“One of the major problems with our modern and efficient system of mass communication is that once an error from an otherwise credible source is launched into cyberspace, it can quickly become viral … this is the exact problem the meat and poultry industry faces in our attempted discussions regarding the impact of animal agriculture on the environment,” says American Meat Institute President and chief executive officer J. Patrick Boyle in a recent guest article.
Boyle points to the “the granddaddy of all bad facts,” the oft cited-quote from a 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization study claiming: “Livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouses gases, a bigger share than transport.”
Once this fallacy was borne, it was quick to reproduce, being picked up by TIME Magazine, Wikipedia, Facebook, blogs and influential news sources, including CNN.
This gross error went largely unchallenged for several years until Frank Mitloehner, at the University of California Davis, examined the FAO claim and discovered the calculation was based on an unequal application of lifecycle assessments The livestock sector’s true contribution to GHG emissions is around three percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Boyle says that the meat industry has had to contend with other fast-spreading inaccuracies regarding meat’s impact on the environment as well. One such inaccuracy is that “modern” agriculture production practices lead to elevated GHG emissions when compared to “traditional” production practices which are more “environmentally friendly.” The exact opposite is true, says Boyle.
A study by the Department of Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford University concluded that the “climatic impacts of historical agricultural intensification [modern] were preferable to those of a system with lower inputs that instead expanded cropland to meet global demand for food.” The study noted that “careful and efficient management of nutrients and water by precision farming, incorporation of crop residues and less intensive tillage are critical practices in pursuit of sustainable and increased agricultural output.”
“As is often the case, the good news does not seem to spread as quickly or stick as effectively as the bad news. Unfortunately for this industry, the fact that our food supply is safe, affordable and plentiful is not a front-page headline. For example, how many people know Americans spend less per capita on meat and poultry products than citizens in any other country, or that over the last 10 years, pathogens like E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter have all decreased dramatically in meat and poultry products? And these are just a few of the real numbers worth remembering and repeating,” Boyle says.