Robert Goodland, Livestock and Climate Change


Robert Goodland retired as lead environmental advisor at the World Bank Group after serving for 23 years where he was nicknamed “The Conscience of the World Bank”. In 2008 he was awarded the first Coolidge Memorial Medal by the IUCN for outstanding contributions to environmental conservation. He is the co-author of Amazon Jungle-Green Hell to Red Desert?: An Ecological Discussion of the Environmental Impact of the Highway Construction Program in the Amazon Basin. In the November/December 2009 issue of the World Watch journal, Goodland and co-author Jeff Anhang published the shocking estimate of “at least 51%” of global greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the lifecycle and supply chain of livestock products (meaning all meats, dairy, and by-products).


CH: This is Robert Goodland. He is retired as the lead Environmental Advisor at the World Bank group and he served there for 23 years. In 2008 he was awarded the IUCN’s first Coolidge Medal for ‘Outstanding Contributions to Environmental Conservation.’ He’s the co-author of a book, Amazon Jungle, Green Hell to Red Desert: An Ecological Discussion of the Impact of the Highway Construction Program in the Amazon Basin. And, in the November/December issue of the [2009] World Watch Journal, Goodland, along with co-author Jeff Anhang, published the shocking estimate of at least 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions [GHGs] attributable to the life cycle and supply chain of livestock products, and this means all meat, dairy, and by-products, and we’re going to be talking a lot about that today. Robert, are you with me?!

RG: Hello. Here I am. Thanks for inviting me.

CH: Oh gosh. It’s such an enormous pleasure. You are – well, as I read – you were dubbed ‘the conscience of the World Bank.’ You have done such amazing work over the last quarter century and more, and, I think people are finally listening.

RG: I hope so, yes.

CH: Okay, so, how did you get on this path of being interested in and protecting the environment and how it relates to food?

RG: How I got into the environment was very odd. I chose the disciplines which contained the least math, and I also loved the outdoors. So if you combined the least math and the most outdoors, that is sort of field studies and biology, that is now ecology and environmental sciences. That was my start.

CH: Well that’s interesting because everything that I’ve read that you wrote is full of numbers, statistics, [laughs] so that’s rather odd! Okay, so, I understand you wrote this book about the Amazon jungle. That was about back in 1975?

RG: That’s right, yes.

CH: What brought you to the Amazon and what motivated you to write such an incredible book?

RG: I was sent to Brazil as a sort of researcher and at the time they were building a highway through the Amazon and I was appalled, and no-one knew quite what the impacts would be, so, I wrote that book explaining what the terrible consequences would be.

CH: That’s right. And we’ve seen what the terrible consequences have been.

RG: We have indeed, yes.

CH: And not only are there big roads going through but they’re just plowing the jungle away now.

RG: They sure are, yes.

CH:: It’s a lot easier than making roads. They just knock ‘em all down.

RG: Yeah, they ‘knock ‘em all down’ using slaves, according to the Brazilian government, anyway. This is now restricted to Amazonia. And they cut them down by hand with machetes, let them dry out as much as they can in that very wet area, and then with a cheap box of matches they burn it. So, all that, just that few steps has terrible consequences for our world. If you reduce the forest you reduce its green house gas ‘sucking up potential,’ and if you burn it you emit a lot more green house gases, particularly soot, which is the most powerful green house gas, which is not usually recognized, but it is. And there are a lot of CO2 of course. And then if you put cattle on, which is the cheapest form of land use, then they produce a lot of methane, and as you referred to in our study, methane is 23 times, or 30 times worse than carbon dioxide in ruining our climate.

CH: You’ve said so many things in like thirty seconds. One of the things that strikes me is that I’ve heard so much about the Amazon rainforest being for numerous different things: the trees for animal grazing, or for growing soy beans to feed animals, but I never heard what you said: that slaves were used to cut [trees] down. That they’re cut down by machetes and that the trees are simply dried and burned. And this is like a two hour discussion by itself.

RG:According to the Brazilian government the Amazon is their number one peak area for the use of slaves, and if they’re not slaves they’re quasi-slaves, with debt-bondage in hock to the company store, and of course they can’t run away. If they [do] they’re chased back. So yes, it’s pretty bad. The government is very worried about it.

