COP23 Recognizes – Sort of – Livestock’s Role in Climate Change

When I arrived at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, I faced a giant elephant in the room. Or rather, a giant beefy steer. Either way, there was an urgent climate change solution being largely ignored at the annual Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). That urgent climate change solution is to reduce meat consumption. Read More >

A View from the COP21 Sidelines

cop21-peace_climate_justiceLast week, I attended the United Nations Conference of the Parties Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris with my colleague Roni Neff. Roni wrote about our experiences getting out the word about the meat consumption to climate change, and she also wrote about how COP21 addressed public health issues. After Roni left Paris, I stuck around to participate in more COP21-related activities and protests, and these are my impressions from that week. Read More >

Notes from New Zealand: China’s Investment in NZ Agriculture and a Bumper Crop for Grapes

CLF Director Robert S. Lawrence, MD, is on sabbatical in Auckland, New Zealand, where he is studying the country’s agriculture system.

As we waited in the Sydney airport for our connecting flight to Auckland, I picked up a copy of The Australian, one of the major newspapers in Australia, and noted an article titled, “China hungry for local food assets.” The article noted that China was preparing a multi-billion dollar investment campaign to acquire Australian agricultural lands to provide farm produce over the next five years. My thoughts went racing back to Lester Brown’s Who Will Feed China: Wake-up Call for a Small Planet, published in 1995 and arguably the single most important book in shaping the strategies of the early years of the Center for a Livable Future. Brown exposed the myth of Chinese grain self-sufficiency and predicted that China would soon become a major food importing country as water resources were depleted or diverted to the booming industrial sector; rising standards of living would shift dietary choices to a higher meat, western diet; and increasing amounts of grain would be diverted from direct human consumption to animal feed.

Grape VineyardThe Australian reported that in the last six months there has been a dramatic increase in the interest of Chinese buyers in purchase of segments of the agricultural sector “with the sweet spot being in ‘under the radar’ private farms, aggregation and processing businesses worth between $10 million and $200m.” Why this range of enterprise? Because under Australian law the Foreign Investment Review Board is limited to investigating sale of businesses to foreign enterprises that are worth more than $231 million. So a partial answer to Lester Brown’s question of who will feed China is a loose consortium of Australian agricultural resources, each valued at less than $231 million.

The Chinese buyers are showing particular interest in grain, meat, and wool opportunities. To date the majority of China’s investments in Australia’s agricultural sector have been less than $10 million with examples cited of dairy farms, orchards, vineyards, and Tasmanian spring water. But China’s appetite is growing with reports of one Chinese company looking for 5000 hectares (about 12,500 acres) of grain production land, worth about $75 million on the current Australian market.

The government of Australia has responded by launching a parliamentary inquiry into foreign ownership of Australian agriculture, all reminiscent of Russia’s decision last summer to ban export of wheat after their record-setting drought, India’s restrictions of rice exports in 2008, and other signs of countries protecting their domestic supplies while remaining a player in the global food market. Read More >

‘Diet for a Hot Planet’ Explores Links between Diet and Climate Change

diet-for-a-hot-planet_cover1Anna Lappé’s new book Diet for a Hot Planet is critical. It is critical because it helps fill a significant gap in the literature that was previously identified by the Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future.

And thus, in an accessible and comprehensive manner, Diet for a Hot Planet is critical to understanding how inextricably linked food is with climate change. But to do so, Lappé conveys that we, as the reader, must understand: (1) the food-life-cycle, from its roots in the ground to going back to the ground as waste and (2) that “we are not bystanders.”

The food life-cycle and its connection with climate change

Diet for a Hot Planet emphasizes that the global food system is connected to climate change “within nearly every sector of our economy;” from waste and wastewater to our energy supply to transportation to industry to forestry to building structures to agriculture. Throughout the book, it becomes clear how “the entire global food chain may account for roughly one third of what’s heating our planet.”

Not all of the climate impact from food is related to livestock. Yet, with 70% of all agricultural land tied up in livestock production, red meat and dairy products may account for as much as 48% of the global warming effect. Lappé’s book underscores the importance of thinking about the journey from livestock to edible meat production, especially regarding methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions; that, she teaches us, has a much greater negative impact on global warming than carbon dioxide (CO2). Read More >

Response to Professor Mitloehner

Dear Professor Mitloehner,

I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my post.  What you wrote was informative, but your response also raised additional questions for me.  I will lay them out here and you are welcome to respond again.

From your response:

“I did not write the press releases and feel that a lot of the recent reporting has been a line-up of catchy sound bites.”

I have spoken to researchers here at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and they report being highly involved in the creation of press releases and in making sure the documents are not only accurate, but difficult to misrepresent.  The UC Davis press release contains the following text:

“…it is simply not true that consuming less meat and dairy products will help stop climate change, says a University of California authority on farming and greenhouse gases.”

