There’s a reason the Environmental Working Group is known in some circles as the Environmental “Worrying” Group: It uses shoddy “science” to push agenda-driven, fear-based propaganda. Often, EWG scaremongers about chemicals and toxins. (Seventy-nine percent of members of the Society of Toxicology who rated EWG say that the group overstates the health risk of chemicals, by the way.) But yesterday, EWG released a new report declaring that we should limit our consumption of meat and cheese to help the environment. To no surprise, it’s not any more credible than the group’s past claims.
Naturally, the eat-less-meat report got a thumbs-up from Andrew Weil, who sits on the advisory board of the anti-meat, anti-cheese group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Foodie author Michael Pollan also signed on, no doubt enticed by EWG’s eat-organic philosophy. And, of course, Mark Bittman gave the report some friendly blog space.
But the report’s claims are drawing criticism from one respected researcher:
Frank Mitloehner, who studies animal-environmental interactions at the University of California-Davis, disputes the numbers. Scientific life cycle assessments of meat production "haven't been conducted," he says.
The Environmental Protection Agency says only 3.4% of all greenhouse gases are the result of animal agriculture. "By changing the focus to eating habits, people think it doesn't matter whether they drive a Hummer or a Prius, it's whether they eat a burger or not."
You might recall that Mitloehner documented a major flaw in the claims of a 2006 United Nations report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which claimed that livestock producers are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Mitloehner discovered that the UN researchers overstated animal agriculture’s contribution to emissions by performing a more detailed accounting for the agriculture sector than transportation. In other words, the UN was comparing apples and oranges. Upon reviewing Mitloehner’s allegations, one of the authors of the UN report accepted Mitloehner’s criticism.
What’s the real deal? Domestically, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the entire agriculture sector contributes 6.4 percent of GHGs. Livestock farming accounts for less than 4 percent of US emissions. And the industry is getting more efficient: America’s beef production in 2008 needed 37 million fewer cattle to produce the same amount of meat as in 1975, for example, meaning less feed was needed and less waste was produced.
So what would EWG have us do? The report encourages people to buy locally to reduce their “footprint.” But this is even more myth-making. Researchers calculated that shipping New Zealand lamb to England was two to four times less emissions-intensive than producing lamb in England for local consumption. Similarly, fresh flowers grown in Kenya and shipped to Europe have a smaller environmental impact than flora grown more locally in Holland and sold in neighboring countries.
It’s all about economies of scale. And let’s not even get into the environmental costs of going completely “organic” (which is what it seems EWG wants).
EWG also throws in a few health scares, claiming that eating meat may be "contributing to the obesity epidemic” (nonsense) and insinuating that meat may cause cancer (pure baloney). EWG also dredges up scares about toxins in meat, a bogus talking point that we’ve exposed in the past.
In the end, the report seems like a hodgepodge of the most discredited animal-rights and organic-only propaganda designed to promote the “Meatless Monday” agenda.
If it wanted to do something credible, perhaps EWG should be praising the efficiency of American livestock farmers (and the agriculture sector generally) instead of bashing their products.
Or here’s a better idea: Since EWG points out that lots of people throw away food, why not simply encourage Americans to clean their plates? That would certainly be more palatable than ridiculous fear-mongering. And we’d guess it would find widespread support—except, perhaps, among the food police and anti-obesity zealots.