CH: This show is called It’s All About Food. It’s very clear what I talk about: I talk about helping people transition to healthy plant-based diet: fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and there’s lots of motivation behind this that we talk about over and over and over and over because it’s better for your health, it’s certainly kinder to the animals, and what we’re doing to dig into a lot today is what it’s doing to the environment, when we raise animals for food. But so many people when they hear this information, and talk about, you know: “Why do you care so much about the animals? Why don’t you care about people?” It’s hearing this little bit of information about how slaves or near slaves are used to cut down these trees in order to allow for animal grazing or soy-bean production, so that we can raise animals to feed people: It’s ALL connected! The exploitation of animals is totally connected to the exploitation of people.

RG: Yes, people are very low cost in the Amazon. People can be bought for a couple of dollars, and often [are]. Murders are very, very common in the Amazon. And a second group of people are the indigenous people, the forest dwellers who depend on the fairly intact forest for their livelihoods. They’re also expendable. The government doesn’t particularly like them, and they are in conflict with the cattle barons. There’s a big human cost.

CH: Okay, well, let’s get onto some more happy news. So, you wrote this book and then you were working for the World Bank for several decades, and I imagine you encountered a lot of interesting things there.

RG: Fascinating, yes.

CH: And I think some of your work encouraged the World Bank to perhaps not support certain projects and help support others?

RG: That’s right. Yes, my job was for the first time in the history of the World Bank, inject some social and environmental prudence into their loans. This was very new. I was extremely unpopular, as you can imagine. But I did it, and during that quarter century, I managed to draft, and then even more difficult, persuade the World Bank to accept its current suite of what’s called its ‘safe-guard policies,’ policies on safe-guards, on environmental assessments, on indigenous peoples, and so on. I wrote most of them; I’m very proud of it.

CH: Well, I think what we’re going to find out is that industry can be profitable, and also socially responsible. That’s what the great fear is: That protecting the environment, and doing things environmentally sustainable, and doing things that give people a livable wage, and a certain amount of freedom, is not going to be devastating to the economy. It’s only going to help. So, I’m glad that you’ve been a part of it, and we certainly need a lot more of it. Unfortunately you’ve retired from the World Bank, but I’m hoping that there are others that are carrying on your spin. And so, there’s been a lot of things happening in the last quarter century, like lots of books being written, lots of information coming out about how environmentally destructive that animal agriculture is to our water, to our soil, to our air, and more recently, we’ve been getting more focus on global warming. And it’s been very frustrating for a lot of us, because a lot of this information has fallen on deaf ears. And then, in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization came out with the Livestock Long Shadow report and they came up with this number that so many of us jumped on, that 18% of human induced green house gase are caused by animal agriculture. And we were all jumping up and down about this, and there were some moments of flow, and some moments of talking about the devastating effects of livestock. Now were you somehow involved indirectly with this report coming out?

RG: No, not even indirectly. I had had a big campaign in the World Bank to stop the World Bank from financing deforestation for cattle pastures, and in fact to phase out of industrial beef production, and we were not really very successful. Jeff Anhang was my partner in all this, and he’s still there, but, we did raise the question: Is investment in beef production from cutting down forests, is that the most efficient use of tax-payer’s money? And I think the economists in the World Bank slowly came to realize that it was a huge waste. Beef production is the least efficient way of feeding people.

And then you’ve all heard of the hamburger connection; how the Amazon and other forests are destroyed just so Northerners can have a slightly cheaper hamburger. And so both those things eventually were realized, and so the World Bank phased out of industrial cattle ranches.

CH: Well that’s good. That’s very good. [Trees monologue.]

Then you came out with this wonderful article last year in the World Watch Journal. And again a new number came out that at least 51% of human-induced green house gas emissions were produced by livestock production. What motivated this study?

RG: We wanted to recalculate the FAO’s study of 16 or 18% that you just quoted. Yeah, like you, we were amazed that it was so high, even higher than the transport sector and all of the gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks, and so we recalculated very carefully, and that is our considered conclusion, that the live-stock production chain, from cutting the forest, burning it, raising the live-stock, slaughtering them, throwing all their guts in the river, all of the manure causing impact, transporting the frozen carcasses overseas, even flying them by airplane overseas, then cooking them, and disposal of the waste, all of that adds up to more than half of the total anthropomorphic green house gas emissions. And we were even more startled by our own conclusions.