And these direct quotes:

“Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries.”

“We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by consuming less meat and milk.”

As I stated before, those statements are not backed up by “Clearing the Air.”  Based on the report, examples of supported statements include: (1) Livestock’s Long Shadow used flawed methods when they compared global GHG emissions from animal agriculture and transportation, and (2) due to differences between developing and developed countries, some country-level and regional analyses are significantly different than a global comparison of livestock and transportation GHG emissions.  The “catchy sound bites” in the media follow directly from the UC Davis press release (and the subsequent ACS press release).  Do the press releases accurately represent your statements?

“This key statement in LLS’s executive summary – “The Livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18% of GHG emissions measured in CO2e. This is a higher share than transport.” – has been quoted extensively over the last few years by animal welfare and food activists, leading to Meatless Monday and other social policy initiatives. This statement has now lost its validity (see BBC report http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8583308.stm), which is regretted by many who advocate for meatless nutrition. That’s what happens when a social or political agenda tries to use science as its sword.”

Even though a new comparison of GHGs from livestock and transportation is in the works at the UN, this does not mean eating less meat has no impact on GHGs.  To make that claim, research would need to compare GHG amounts linked to diets with different amounts of animal products and find no difference.  Again, I have not seen any such research.  Also, stating that the Meatless Monday Campaign was created in response to Livestock’s Long Shadow (or livestock GHGs in general) is incorrect.  It was created in 2003 in association with the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to prevent disease by decreasing saturated fat intake.   The campaign incorporated the environmental benefits of decreased meat consumption (including GHG reduction) in its messages in 2009.  It is a public health campaign strongly rooted in scientific evidence, and twenty schools of public health have supported it for many years.

“We should not relax on any issue concerning our society’s mass consumption and what it takes to make these products available. My personal approach is to purchase to the greatest extent possible food that is produced locally and sustainably, and that includes meat and dairy products, which we purchase from producers at our local food co-op and farmer’s market. My scientific objective, however, is to find real solutions for society at large that support a reduction in greenhouse gases and other pollutants.” Read More >

Unsupported Claims About Livestock and Climate Change in the Media

As a public health doctoral student, I have been taught the importance of communicating scientific information to the public, journalists, and policy makers in a careful manner, especially when dealing with complex issues.  Scientific research almost never provides clear answers, but as a scientist you should never make statements that overstep the conclusions of your work, even if it would make your life easier by simplifying the message you are trying to get across.  Describing questions that remain unanswered and limitations of studies is important.  While reading a news release last week regarding research on food animal production and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, I was suspicious that this “rule” was not being followed.

An air quality scientist at UC Davis, Professor Frank Mitloehner, has been in the press talking about implications of his research on livestock production and GHGs (here, here, and here).  He has been quoted as saying it is  “scientifically inaccurate” and a “distraction” to encourage a reduction in meat consumption as part of an effort to combat climate change.  Those are very strong statements, so I did a little digging to see if his research supports these claims. Read More >

Farming our Schools

When is the last time you walked around an urban public high school in the United States?  For most of us, it’s been a while.  For me, it was just last month and I will tell you what I noticed when I walked around.  It wasn’t the dilapidated buildings, the lack of experienced teachers, or the missing vocational and practical trades that disappeared a long time ago with shrinking budgets.  I noticed land.  I saw opportunity.

What some say is the last vestige of the “commons” in America, our public school system sits on an incredible amount of land!  Walk around a public high school and you see land that is not being used; it’s either being under-utilized or it is completely abandoned.  Pavement and asphalt is the default, and green-space upkeep costs too much money for strapped urban districts.  Was it ever used?  I don’t know, but it’s time to utilize this public space for the community. 

As we stare at our nation’s expanding waistlines and the “franken-foods” that dominate our store shelves, we realize that what the communities of our great nation need is real food.  We’ve watched the obesity rates in our children triple in the last two decades, and we are left with no choice but to creatively respond to this epidemic.  If we don’t, there is a good chance they may become the first generation in our history to live a shorter life span than their parents. 

