OPINION: The UN Says Tackling Meat Is The World’s Most Urgent Problem

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Will Coggin Senior Research Analyst, Center for Consumer Freedom
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What is the world’s most urgent problem? Ask a person on the street and you’ll probably hear war, poverty and human rights as major areas of concern. But ask the United Nations and you’ll be told the world’s most pressing problem is something else entirely: Bacon and burgers.

The U.N. recently announced that it was bestowing its “Champions of the Earth” award to two startup companies producing plant-based meat alternatives. Raising livestock “has brought us to the verge of catastrophe,” the U.N. claimed in announcing the awards.

Yet the global institution’s war on meat flies in the face of environmental realities and its own observations.

The U.N. reports elsewhere that 783 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. In today’s conflicts, up to 90 percent of all casualties are civilians. There’s an ongoing genocide in Myanmar. Yemen is facing a humanitarian crisis where more than 22 million people are at risk. The U.N. Security Council has—by its own admission—discussed no topic more times than that of Syria, where a deadly conflict rages into its eighth year.

And yet the most urgent problem is meat?

The U.N. claims that raising cattle, chickens, pigs and other livestock is environmentally devastating. But the agency misses the forest for the trees.

In 2006, the U.N. released a heavily criticized report claiming animal agriculture was responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. A more recent UN analysis puts the figure at 14.5 percent, an apparent improvement.

But these global numbers don’t take into account efficiencies that exist in developed countries. In the United States, the EPA keeps an inventory of domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The EPA estimates only 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from all of agriculture—not just animal agriculture, but wheat, corn, soy, etc. Raising livestock is just a few percentage points of our country’s overall GHG emissions.

As Jude Capper at Washington State University found in her research, thanks to today’s increased productivity, “The carbon footprint of a kg of milk in 2007 was 63-percent lower than that in 1944.”

As for traditional beef production from 1977 and 2007, the high-yield practices “reduced feed use by 19 percent, land use by 33 percent, water use by 12 percent, fossil fuel use by 9%, and the carbon footprint per kg of beef by 16 percent.” These practices have significantly reduced agriculture’s impact on the environment—all while supplying us with delicious beef and dairy.

In other words, the U.N. should be encouraging Third World countries to become more like the U.S. In fact, that would help with a number of much more serious problems facing the world than hot dogs and hamburgers.

Returning to what the U.N. identifies as major problems, here’s another one: hunger. Today, 815 million people are undernourished and the U.N. expects this number to grow to two billion by 2050.

In developing countries, there is a surging demand for meat. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “The potential contribution of livestock sector development to the livelihood of poor is … very significant.”

According to the U.N., 40 percent of all agricultural output comes from livestock, supporting the livelihoods and food security of close to 1.3 billion people. Boasting 40 percent of the global population, agriculture is the single largest employer in the world and the largest source of jobs and income for poor rural households. Indeed, livestock contributes to the livelihoods of 70 percent of the world’s rural poor.

The U.N. has an admirable goal of reaching zero hunger by 2030. If the organization is serious about tackling hunger, meat is going to play a role, despite the objections made by ivory tower elites in Switzerland.

All this considered, the claim that meat is the world’s most urgent problem is at best misinformed and at worst destructive.

Ask a child in Idlib, Syria; a slave in Libya; a Dalit woman in India what the world’s most urgent problems are. Meat won’t make the list.

The facts are in. Calling meat the world’s most urgent problem is pure baloney.

Will Coggin is the research director for the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.