Cows, oil and elephants
Livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions needs to be put into context
By Mike McMorris, Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
More than 30,000 people met recently in Egypt for the 27th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP27) to deal with what many consider to be the single biggest challenge facing mankind: climate change. We created this climate crisis over many decades and there is no quick answer nor silver bullet solution.
COP27 is one of the biggest stages on earth now and so there are various individuals and groups with a single focus that take advantage of that stage for attention. Recall a recent Time magazine story claiming that “Cows are the new coal”? Well at COP27, some are going further, stating that the unaddressed “elephant in the room is a cow” and that cattle are the biggest contributor to climate change.
Who needs data to back you up when you have a catchy slogan?
While it would be easy to ignore such catchy phrases, the livestock sector would do so at its peril. Most people these days have no connection to agriculture and so if they hear such a phrase often enough, they start to believe it. It is much easier to get the facts straight up front rather than try to change someone’s mind later. There is plenty of data which can be helpful but also confusing. It is troubling that there doesn’t seem to be agreement on some basic numbers such as which greenhouse gas (GHG) contributors should be tackled first and most aggressively.
For example, how much is livestock agriculture contributing to the problem? One press article related to COP27 claimed that livestock is responsible for 16.5 to 28% of the GHG problem. Another news story stated that livestock was 33% of the problem.
The reality is that livestock production does indeed have environmental impacts, both bad and good. Research in Ontario by Prof. Claudia Wagner-Riddle at the University of Guelph revealed that agriculture in total accounted for eight per cent of all GHG emissions, with livestock production accounting for about half of that or four per cent.
This proves that context is important, and that sweeping statements, judgements and solutions that fail to take local conditions into account are at best simple generalizations and often blatant falsehoods.
Additional context is important. Ruminants do indeed emit methane, but they also act as mobile fermentation vats that turn otherwise indigestible forage into highly nutritious and balanced protein for humans. While they do this, they create a much healthier soil with increased organic matter.
It is not only farmers that are frustrated with the confusing and sometimes simply false messaging about livestock production. Scientists around the world are signing onto the Dublin Declaration, a call from the scientific community for an evidence-based debate on meat.
It states that scientists need to “provide reliable evidence of their (livestock) nutrition and health benefits, environmental sustainability, socio-cultural and economic values, as well as solutions for the many improvements that are needed.”
COP27 is far away, and it may seem like something that won’t affect your farm. Rest assured that it will. The Ontario and Canadian livestock sectors are setting targets and, in some cases, spending a lot of money communicating those targets to consumers. That’s a good start but the rubber hits the road at the farm level.
What will you be doing differently in the future? How will you reduce your GHG emissions? How will you adapt your production to account for the changing climate?
It can be awkward when someone makes claims about the impact of the livestock sector on climate change. How can you respond – and should you? If you do, keep it simple:
• Livestock production is a key pillar of Ontario’s economy, environment and food security.
• Ontario livestock production has a far smaller GHG emissions footprint than many other countries.
• Livestock production has many positive impacts that often go unspoken in the discussion of climate change.
• The industry has and will continue to improve.