CH: … You came out in the last World Watch Journal responding to some of the commentary of your November/ December 2009 article. There’s going to be some discussion and probably some reworking of some of the calculations but all this is going to be putting the focus on where it should be, on livestock, and whether it’s 18% or 30% or 51%, it’s too much. And it’s probably the easiest thing that we can address today to mitigate global warming.

RG: Yes, I agree. In fact, as individuals there isn’t all that much that we can do to combat climate risks. But the biggest contribution each individual can do if they so desire is to eat traditional diets: grains, soy, vegetables, fruits, and if that’s too difficult for them, then to eat meat analogues, such as veggie burgers, and soymilk, and yoghurt ice cream, things like that. But that can be done by anyone who so chooses, and it’ll improve their health, and it’ll improve their pocket books because traditional diets are much cheaper than meat-centered diets.

… When we’re supporting a plant-based diet, industry will respond. It’s up to each of us, not the government. So it’s really up to us whether we really want to save the planet.

CH: Since publication of your report came out [in 2009] what kind of responses did you get?

RG: That was also surprising as we thought there would be massive opposition, ridicule, and vilification but so far it hasn’t happened. It may happen in the future but we’re still waiting for it. On the contrary, practically all the comments, and there’ve been many for this article by Jeff Anhang and myself, [it’s] caused more comment than practically any other article they’ve published in the history of publication for World Watch. So we’re kind of pleased. So far there hasn’t been any supportable rebuttal of our conclusions that 51% of all anthropomorphic greenhouse gases come from the livestock chain, and so that’s been really encouraging. Most of the comments have been, “Well, it might not be 51%,” but even so it’s much, much higher than the FAO’s estimate. We heard recently that FAO have been sparked by our work to do their own recalculation. Of course it’s a huge bureaucracy. They have a lot of money and a lot of people; a lot of good mathematicians, and they have the world’s best database on all these things, and so they’re going to recalculate their own work and I’m sure that their 18% will move towards our 51%, or even exceed it.

CH: These are really complicated calculations and a lot of interesting assumptions need to be made. There’s been a lot of interesting discussion in your articles about respiration of the animals: Whether to count it or not, and how to count it, and whether we count human respiration in some of these determinations of green house gas emissions. How do you get your head around all of this?

RG: The same way porcupines make love: With great care! That part you’re talking about is in Part Four of the conclusion. We took it from the pure physicist Alan Calvert who published an article in ‘Physics,’ showing that respiration of human-kept animals (livestock) of which there are 60 billion, allowing for …, imagine that, 60 billion livestock and 6 billion humans. And then livestock ruminants are so much more damaging firstly precisely because there are so much more of them, and secondly because they produce methane which as was said is thirty times worse than carbon dioxide in ruining the climate.

CH: We don’t hear enough about methane, but then most people aren’t really interested in the chemistry or the details; it kind of sounds a little complicated. I’m interested in what you said about how the FAO has the world’s greatest databases and all this information and all these great mathematicians and yet you said that in their report they they understated or underestimated all the animals that are being raised.

RG: Yes, and since that report was released which was a few years ago now there’s been a massive increase in the number of livestock in the world. And it’s partly their success if you want to put it that way because the FAO have always pointed to the fact that as people get richer they want to eat more meat, and so FAO’s role has been to meet that demand, and produce yet more meat. We think this is really benighted, and is harming our world.

CH: Yeah, I see so many articles have come out from the third world about how they are building up their livestock production, and how in China they want to push the dairy production as well as the meat production.

RG: Yes, China is a very interesting case in point because my dear friend Colin Campbell – you’ve read his China Study, he’s one of the world’s greatest on diet and health in developing countries – he’s been predicting for ages that diabetes (a lot of it is meat consumption related) will skyrocket in China, and everyone laughed at him saying “Oh you’re quite wrong!” But however, China started to eat much more meat and dairy, and sure enough, literally as of last week, China is the diabetes capital of the whole world. There’s more diabetes today, as of last week, in China than there is in any other country. India is a close second and precisely because they’re both eating more meat; that’s a factor in it.

