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Why this company just deleted a Tweet about meat eating and the environment

Why this company just deleted a Tweet about meat eating and the environment
A tweet, reportedly posted Sunday by the official Bayer Crop Science Twitter account, has caused quite a hubbub among some farmers and prompted the German life sciences company to issue an apology — which, in turn, has angered environmentalists. The tweet’s controversial topic — vegetarianism and how that helps the environment — has highlighted the rising tension between the agricultural industry, which supplies the ever-increasing global demand for meat, and the growing body of evidence to suggest that livestock farming is a key driver of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to reports, the tweet — which has since been deleted — linked to a recent Vox article on research suggesting that going vegetarian can cut your carbon footprint in half. The Twitter account frequently posts images and links to agriculture-related news. But this particular tweet resulted in swift backlash from grain growers, whose crops directly support the raising of meat animals, and other farmers and livestock owners.

On Monday morning, the Twitter account posted another tweet stating that the company wanted to apologize and noting that “the livestock industry has our full support.” And in a blog post published the same day, a Bayer spokesman reiterated that the tweet was a “mistake” and that the company has “nothing but respect and admiration for the livestock producers who dedicate their lives to agriculture.”

In an email to The Washington Post, Bayer spokesman Jeffrey Donald pointed to the blog post and reiterated that the tweet “was a mistake and does not reflect our views.”

In another twist, however, the company has now managed to garner the ire of environmentalists, who are frustrated that Bayer has apologized for tweeting what they’ve referred to as “the truth.”

In fact, numerous studies support the idea that the meat industry — and particularly cattle raising — is a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States alone, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and the methane produced by cattle alone represents about a third of these emissions. And in the world at large, a 2013 report from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization suggested that livestock contribute more than 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents — about 15 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions — each year.

The staggering volumes of carbon emissions contributed by the livestock sector include both the methane produced by the animals themselves, primarily cows, as well as the immense carbon footprint associated with producing the crops required to feed them and converting all the land that raising them requires.

In light of such estimates, many recent studies have investigated the extent to which a shift in global diets could affect the climate. The 2014 study described in the Vox article linked by Bayer’s offending tweet, for instance, examined the carbon footprints of various diets, including meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans, among people in Britain and found that cutting down on meat substantially reduced a diet’s associated greenhouse gas emissions.

A blockbuster study published in March in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences came to similar conclusions, suggesting that shifting toward a plant-based diet on a global scale could not only save millions of lives through the associated health benefits but also cut out anywhere from 29 to 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to food over the next few decades.

However, there’s been pushback from the agricultural industry, and the meat industry in particular. In a statement responding to the March study, for instance, North American Meat Institute chief executive Barry Carpenter said, “Many papers … emphasize the benefits of meat in the diet and the risks associated with a diet that excludes meat.” He also pointed out that compared with the transportation sector or the energy sector, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock in the United States represent a comparatively small percentage of overall anthropogenic emissions. (However, as the FAO report has pointed out, this percentage rises substantially when considered on a global scale.)

Additionally, the recent Bayer blog post suggested that the carbon footprint of beef has actually shrunk in the past few decades. Some research has indeed indicated that, since the 1970s, the per-kilogram carbon footprint of beef has fallen. On the other hand, the demand for beef and other meat products has only risen, and is expected to continue doing so — meaning greater production of beef worldwide may outweigh the cuts that have been made so far in the environmental footprint of any single kilogram.

And recent tweets by Bayer acknowledge this projected increase in demand. On Monday, for instance, the company pointed to research from agricultural research partnership CGIAR suggesting that the demand for animal protein will increase by 60 percent over the next 15 years.

In general, many climate experts agree that investing in sustainable agriculture is a critical step for the planet’s climate future. And they’re not just talking about the meat industry, either — a recent study suggested that global farm emissions should fall by at least a billion tons per year by 2030 if the Paris climate agreement is to be successful.

But despite the backlash over the Bayer tweet, meat consumption remains a prime culprit when it comes to global greenhouse gas emissions, and the evidence suggests that cutting down on a global scale could have a tremendous effect on the future climate. And that’s just science — something no amount of arguing on Twitter can change.