Hidden Cost of Hamburgers is Greater than Reported

How CIR's report on the environmental impact of meat consumption went wrong

 When the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) recently published a report on the hidden costs of meat, with a video and a transcript of its voice-over, readers and viewers had reason to believe that they could find in it some reliable information.

After all, CIR’s report was supported by the Climate Desk, a collaborative effort among a number of media outlets that have worked to improve public awareness of climate change.

Indeed, if the world is to reverse climate change as needed, then it’s crucial that we get the facts right.  Unfortunately, CIR’s report made numerous mistakes.

Cows in a field

CIR’s report says: “Livestock are a major contributor to greenhouse gas pollution. Right up there with cars, trains, and planes.”  Such a comparison between livestock and transport was first published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), but later retracted. 

Yet CIR’s version of this comparison commits the same mistake that was retracted by the FAO. That is, CIR’s comparison counts only direct emissions from cars, trains, and planes – while counting both direct emissions from livestock and indirect emissions from cleared forests.   The CIR report is actually correct to count those emissions. But it doesn’t count them properly.

For example, CIR’s video says: “Methane has 21 times more climate-changing  power than CO2.”   But CIR’s figure of 21 for the global warming potential (GWP) of methane is obsolete.   The figure that’s most widely-used today for the GWP of methane over a 100-year timeframe is 25 or higher, as reported by the New York Times. Indeed, the figure of 21 was obsolete by 2006, when a figure of 23 was used in the report Livestock’s Long Shadow, repeatedly cited by the CIR report.  Livestock’s Long Shadow has been widely cited elsewhere, with deference to its authorship by the FAO, whose analysis is often considered authoritative by virtue of its being a UN specialized agency.

In 2009, environmental specialists employed by two other UN specialized agencies, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, developed new analysis of greenhouse gas attributable to livestock, in which they proposed that it was more appropriate to measure methane attributable to livestock over a 20-year period, which would yield a GWP of 72.  I’m one of those specialists.

Our use of a GWP of 72 for methane is supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  It’s also supported in analysis by four Canadian governmental climate scientists, who’ve written: “The 20-year accounting period may be a better reflection of the time scale for the GWP of CH4 because of the growing urgency of global warming (Goodland and Anhang, 2009).”

Moreover, CIR’s report says: “Livestock use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land area.” But CIR’s 30% figure – taken from a 2006 FAO report – is obsolete.  The current figure is 45%, according to the International Livestock Research Institute.

CIR’s report also says: “Grass-fed beef does less damage to the environment.”  But Henning Steinfeld, the lead author of the aforementioned 2006 FAO report, and Pierre Gerber, a co-author, have specified that grass-fed beef is more climate-damaging than grain-fed beef. In fact, grass-fed cows emit up to 400 percent more methane than do grain-fed cows, according to Gidon Eshel, another source for CIR’s report.

CIR’s report states that “a 2011 study by Utah State University noted that grass-fed beef can… reduce the impact on land resources by about 8 percent.” But that Utah State study actually says the opposite: “Grain-fed beef is grown faster, requiring less land and time.”

While CIR’s report repeatedly cites FAO analysis, it omits to report that the FAO announced last month that it will lead a new partnership with the meat industry — a basic conflict of interest that an entity such as CIR should report on. (My assessment of the FAO’s new partnership was published recently in The New York Times.)

More important, CIR’s report misses counting a large amount of greenhouse gas attributable to livestock. That is, while it counts emissions from annual deforestation attributable to livestock and feed production, it omits to count the much larger amount of carbon absorption forgone on land set aside for livestock and feed production.

In an article that I co-authored with Jeff Anhang, published by Animal Feed Science and Technology, we asserted that either carbon dioxide in livestock respiration or carbon absorption foregone in land set aside for livestock and feed production must be counted as emissions.  That’s because reality no longer reflects the old model of the carbon cycle, in which photosynthesis balanced respiration.  That model made sense when there were roughly constant levels of respiration and photosynthesis on Earth. But respiration has increased exponentially with livestock production (now more than 60 billion land animals per year) . At the same time, increased livestock and feed production accompanied by large scale deforestation and forest-burning have caused a dramatic decline in the earth’s photosynthetic capacity, along with large and accelerating increases in volatilization of carbon in soil.

Our analysis explains that replacing 25 percent of today’s livestock products with better alternatives could almost fully meet international climate treaty objectives. That’s because such a replacement could both reduce emissions and allow forest to regenerate on a vast amount of land, which could then absorb excess atmospheric carbon to reduce it to a safe level. This may be the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change in the next five years as needed. Sufficient renewable energy infrastructure is projected to take at least 20 years and $18 trillion to develop.

Our recommendation is restrained compared to that of Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the seminal Stern Review on the economics of climate change, who have recommended vegetarianism to reverse climate change.  Yet their recommendation shares in common with the CIR report an implication that there’s a sacrifice to be made in avoiding any amount of meat consumption.

The real issue is not about taking meat away. Rather, it’s about seeing whether it can be replaced with better foods, thereby improving people’s lives.

CIR transposed its flawed analysis into an animated video.  Analysis that I’ve co-authored with the World Bank Group’s Jeff Anhang has also been transposed into an animated video – in which viewers can find more accurate analysis.

Robert Goodland retired as lead environmental adviser at the World Bank Group after serving there for 23 years.

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