CH: … How does this happen?

RG:Yes, it’s really sad. I had to work in China quite a bit when I worked for the World Bank. I was appalled that one day the Minister of Agriculture had invented a slogan saying ‘One glass of milk a day for each person.’ I wrote to him immediately because that’s so damaging. The first thing is that most Chinese are lactose intolerant. Cattle traditionally have been very, very rare in China. Meat and dairy have not been a part of their diet and that’s why their diet was so healthy and why the Chinese were so healthy. He quickly backed off and said “Oh well I didn’t mean cow’s milk, and you could use soymilk instead,” but the damage had been done. And he also said in the same article that the Japanese now drink cow’s milk and that’s why they’re smarter and bigger than the Chinese. I thought all of that was appalling but luckily after I pointed it out to him it was slowly withdrawn. It makes them sick to begin with. But anyway, McDonald’s got in there and are opening thousands and thousands of hamburger joints and so that’s one explanation for this huge surge in diabetes and next, diabetes leads to heart disease, so that will come next. I hope it doesn’t. If they get back to their delicious – the world’s best cuisine – …

CH: Oh, it’s one of my favorites…

CH: We’re talking about global warming. Robert, are we in deep trouble?

RG: The world is in huge trouble. I’m sure glad I’m not a pessimist or I’d commit suicide right now. It’s getting worse much faster. I think overconsumption by we rich people is probably the worst contributor from the first world, and of course it matters greatly whether there are going to be seven, eight, or nine billion of us by the year 2050. To feel that number of people..? It’s much easier to feed a lower number than a greater number of people, so a lot of institutions are worried about how to feed the world by 2050. And to me and a lot of my friends, the main way to feed the world is not to cut down what little forest remains, but it’s to eat efficiently. That’s to produce more nutrition for humans on the same farms that exist today, rather than cutting down more forest. And eating efficiently means a grain-based diet. Soy, grains, fruit, vegetables, especially, as you talked about Caryn, those delicious leafy greens. Ah, stir-fried mustard; I love it!

CH: What is global warming doing that’s so dangerous?

RG: It’s causing the temperatures to rise, and that’s killing off coral. It’s making the oceans acidic, and it’s killing off the fish – what few are left from after these long-line fisheries – fish used to be the poor man’s food, but now the rich can afford even less. And it’s killing our agriculture. Frequency of hurricanes is going up. Ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising. You name it; a terrible litany of things, and it’s getting worse. Heat spells kill more and more people, and kill their live-stock too. And cold-spells in certain areas are going to get worse too.

CH: You briefly mentioned fish. Are they part of this global warming too?

RG: They’re dying off. The more carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas, dissolves in the sea, and to a certain extent that’s good because the sea has acted as a giant buffer, because it absorbs the carbon dioxide and then deposits it as solids in the sea floor where it can reside for thousands of years, but unfortunately the buffer capacity of the oceans has come to its limit, and now the oceans for the first time in recorded history are becoming acidic. That means all critters that depend on calcium for their livelihoods, such as coral reefs are in danger. Coral reefs are dying world-wide, and coral reefs are nurseries, huge for most of the oceanic food chain, and fish.

CH: And yet people are encouraged more and more to eat more fish.

RG: Yes, it’s very interesting that, and it’s harming their health. Unfortunately fish are not quite as bad as meat, because you don’t have to cut down forests to catch fish. But they’re not as healthy as all that because of all the oils. If you think you need more omega or fatty acids than you’re getting then it’s probably best to take a multi-vitamin than eat fish.

CH: That’s an interesting health point you bring up. What I always like to mention when people bring up omega and fatty acids is that it’s a two-prong issue. And one is that people eat so much junk that they get much more of the omega 6 fatty acid and we really need balance between the two. Part one is to stop eating the junk. And then start eating natural plant foods, and then you’ll be getting a better ration of the omega 6 to the omega 3s, and then certainly if you’re eating the leafy greens you can get lots of the omega 3 from that, along with flaxseeds and walnuts and things like that. We don’t often get the straight information on that, but then we don’t often get the straight information on many things we hear.

RG: No, we don’t.

