• “I have never been to a seminar, where the discussion goes
    so deep around common industry challenges”
    Sten Estrup, Executive Vice President Christian Hansen, 2016

  • “An enormous learning experience”
    Gerald Wilfingseder, General Manager Gold Coin Group, 2016

  • “Excellent content, facilitation and format – outstanding”
    Tim Hart, CEO Ridley Corporation, 2016

  • “Tremendous opportunity to share experiences and perspectives”
    Simon Cheng, Managing Director BRF, 2016

  • “Thank you for the seminar, so much learning”
    Akiko Seyoum, CEO Orchid Business Group, 2016

  • “Much beyond my expectations – I will surely return”
    Gustavo Grobocopatel, Chairman Los Grobo, 2013

  • “Rich, useful, time extremely well invested”
    Stefano Vlahovic, CEO Produkti Pitania, 2011

  • “This is for people who want to get things done.”
    Hans Roelofs, CEO Refresco, 2009

  • “I have not been to an event yet where we got into the real issues so deep so fast.”
    Lennart Holm, CEO Perstorp, 2007

  • “There has not been one case that did not inspire me.”
    Wout Dekker, CEO Nutreco 2007

  • “Excellent. We should have had such a seminar much earlier”
    Hugh Grant, CEO Monsanto 2005

  • “It has been an inspiration, very well done, an audience of 50 likeminded peers that really ask relevant questions and it has helped me accelerate my thinking”
    Christoffer Lorenzen, EVP Chr. Hansen, 2017

  • “I did numerous studies, maybe hundreds of Harvard cases but this was one of the best I’ve ever read”
    Markus Länzlinger, CEO Migrolino, 2017

  • “Really enjoyed the seminar, very good cases, very good interactions, very practical, very lively and high-speed”
    Jeroen Wakkermann, CFO Nutreco, 2017

Animal Protein, Climate Change and Cancer

What Science Knows and What the Narrative Says

Popular media reports, based on what appear to be numerous scientific investigations, tend to urge the modern consumer to much reduce their animal protein consumption. This, most reports claim, is necessary to protect the climate as agriculture represents around a quarter of the total man-made Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Of this quarter, around 60% is said to be due to animal products, with red meats and certain cattle products, taking the lion’s share. Besides climate, there would also be other environmental concerns such as water and soil degradation, deforestation, and more. It would also be healthier as red meats in particular, but also animal proteins in general, are considered to cause cancer and cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, it would be morally problematic to kill sentient animals, or to keep them under industrialized conditions. The only responsible and reasonable thing to do would therefore be to adopt a vegan lifestyle, or at least flexitarian habits with reduced intakes of animal proteins.

The authors of such publications work across the entire quality spectrum of science and media, including researchers from some of the world’s most renowned universities such as Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, journalists at the New York Times and the BBC, and policy advisors at esteemed organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

This report reviews several of the most high profile and most often cited scientific investigations on which these claims of climate and health damage are made. The report finds that each of these scientific investigations suffer from crucial methodological flaws, are careless and shoddy with referencing critical data, systematically ignore findings that do not fit the ‘meat is irresponsible’ narrative, and are not as numerous as they are claimed to be. Each of these criticisms can be easily retraced and verified by the reader of this report, since all materials to which it refers are readily downloadable from the internet and are marked by page.

In particular this report highlights the following shortcomings:

  • The publications, on which much of the ‘meat is irresponsible’ narrative rests, use hundreds or sometimes thousands of references to other publications, for numbers, statistics and methods, which then refer yet again to hundreds of other publications. Frequently key metrics and important concepts are cited inconsistently, plainly wrong or are conjured from a convolute of references that are not relevant to the question. Many findings derive from inaccessible model simulations. True empirical investigations are rare
  • Summary findings in these publications are usually expressed as established facts, when in reality they are based on estimates with broad uncertainty ranges. These uncertainty ranges can often only be found in separate methodology papers, which are harder to locate, and are shrouded in scientific and complicated jargon. In several important cases the simple arithmetic of adding up or calculating percentages cannot be replicated. Sometimes the summaries state exactly the opposite of what the evidence in the same investigation indicates
  • There is a frequent bias to ignore scientific investigations that arrive at numbers that are much less alarming than the common narrative. Only studies that confirm the ‘meat is irresponsible’ narrative are utilized and referenced
  • Deforestation of original biospheres in tropical countries is a significant problem for various reasons, not least because they cause a one-time change in the sequestered carbon stock, thus releasing GHG into the atmosphere. The typically cited reports attribute around half of the extent of deforestation to increasing demand for animal protein production. This is methodologically false. There is no causal link between regional deforestation and globally aggregated increased food demand for animal proteins. Deforestation is overwhelmingly a function of weak local sociopolitical institutions, rural poverty, crime and corruption – it is only remotely or not at all a function of food demand. Moreover, the short amortization rate for the one-time effect, which is usually applied, is methodologically equally false. Suggesting to consumers that if they reduced their animal protein consumption there would be less release of GHG emissions thanks to lower rates of deforestation is therefore wrong. The empirical evidence that does exist indicates that the one will not lead to the other. If anything, the empirical evidence shows that the regional rates of deforestation would increase if aggregate animal protein production decreases
  • Enteric fermentation by ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats) releases a substantial amount of methane into the atmosphere, which can be a significant GHG contribution. However, the usual studies cited for the ‘meat is irresponsible’ narrative do not account for the countervailing effects of methane and carbon sequestration in soils that are being grazed by these ruminants. The topic needs more investigation to provide further evidence. The few findings that do exist point towards complete or even overcompensation of animal methane eructation by methane sequestration in the soils. This reduces the overall contribution by enteric fermentation of the global herd drastically. Furthermore, a factor not considered is what would be the natural stock of ruminants in a global eco-system undisturbed by humans. To the degree that the domesticated stock replaces the natural stock, this portion should not be considered as generating additional GHG emissions. No study which the author investigated accounts for this effect
  • The 2015 WHO conclusion that red meats and processed meats are causing colorectal cancer are dubious, and potentially harmful to the global population. The studies on which WHO bases its findings openly declare that a causal link could not be identified, but that there is only, at best, a statistical association to be found. At closer inspection, the committee of scientists which provided the findings for the WHO decision repeated the same set of findings (literally) that had already been published by the same lead researcher in 2011 at Imperial College London. The research work of Imperial College seems to have been financed exclusively by a privately-run charity focused on preventing cancer through diets. It appears that an ideological mission was the guiding impetus towards overstating a slim scientific basis towards far-reaching statements, which then found a bureaucratically procedural endorsement by the WHO

Conclusion: As at 2010 the total annual man-made GHG emissions were estimated to be 49 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent. If a quarter of this is due to agriculture, then this would be around 12 Gt. Half of this amount is supposedly caused by land use changes, primarily deforestation, which is falsely attributed to food production. The real cause for deforestation is poverty, weak institutions, crime and corruption, and not the need to grow more food. Of the remaining 6 Gt, enteric fermentation fermentation is estimated to account for between 1.6 and 2 Gt. However, if compensating methanotrophic activity should be estimated with the currently available (meagre) knowledge, then we would need to conclude that all or almost all of this is compensated by bacteria. This compensation calculation includes also the roughly 1 Gt of manure related GHG emissions. The remaining agricultural emissions would be related to rice cultivation, organic soil cultivation and crop residue decay. In other words, while animal protein production might be largely climate-neutral, rice and organic produce cultivation are the remaining problem crops for the climate. Under these circumstances, switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet would increase the GHG emissions of agriculture, not decrease them.

The oft-repeated narrative that animal protein production is harmful to the climate and to the consumer has begun to enter received common wisdom. For instance, the singer artist Beyoncé raffles off a 30-year valid free ticket to all her concert tours to all participants promising to reduce their animal protein intake. She is clearly convinced that this is the right thing to do. This report does not speculate on who promotes this factually-wrong narrative and for what reason. Clearly there are scientists who are willing to bend, bias and selectively report the existing state of knowledge to support and confirm this narrative. The author of this report puzzles why earnest scientists are willing to do so. Science should investigate rigorously and create unbiased knowledge. It is an important debate: nothing less than the health of the global population, the environmental sustainability and survivability of our lifestyles, and the fortunes of the single largest industry of the world, the animal protein production industry, are at stake.