Meatless Monday initiative won’t affect global warming

Meatless Monday is a toothless tiger but that hasn’t stopped this promotion from clawing at animal agriculture.

The Meatless Monday initiative, which began in about 2002 and seems to be steadily gaining supporters, encourages people to eliminate meat from their diets for one day each week as a way to protect the environment and reduce the impact of global climate change.

Those are worthy goals but reducing or eliminating meat from our diets is not going to achieve them.

Some agriculture groups believe the promotion is a front for a campaign to eliminate meat from the public’s everyday menu. Endorsement by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals of some Meatless Monday school lunch programs in the U.S. lends credence to that belief.

Among the skeptics is the U.S.-based Animal Agriculture Alliance, which this week released material designed to refute the claims of Meatless Monday proponents.

For starters, figures used in campaign data in both the United States and Canada are outdated and have been disputed.

Campaigners say that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) production.

That figure, published in a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report in 2006, has since been criticized by many scientists as erroneous and the FAO itself has acknowledged flaws in its calculations.

Though revised numbers and estimates vary, Frank Mitloehner, an associate professor of animal science at the University of California, calculated livestock related GHG production at three percent.

Divide that number by seven, and forgoing meat for one day per week theoretically results in a .43 reduction in GHG.

One wonders if the same reduction, or more, could be achieved if people gave up 10 minutes of daily car idling time while they wait at the drive-through for their Tim Hortons coffee.

Sure, maybe the tiger could grow teeth if everybody in the developed world decided to embrace Meatless Monday. Many small steps can lead to progress.

But that progress has other costs that most consumers don’t consider.

The greater travesty of Meatless Monday is its ignorance – or disregard, if one chooses to be charitable – of the gains cattle production in particular has made to reduce environmental impact. In the late 1800s, it took three to five years to finish a beef animal. Today it takes 24 months.

Improved nutrition, genetics and the use of implants and ionophores have made feedlots production about 40 percent more efficient than it was 60 years ago.

Livestock methane emissions were once considered a fact of life. Now, numerous research projects and funding are dedicated to GHG reduction through feeding regimens, additives and genetic development.

Feedlot production, the usual whipping boy of those who criticize the meat industry, has lower GHG emissions than the bucolic grass-fed cattle production that many see as a better alternative.

And what about the value of that grazing? The environmental benefits of using marginal land for raising livestock are profound. Well-managed grazing preserves native plants and animals, protects ecosystems, prevents erosion and sequesters carbon.

Given these considerations, one can see that Meatless Monday is a simplistic response to a complex and multi-faceted situation.

Jude Capper, an assistant professor in dairy science at Washington State University, puts it this way in a paper distributed by the Animal Agriculture Alliance: “We have at best a tenuous grasp on the immediate or long-term environmental consequences of the majority of our actions.

“Forget demonizing specific foods or suggesting that one single action can save the planet. We need to understand and quantify how all our choices have consequences – and act accordingly.”

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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