CH: We get a lot of mercury in the fish too, and that doesn’t do you any good. When they put out these warnings about how pregnant women should only have one portion of something a week, I think if they’re putting limits like that, then why do you want to eat it at all? And they’re never really accurate in terms of the quantity that’s really acceptable. It’s a very gray area to be in. So, what should our government be doing?

RG: Ah, good question! The over-riding, far most important thing is to tax carbon emissions. Tax carbon dioxide, because we’re in deep trouble from climate, and I think if you tax green house gases, then automatically meat would become much more expensive than it is because as I pointed out, the meat production chain produces 51% of all green house gases. So I think a green house gas tax is the first thing that government should do. And the second is to phase out of using coal as fast as is humanly possible. Get into renewable energies. But the green house gas emissions tax is the first one.

CH: There’s been discussion about taxing the green house gas emissions that come from livestock. And there’s been this huge uproar from farmers against something like that. Do you think it’s possible to get something like that passed?

RG: I think much better is to tax all green house gas emissions fairly. It’s much more ethical to tax the whole lot, and not just single out livestock. If you tax all green house gas emissions then livestock will be [subject to] higher tax than it is, so that will bring a lot of plusses, and a lot of benefits for human beings. But to tax just one, like the fat in food, or the amount of beef, or something like that, it’s inefficient, and it won’t achieve the same broad sweep of benefits as a GHG emissions tax would.

CH: Well it really all does come down money. And the thing, unfortunately, that we don’t see: The Sierra Club I think came up with the true cost of food. We don’t see the true cost of our food. It may appear that a ‘dollar meal’ at McDonald’s or something is far less expensive than eating broccoli and brown rice, and that’s very unfortunate because we’re paying an invisible way a tax with our subsidies. Are you familiar with government subsidies with livestock in particular?

RG: Yes, they’re huge. The most encouraging thing to me is that food industry leaders, and leading manufacturers of food, it’s in their own enlightened self-interest to produce meat analogues as fast as they can and advertise them. Of course the individual can choose to use traditional healthy diets or meat analogues but I think the meat industry can make a huge profit if they produce more food, meat analogues and advertise it. They’ll frankly the livestock industry is moribund. The more the science improves then the more these terrible results of climate change come in, meat will be more and more a niche market, and people will start eating healthier foods. To take advantage of the secular changes the food industry needs to look ahead. If livestock really are going to decline, then the food industry should take advantage of that, and be a leader in producing analogues. I think that China has a huge role in this because they have several thousand years worth of experience in making tofu, so delicious and so healthy.

CH: Oh my goodness, there are so many meat analogues that come from Taiwan and from China, there’s no reason to eat the real thing.

RG: Absolutely not, and food manufactures can gain carbon credit. And they’ll actually pay because meat analogs they’ll create much less green house gas than livestock do.

CH: I like that idea, but what I don’t understand is…for example you have McDonalds that comes out with a veggie burger that they try in Manhattan on a trial basis and its terrible. Do they do that intentionally: Make a product that’s terrible when there are so many wonderful products on the market?!

RG: Yes. I’m so cynical I’m not the best person to ask. I wouldn’t put it past them.

CH: And yet my understanding is that the veggie burger in India in McDonalds is quiet popular.

RG: Yes, that’s right. I read the packets of veggie burgers. I still think they have got too much sodium in them.

CH: Oh sure.

RG: But they are moving all the time. But some of them you’re right, are really delicious. I got one the other day that was a portabello mushroom burger.

CH: The problem I have with this show is that I always do it on an empty stomach.
Should any groups or institutions be doing anything?

RG: Yes, practically the whole world should join forces to reduce climate risks. It’s our biggest problem, and it’s related to ethics and human injustice; mainly feeding all of us adequately by 2050, and that is the biggest problem in the world. So yes, I think every institution, all individuals, all organizations, all clubs and societies, they should prioritize climate change, and how to combat it.

CH: Well unfortunately most of the environmental groups that are trying to combat climate change, they don’t talk about diet, still!

RG: They don’t! Isn’t sad?!

CH: It’s crazy, they don’t!

