livestock and transport sectors may have been inappropriate, it is not to say the actual emissions from the meat and dairy industries are now any different.

"Yes, it is incorrect to compare an end-to-end [emissions] accounting for a sector with another sector that is not accounted from end to end. It is a bit like comparing apples with oranges and now [this new] paper shows that when doing the right comparison the results are different," he said.

"However, the livestock industry emissions continue to be the same as before - there hasn't been any change. It just happens that when making the appropriate comparison they are not more than the transport sector, as previously said. That is not to say that we have overestimated livestock emissions."