Feature:Opinion

What’s the beef with climate change?

It’s Earth Day again, which means that it’s another time to unite environmental activists to rally around the green flag and blame seemingly everything technological and productive—from efficient farming to genetically modified crops—for allegedly causing ecological devastation.

But lately, it’s been fashionable to point fingers of blame at our steaks, chicken wings, and omelets. Animal agriculture, according to the latest mantra, is the new SUV. But while animal rights activists hope out loud that a “green” label will become synonymous with soy burgers and Tofurky, the truth is that U.S. livestock producers don’t affect climate-change very much at all.

Much as our views of global warming can change—especially after last winter’s “Climategate”—soon the “meat-eating environmentalist” will no long be misconstrued as a contradiction in terms.

The supposed link between meat and climate change stems from a 2006 United Nations report, which concluded that livestock production generates 18 percent of all greenhouse gases. The vegan lead author of a report in the Worldwatch Institute’s magazine has an even higher estimate, straining credibility by blaming animal protein for one-half of global emissions.

No surprise, then, that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and other promoters of strict vegetarianism have jumped aboard the global-warming bandwagon. The entire animal rights industry aims to make animal farming a thing of the past.

The omnivorous majority can breathe easy, though.

Both the U.N. and Worldwatch reports use unrealistic, worst-case scenarios. And they count ordinary farming activities like fertilizer production, soil tilling, and transportation in their greenhouse gas tallies-activities that are equally necessary for growing vegetable crops.

If meat-eaters went “cold turkey” tomorrow, farmers would have to grow more vegetables and grains to fill the resulting calorie gap. Alas, a tofu-powered PETA utopia would still require tractors, plows, fertilizer, and fleets of trucks.

Billions of new vegetarian meals would produce carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other heat-trapping gases that a vegan-biased estimate overlooks.

The U.N. figure in particular is troubling for another reason, at least in America. The estimate is inflated by lumping every nation’s emissions together into a global average that’s not typical of any country. Certainly none in the First World.

Amazonian deforestation may contribute to Brazil’s piece of the puzzle, for instance, but the U.S. isn’t cutting down wide swaths of timberland for chicken farming. Our forests are growing. And animal farms in India and China aren’t nearly as efficient (or climate-friendly) as those in Iowa and Kansas.

The U.N. hasn’t publicly addressed this disparity. If anything, it should be advising the world to buy more American beef since we’re quite good at producing it with a minimal carbon footprint.

The Environmental Protection Agency publishes an annual inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, the entire American agricultural sector-including everyone from cotton farmers to pork producers-”was responsible for 413.1 teragrams of CO2 equivalents, or 6 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.”

You read that right. Six percent. And the EPA data make it easy to subtract out emissions that are unrelated to livestock, like those produced by farming broccoli and producing orange juice.