RG: Yeah, and it’s lack of leadership. Sierra Club have just started to do so, Friends of the Earth came out in a pretty good statement recently, saying reducing global meat consumption would free up one million square kilometers of crop land, so, that’s a good statistic. And Friends of the Earth all came up with a pretty good statement recently – you’ve probably seen it – a steak is the equivalent of taking 51 hot showers, because you have to use about 15 thousand liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef.

CH: I remember John Robbins came up with something like that in his book, Food Revolution book.

RG: Isn’t he great?!

CH: It’s interesting when you package it in one way or another to make it more understandable for people, because, we talk about billions and trillions of different things, and these numbers are just incomprehensible. Speaking of numbers I was reading this article that mentioned you. Chris Mentzer, CEO of Clean Energy, and he wrote a 1% reduction in world-wide meat intake has the same benefit as a three trillion-dollar investment in solar energy.

RG: Yes, that was a wonderful article. Chris Mentzer is a great guy. You know he is financing all the solar cells in Hawaii. When he saw that if individuals switch to traditional diets and meat analogues they could get so much better climates. If all of Hawaii was covered in solar cells… I think he’s going to join up with meat analogue people and really change the world. That’s my hope.

CH: There was one guy who was kind of against this belief and says that eating less beef won’t help climate change, and that’s Frank Mitloehner, of the University of California. What do you think of his report?

RG: Frankly, very little. Not much. It’s very misleading. He doesn’t seem to recognize that most of the livestock in the world DON’T grow in the United States, it grows in developing countries. He doesn’t recognize at all that most beef comes from deforestation and burning forests. And also, he doesn’t really calculate the climate impacts of beef production. All he does is criticize how other people calculated the transport sector green house gas emissions, and in that I think he’s probably right. I think the people who calculated the emissions from transport dealt mainly with diesel and petroleum in automobiles and trucks, and they didn’t look at green house gas emissions from steel, and rubber manufacture, and I think they should. So when their CEO does a recalculation of their own work, I think the transport sector specialists should do a recalculation of theirs.

CH: It’s really important, to understand when somebody puts out some criticism to really understand what’s behind it, but I remember reading his report and not being too impressed with it. But unfortunately the media likes to jump on these things, and quote things out of context, and give little sound bites, and it really confuses the public.

RG: Yes, I think that’s the purpose of it too.

CH: Right. And you know, there’s a part of me that just wonders: most people, they have families, they have people they care about, and, I never understand – I know that it’s somehow money related and profit motivated, but if you really care, how do you promote something that’s bad and untrue? I just don’t get it. And some people are really convinced that they’re right.

RG: I think most of the people who promote beef are financed by the livestock lobby, sorry to be so blunt, and I think that Californian professor – they looked into where his grants came from – much comes from the livestock producers; that’s why they have that point of view.

CH: Are you familiar with Heifer International?

RG: Yes, I am, yes.

CH: What do you think of the work they do?

RG: Actually I don’t like it because it promotes beef consumption. In fact in my church we had a special collection for Heifer International, and I stood up and said the reasons why I’m not going to contribute are a, b, c, and d and sat down, ha ha ha ha!

CH: Yeah, they’ve put out a lot of information that’s very appealing to people; pictures of kids with cuddly lambs, and put out the idea that it’s possible to help people feed themselves who are impoverished, by giving them an animal that they can milk and sell the milk and other things, but my understanding is that this makes the terrain even more difficult to deal with.

RG: It’s tremendously damaging to the local environment. It’d be much better to give people a packet of seeds, productive seeds, seeds with vitamins. That would be a bigger help if you really want your money to go further.

CH: Right, and some simple technology to help them make the land arable and on how to irrigate, and …

RG: Absolutely.

CH: Well, I just want to talk about one more thing… We talked about leafy greens, but I just wonder: Do you have any other favorite vegetarian foods?

RG: I love tofu. Soft, fresh tofu; soondubu. You can crumble it into practically anything, or you can have a nice curry sauce and have it as a soup, or as stew. But I would put leafy greens even before tofu.

CH: I swear by greens and I really think they really saved my life. I had a romp with cancer a few years ago and had green juice every day, steam greens, salads, smoothies, it’s all about green.

That’s what I’m going to leave everyone with today: the green message. Thank you so much Robert Goodland; thank you for all your good work, and thanks for talking with me today.

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