EAT-Lancet's Long Shadow

The legacy of Livestock’s Long Shadow, the thoroughly debunked, yet often repeated 2006 report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), remains a thorn of misinformation in the side of  livestock producers. Last month, data from Livestock’s Long Shadow was used to argue for the adoption of a new, global plant-based diet.

The proposal was launched by the EAT-Lancet Commission, following a three-year project by 37 “experts” calling for changes to the food system to boost human health and preserve environmental resources. For North Americans the report suggests reducing red meat consumption by 86%.

The report endorses the idea – first claimed in Livestock’s Long Shadow – that global meat production is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than all of global transport.

One American scientist called that hogwash, noting the emissions figures were calculated differently to the transport figures. Frank Mitloehner, Professor and Air Quality Extension Specialist, University of California/Davis, said the UN’s calculations were an “apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue.”

He was right, said Pierre Gerber, a policy officer with the FAO and one of the reports’ authors, who accepted Mitloehner's criticism. Unfortunately, the cows had already left the barn. The report’s false narrative – livestock produce 18% of GHGs, more than transport – is repeatedly used as a primary argument cows are killing the planet. 

Exactly what EAT-Lancet suggests. Tim Lang, one of the report’s authors, said, “The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet, and we are currently getting this seriously wrong.”

Specifically, EAT-Lancet recommends red meat consumption be cut to one-half ounce per day, with total meat intake of an ounce per day. Just one ounce of fish per day and an egg and a half per week was recommended. In other words, if you like hamburgers, you could eat just one per week.

Not surprisingly, EAT-Lancet provided an opportunity for activists and self-anointed experts. For instance, actor Alec Baldwin, best known in recent years for his portrayal of Donald Trump in “Saturday Night Live” skits, claimed in an opinion published by CNN to have “become a student of certain global environmental issues.”

Baldwin wrote current human activities are causing the "sixth great extinction," which is “unraveling the web of life that keeps ecosystems functioning and that make the Earth habitable for humans.” The culprit? “Food.” Then he cites this gem: “Per gram of protein, producing beef requires 20 times more land than producing beans.”

Yes, livestock foods – and especially beef production – have become an environmental pirate, stealing the resources necessary to grow more plant-based human foods. While such ideas are far too simplistic, they gain traction with each new high-brow report that borrows on the flawed data from “Livestock’s Long Shadow.”

Mitloehner, however, challenges radical ideas such as those from EAT-Lancet. He says producing less meat and milk would only result in “more hunger in poor countries,” and that efforts should be focused on “smarter farming, not less farming.”