Renowned World Bank Scientist Prescribes Better Alternatives to Livestock

641340By Frank De Giacomo (in photo at left)

Dr. Robert Goodland has been referred to as “the conscience” of the World Bank, which recruited him to be its first full-time ecologist. He took a lead role in drafting the World Bank’s first environmental and social policies, which essentially served as environmental and social standards for countries that lacked appropriate regulatory frameworks to provide such standards. Previously, as a tropical ecologist, he created a Department of Ecology at the University of Brasilia. Later, he co-authored an article entitled “Livestock and Climate Change,” estimating that the lifecycle and supply chain of livestock products are responsible for at least 51% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

Interviewer: Hello, Dr. Goodland. As one of the top environmental analysts in the world, I heard you have special concerns for Hawaii’s policy of promoting beef production. Could you elaborate?

Dr. Goodland: The Hawaiian Islands are more at risk of being submerged by the rising seas of climate change than most places. So it’s particularly heartening when someone from Hawaii like Chris Mentzel can use his position as the CEO of a solar power company to try to influence UN climate talks. In fact, he started his report back to the Maui Weekly by calling the loudest activists he met “fools.”

To Mr. Mentzel’s chagrin, those activists countered his pitch for more solar power with a pitch for more vegan foods. These fools, he thought, should be supporting him. But then he read their literature, and was astounded to find it contained an assessment that explained to him how replacing just 1% of today’s livestock products with alternatives could have the same effect as three trillion dollars of his solar panels. The fools were right, he concluded.

What Mr. Mentzel read was an assessment by environmental specialists employed by two UN specialized agencies, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation. Those specialists are Jeff Anhang and me. We explained how replacing about 25% of today’s livestock products could yield almost the entire objective of international climate treaty negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric carbon. That’s because such replacement would both reduce sufficient greenhouse gas emissions and free up enough land to permit large-scale tree-planting and forest regeneration to absorb atmospheric carbon to reduce it to a safe level.

The effect of replacing just 25% of today’s livestock products would be so enormous that it could actually be the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change. That’s because livestock grazing alone – not even including feed production – is estimated to occupy 45% percent of all land on earth, and that’s according to the International Livestock Research Institute, which normally promotes more livestock. In fact, there’s a substantial amount of literature that documents the potential for agricultural change to bring atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial revolution levels within five years.

Interviewer: In Hawaii, grass fed cattle is being touted as more environmentally friendly and sustainable. What is your assessment of that claim?

Dr. Goodland: Don’t believe big trade groups promoting grass-fed livestock for Hawaii with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) claim that the world will need 70% more livestock by 2050. In fact, the International Food Policy Research Institute projects that consumption of livestock products could decline through at least 2030. That institute co-published with the FAO a report 14 years ago that kicked off what was called at the time the “Livestock Revolution,” which was said to be a recognition of a sort of inevitable increase in factory farming. So it’s particularly striking to see the International Food Policy Research Institute now projecting such a different future.

The independent Soil Association uses unusually harsh language to critique the FAO’s projections for more livestock, calling them a “big fat lie.” The Soil Association says that the FAO’s projection assumes “high meat” growth in developing countries, which would generate “massive land use change” that would exacerbate climate change rather than slow it.

Raising cows on pasture requires much more land than factory farming, which itself is well-known to be environmentally unfriendly.  But if anything, grass-fed cows are even more so, as they emit two to four times the amount of methane as their factory farmed counterparts.

Anyway, a grassland producer has himself noted that most cows begin their lives on pasture – to save money on feeding – but they ultimately spend the second half of their lives getting fattened up in feedlots, so most marketing of “grass-fed” beef is a hoax. Beef marketed this way commands a 200-300% price premium, so the incentive for producers and sellers to cheat is overwhelming.

Even Bill Gates is now projecting a big rise in vegan foods within the next 5 years, based on highly appealing new vegan food products that more and more people are happily using to fill the center of their plates.

Interviewer: So, in a nutshell, what’s your warning to the people of Hawaii?

Dr. Goodland: Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have warned that major action by 2017 may be the last real chance to reverse climate change before it’s too late. That’s surely compelling motivation for following the prescription of Hawaii’s own Chris Mentzel, which is basically to see how much better alternatives to livestock products we can use to fill the center of our plates.

The interviewer, Frank DeGiacomo, originally conducted this interview (one of Dr. Goodland’s final ones) to post for his Huffington Post blog. He now offers it in memorial to the late Dr. Goodland in the hopes that Dr. Goodland’s message will continue to be widely spread.

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