One of the tenets of the animal-rights and environmentalist gospel is that meat production has an overwhelmingly negative impact on the environment beyond that of the rest of modern society. It pops up in the anti-agriculture “Meatless Monday” campaign, animal-rights propaganda from PETA and the so-called Humane Society of the United States, and on the blog of semi-vegan (except when he most assiduously isn’t) New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. They all generally cite a debunked U.N. study claiming that 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to animal agriculture. In fact, Bittman cites the figure today on the Marketplace blog, along with an even wilder estimate of 50 percent. But then he cautions, “[T]he exact percentage doesn’t matter.”
That’s a nice bit of rhetorical flim-flam from Bittman, but numbers do matter. The (questionable) figures he cites are all worldwide estimates. Here in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency’s assessment of carbon emission sources puts the amount attributable to livestock agriculture between three and four percent of the U.S. total, not 20 or 50 percent. So when first-world standards are applied to first-world meat production, hysterical projections of cattle-powered carbon are quickly exposed as nothing more than, well, hot air.
As livestock industries modernize, they become more efficient. (Shocking, we know.) A recent study by a Washington State University animal scientist found that the dairy industry has cut its carbon footprint by 44 percent since 1944. Another study found efficiency gains in the beef industry, with a quantity of beef requiring 16 percent fewer emissions of the same amount of beef in the 1970s.
Bittman doesn’t seem to have much time for these efficiency gains. Remember, he helped lead the charge against lean beef trimmings, and it is estimated that up to a million more cattle will be raised for slaughter because that meat will now be lost. Given that, we’d say he has as much credibility on eco- and agri-efficiency as he does on medicine: zilch.