Journalists and bloggers are abuzz this week about cookbook author Mark Bittman. The New York Times columnist and vegetarian recipe guru has released a new book called Food Matters: A Guide To Conscious Eating, and it’s taking the “foodie” world by storm. But Food Matters (and its many reviews) contains one glaring factual omission that we just can’t get past: The book’s foundation, a United Nations report on the impact of meat production on the environment, has been totally debunked. More than once.
The first paragraph of Food Matters reads:
Two years ago, a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) landed on my desk. Called Livestock’s Long Shadow, it revealed a stunning statistic: global livestock production is responsible for about one-fifth of all greenhouse gases—more than transportation.
Sound familiar? Chances are you’ve heard this claim since UN climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri started trumpeting it last fall. But as Oxford University lecturer James Panton pointed out back then, there are all sorts of problems with the UN’s methodology in coming up with that one-fifth (technically 18 percent) number:
[T]his figure is based upon calculating emissions from every aspect of the meat production process – not just animal flatulence, but deforestation to make room for grazing pastures, the production and transportation of fertilisers that are used in the production of animal feeds, the burning of fossil fuels in farm vehicles, and food transportation…
As you can see here and here, Panton wasn’t the only one to challenge the UN’s conclusions. And the UN made no allowances for the fact that some countries—ours, for one—are far more environmentally efficient with their livestock-rearing than others. In October, we chimed in with our own domestic calculation: According to Environmental Protection Agency data, greenhouse gas sources directly related to livestock production in the United States only account for 2.58 percent of total emissions.
If this shaky report was the “catalyst” for Bittman’s book, we wonder what other factual defects may be found in the pages of Food Matters—such as Bittman’s attribution of his 35-pound weight loss to part-time vegetarianism. Calories are calories, and exercise is exercise. We suspect he indulged in fewer of the former and more of the latter. It would have made for a less bombastic book, but facts are facts.