As the world gears up for the climate talks in Copenhagen next month, the mainstream media is overlooking one important climate change contributor, and it isn't coal or cars.
Three years ago, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations released a lengthy report entitled "Livestock's Long Shadow." Among the plethora of environmental problems the livestock industry is accused of contributing to — water pollution, habit fragmentation and desertification of arable land among them — climate change figured prominently.
In particular, the report concluded that livestock production accounts for 18%, or one-fifth, of global emissions. This figure is higher than all transportation sources combined.
In coming up with this figure, the FAO considered the full life cycle of livestock production. It didn't only calculate enteric emissions, the methane and nitrous oxide from the belching, flatulence and defecation of the animals that has made the topic the butt of jokes by both pundits and the public. It also figured in external carbon emissions that occur in livestock production. This included on-farm energy use, the transportation of livestock feed, waste and goods, and tropical deforestation. The latter is the most notorious factor, as at least 70 percent of Amazon clear cutting is due to producing makeshift pasture for cattle grazing or to grow soy to be shipped overseas to confinement feedlots. Deforestation of the Amazon contributes to approximately 22 percent of annual emissions.
Does this sound familiar? It would make sense if it didn't to people who rely on the mainstream media for news.
Last year, the Center for a Livable Future of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released a report detailing the results of a two and a half year study of media coverage of agriculture in the context of climate change. The study reviewed 16 major daily newspapers in the United States, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today. Specifically, the researchers searched for the key words "food," "farm" or "agriculture" in any articles that contained the terms "climate change" or "global warming" in their lead paragraphs.
Of the 4,582 climate change articles surveyed, only 109 (or 2.4 percent), included one or more of the key phrases, with only 20 of those articles explicitly focused on the subject of food or agriculture as related to climate change. The remainder of the 109 articles contained only brief mentions, and only 13 percent containing any mention of "livestock."
Roni Neff, the Research and Policy Director of the Center for a Livable Future and the lead author of the study, says she has noticed a slight uptick in reporting on agriculture's role in climate change since the report was published but only slight.
This leads to the question: Why has such an important contributor to climate change received such paltry coverage?
Neff, notes that diet is generally considered a more personal aspect of behavior as opposed to others such as driving habits. This makes it a challenge in prompting media professionals to tackle the topic.
"The fact is that we as a society tend to view it as strictly an individual choice with no bearing on how it affects larger society, and how larger social forces affect our eating, and so it's not considered newsworthy," says Neff.
Neff also contends that media oversight of this topic may be partially due to what she deems "CO2 bias" among journalists. Since awareness of the significance of the food's influence on climate occurred in the scientific community later in comparison to other factors, the topic may be undergoing a lag time before the media catches on as it did with climate change in general.
The JHU reported cited the popularity of the climate change documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," during the period of the study. Though it is responsible for catapulting climate awareness into the mainstream, it makes no mention of agriculture and focuses almost exclusively on carbon dioxide.
CO2 bias is apparent even in coverage that does exist on the correlation between agriculture and climate change, as the general public seems most familiar with carbon emissions related to what has been termed "food miles."
The research that has received the most attention on the subject of food miles and helped popularize the eat local (or locavore) movement was conducted by Rich Pirog and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University where he serves as director. The most famous Pirog-led Leopold study is the oft-cited "1500-mile study," which indicated that most conventionally-produced fruits and vegetables in the United States often travel an average of 1,500 miles before reaching its intended destination.
Eating local looms the largest in terms of food messaging campaigns spearheaded or endorsed by environmental groups, climate coalitions and small farm advocates. This holds true even when it comes to the subject of meat eating, where alternative sourcing of animal protein from local farms is often advocated over reduced consumption.
Such messages have persisted even after Carnegie Melon released a study in spring 2008 indicating that eliminating red meat and dairy just one day a week from one's diet did more to lower his or her carbon footprint than eating local everyday of the week. This study also received scant coverage in the media, as did a Guardian interview with IPCC chair, Rajendra Pachauri, who went on record to endorse reduction or consumption of meat as a critical personal behavior change in addressing global warming.
In fact, a comparison between The New York Times and The Guardian and its Sunday paper, The Observer, of the United Kingdom, shows that the UK publications covered the relationship between meat consumption and climate change twice as much as their U.S. rival between December 2006 and December 2008. The articles featured in the UK publication also averaged twice as long in word count and tended to feature more attention-grabbing, visceral headlines, such as, "Is Your Sunday Roast Killing the Planet?"
Of course, these results are also consistent with general trends in media coverage on climate change between the two nations, with UK publications usually featuring two or three times more articles on the topic as compared to those in the U.S. Even so, articles on the relationship between meat and climate change featured in the Guardian/Observer still comprised less than 1 percent of climate change-related articles for the two year time span.
The JHU study did note an increase in food- or agriculture-related climate change newspaper articles in the U.S. during the final six months of its survey period.
The Center for a Livable Future conducted a more recent survey of online carbon calculators that estimate an individual's carbon or ecological footprint. The study found that food consumption was also an underrepresented aspect of those environmental impact estimates, with only 21 out of the 83 calculators found accounting for it.
Other organizations that pay attention to topic have also commented on the rarity of coverage.
In August, the Organic Consumers Association reported on a rare Washington Post article on the topic of meat and climate in their e-newsletter, stating: "it's refreshing to see a mainstream media outlet finally bring attention to the topic."
Neff acknowledges that the relatively tepid coverage of the effects of agriculture on climate change in the U.S. media may also be due to other factors that are difficult to definitively qualify or measure, such as the influence of corporate sponsors and advertisers.
The presence of food libel laws in many southern and western states, passed in response to plummeting beef sales and stock amid the height of the mad-cow scare of the 1990's, could also be a cause. Food libel laws make it easier for food producers and agribusinesses to sue their critics, and even allows for them to collect for punitive damages in court cases, regardless of the outcome.
Whatever the explanation, Neff maintains that media has an important role in raising awareness on this topic if it is to ever result in meaningful behavior change.
"Media is not the end all or be all of influencing behavior trends," remarks Neff. "But if people are not aware of something, they can't take the proper action to change it.
"Media can build popular knowledge that contributes to public policy. It's an important piece of the puzzle."