Counting the climate cost of cows

Last month, Cowspiracy was shown at the UN here in Geneva. Beforehand a local NGO laid on some a vegan buffet including quinoa and spinach, pizza and cake. The film was a documentary about a young activist in California asking the question “why is animal agriculture not the focus of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.  In his series of cold call interviews, he found that big name environmental NGOs have little focus on reducing meat consumption which is responsible for between 15 and 51% of global emissions according to which figures he quoted.


The filmmaker was effective in demonstrating that meat production is a very inefficient way to deliver calories and a move to veganism will be a highly effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.His interviews with NGOs were revealing in some much as the NGOs apparently do not see reducing meat consumption as a priority for climate change mitigation. More disturbingly was the assertion that federal laws prevented people for openly criticizing the meat industry

This blog post from Mike Berners Lee explains the inefficiences in detail:

“In very rough terms, the world grows about 6,000 calories per person a day in edible crop harvest. That is about three times the 2,000 calories a day that end up getting to be eaten by humans. This would be enough to feed everyone if we shared it round perfectly, which we don’t, so some people go hungry while others eat more than is good for them.

So what happens to the massive 4,000 calories per day gap between field and fork and what has this got to do with going vegetarian or even vegan?

Here, again in rough numbers, is how the missing calories can be accounted for:

About 900 are agricultural waste, much of which is simply left in the ground. Supply exceeds demand or the crop is deemed not able meet customer standards. About 500 go to biofuels…Around 600 calories are then lost in post-harvest waste.

So far in the story from field to plate there is still a plentiful 4,000 calories per day left for feeding people. Around 1,700 of these are fed to animals.

The animal diet is further supplemented with a substantial amount of grass, some but not all of which is grown on land that could alternatively be used to grow yet more human food.

Animals – some more than others – add an intrinsic inefficiency into the food chain, using up energy for such things as walking around and keeping warm.

A mere 500 calories per person per day come back out of the animal food system as meat and dairy foods. So the inefficiency of our meat and dairy diet leads to a loss of 1,200 calories per person per day, excluding any grassland that could be used for edible plant crops. And meat consumption is rising fast in developing countries”.

Moving to a meat free diet is undoubtedly an effective climate action. Agriculture contributes up to 30% of global GHG emissions when you include deforestation for farming. However veganism will never appeal to sufficient numbers of people to bring about societal change. Economic incentives need to be set to align public priorities (reducing GHG emissions) with private consumption decisions. In a paper for  UNCTAD in 2010, David Vanzetti and I argue that the fairest and most effective way to reduce emissions is by taxing the external costs of meat production. This however is tough politically.

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