As a Government and Economics teacher in a deeply urban school in California, I come face to face with disturbing daily realities.  Recently, a 16 year old Latina student came up to me in astonishment and asked, “Are you telling me that a lemon is a fruit?”  Equally astonished are the students that walk out to the school garden and marvel at the sweet peas they can pick fresh off the vine.  “I never knew that came out of a flower,” I’ve heard them gasp.  They recoil at the sight of dirt touching a piece of produce, yet they don’t blink at paying $2 for bottled water that is less regulated than the water coming out of their tap.  I don’t blame my students for a system that produces 3,800 calories per day per person (we only need half that amount) and then uses the most sophisticated marketing tools on the planet to get our youth to consume them.  As a teacher, I have learned that you must accept your students “where they are” because getting angry about how they got there is wasted energy.  Accept the challenge and then work like hell to help them reach their potential.  I’ve accepted that the industrialized food companies got to my students first, and now I know through local food production in the schools, I can help them become healthier once again. Read More >

Beyond “Museum” Gardens

With all of the coverage of Michelle Obama in the news lately, you would be a fool not to think that gardens are the answer to all of our public health problems.  In addition to the “White House” garden, you’ve got the new “People’s Garden” at the USDA building in D.C., you’ve got Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack and his wife cheering the establishment of gardens at local Washington D.C. elementary schools.  The public and the food movement should laud these efforts and they are not without merit.  I similarly applaud states like California that began the “Garden in every school,” initiative and I’m glad they have supported that initiative with some funding.  However, it’s like the old proverb, “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”  Those wonderful intentions without substantial follow through are “paper tigers” against the environmental and health issues that face our public with regards to the food system, most notably: food insecurity, obesity, loss of bio-diversity and environmental degradation. Gardens that exist as exhibitions to only be looked and talked about will not move us anywhere close to where we need to go.  We need this garden movement to move far beyond what Michelle Obama has heroically brought to the nation’s attention.

I want to push beyond the awareness building of the White House garden and I see this garden movement at the crossroads of two paths. One path makes us all feel better, but yields very little in the way of reduced obesity, urban food deserts and local control of food.  The other requires more effort, but actually can affect, not only our local food shed, but more importantly, our children’s nutritional path, future health and prosperity.  Right now, we are on path number 1.  Throughout the United States, if students learn about food in school it is through “museum” gardens.  I call them “museums” because they exemplify our look but don’t touch mentality towards food production. If your child is lucky, their school may grow herbs, some vegetables and receive a lesson or two about nutrition, plants and the growth cycle.  The students may even be able to take home a carrot or munch on it happily.  Then they walk into the corner store, the vegetables disappear and there’s no significant follow up to those isolated nutrition lessons. This could explain why the Associated Press reported that out of 57 federally funded programs of over 1 billion dollars spent to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among children, only 4 succeeded in their task.  We need to shed this museum mentality. Students can no longer stare at our food system from behind protective glass, wearing blindfolds and waiting for the teacher to take them to the food court.  Follow the proverb; we need to hand them that trowel and teach them how to grow.

Our children face an unrelenting obesity epidemic the world has never seen.  A recent study out of the Bloomberg School at Johns Hopkins estimates that 75% of adult Americans will be overweight by 2015.  These numbers have consequences, not only for our health as a nation, but our economy and future prosperity.  One in three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime and for minorities that number is one in two.  A recent study by Kenneth Thorpe, the chairman of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University finds that at current trends, by 2018, annual obesity related health care costs will total more than 20 percent of total health care spending.  That means that in less than a decade, health care costs attributable to obesity will have more than doubled. Read More >

How Can You Combat Climate Change? Nobel Laureate & Music Legend Say Eat Less Meat One Day a Week

Nobel Laureate Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Sir Paul McCartney, former Beatles superstar turned environmental activists addressed the European Parliament (EP) today (Dec. 3. 2009) in hopes of encouraging legislators to consider what actions Europeans can personally take to combat global warming, such as going Meatless on Monday. Today’s hearing entitled “Global Warming and Food Policy: Less Meat = Less Heat” was organized by EP Vice-President Edward McMillan-Scott and opened by Parliament’s President Jerzy Buzek.
Citing the United Nation’s report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, Pachauri and McCartney warned that global meat production is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined. The United Kingdom Press Association (UKPA) quoted McCartney as saying, “People are confused about what they can do – they can try one meat-free day a week. It’s kind of interesting once you get into it.”

Dr. Robert Lawrence, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, who has long supported and served as a scientific advisor for the Meatless Monday Campaign, was invited to attend today’s hearing in Brussels. While he couldn’t make it to Belgium in time, he did provide EP leaders with a letter. Read More >

Could ‘Vertical Farming’ Work?

chris_jacobs_darkDickson Despommier brought his idea for vertical urban farms to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on Friday, and his audience of more than 100 people responded with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism.

Despommier is director of the Vertical Farm Project and a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He believes the combination of increasing human population and the increasing crop failures seen on much of our cropland necessitates new ways of producing food. He proposes vertical indoor farms that grow hydroponically, use local wastewater and solid waste (as fertilizer), and market to local urban customers as one way to address the growing demand for food.

“Do we need to invent anything to make this happen? The answer is no,” Despommier said. “I think the solutions are out there. We just have to piece them together in the proper way.”

In a Scientific American article this month, Despommier writes: “A one-square-block farm 30 stories high could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres, with less subsequent spoilage.” Read More >