Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Livestock production and the curse of the zombie statistics

It is unfortunate that in recent years, the livestock production sector has been a scapegoat for climate change. The furore really reached fever pitch just before the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December 2009 when we seemed beset on all sides by those suggesting cutting livestock numbers was the key to solving the ills of greenhouse gases. “Stop eating meat and save the planet” became the mantra. This was not helped by The Times (mis) quoting Lord Stern of Brentford, author of the 2006 Stern Review on tackling global warming, as saying: “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. A vegetarian diet is better.”

The fact that he challenged them on the accuracy of the reporting of that comment (the original story was on p1 – his letter saying he was misquoted was printed two days later on p41) is irrelevant because people today still quote that initial story at and it will still come to light if a journalist or researcher is using an internet search to find back ground on livestock and climate change. The story keeps coming back to haunt us, despite being discredited.

A phrase has been coined for this type of story – or more often facts and figures – “zombie statistics”. We seem to suffer from them more than most in the beef and sheep sector so we thought we would use this blog to set straight two of the most belligerent ones in the hope of providing some sort of balance to future debate.

“The livestock sector is … responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalents. This is a higher share than transport.” This came from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow.

This figure – and the comparison to transport – is still regularly regurgitated by those for whom it serves a purpose, despite serious flaws in the methodology. According to a report by Dr Frank Mitloehner, renowned expert on agricultural air quality and animal-environmental interactions, the lifecycle emissions associated with livestock (a cradle-to-grave examination of the industry that takes into account everything from the fertiliser used in growing feed to the methane burps of cattle) and the direct emissions of the transportation industry as calculated by the IPCC (the burning of fossil fuels as independent from everything else, including extracting the oil from the ground, manufacturing the cars, etc.) were two very different studies. They are therefore not comparable.

This point was conceded by the FAO when the agency’s livestock policy officer, Pierre Gerber, told the BBC. “We factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport.” The report is flawed. A revised report is expected this year and early indications are that the livestock figure will be well under 10 per cent. In the interim, an EU study concluded that livestock contributions were around 9.1 per cent of all emissions.

You only need to look at the story last weekend in the Independent on Sunday which again looked at this issue in isolation and compared livestock production unfavourably with transport’s GHG output to see that this myth continues to live on after death. It is still used on the Meat Free Mondays website, one of many single issue pressure groups encouraging people to eat less meat.

Another high profile stat is that it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef. Other studies suggest different figures, but all are quite staggering. When figures are quoted relating to the UK, then UK figures should be used throughout. EBLEX’s own research, which informed the Testing the Water report, the second chapter in our ongoing environmental roadmap work, showed it takes just 67 litres of “blue” water to produce 1kg of beef. Blue water is water taken from a piped source, effectively taken from the water supply that could have been used for something else. It is therefore misleading to cite such zombie stats as the 10,000-litre figure when discussing meat production in the UK.

So beware the figures from beyond the grave and please do what you can to set straight those who continue to breathe life into dead stats.