Everyone knows that frequently the press is your enemy.
In the desperate quest for eyeballs on the web its writers develop idiotic essays, wrap them up in pseudo-authority, and publish because they know it will get under a lot of skin.
So it was a recent blog entry at the WaPost’s WonkBlog, where Barry Plumer, an expert on zip, mused that divestiture of pink slime comes at a cost.
Of course, Plumer had no way of knowing such things or even making an educated guess.
[A] ban on pink slime could, potentially, require the slaughter of another 1.5 million cows to maintain current levels of beef consumption. And, because cows are a major source of heat-trapping methane (all that burping), that could have a serious climate impact.
How much impact? We can do a rough calculation. The average cow emits the equivalent of about four tons of carbon dioxide per year. To put that in perspective, the average automobile emits about five tons per year. So, in the worst case, a total ban on pink slime would be like adding 1.2 million cars to the road, from a global-warming perspective.
The fact of the matter is Plumer can’t do a rough calculation of such a complex affair as the beef industry, absolute contribution to global warming, methane produced by cows, energy expended in all facets of meat agribusiness, and on and on. And certainly not in two paragraphs.
However, the object of the exercise was to get a lot of readers and, in this, it was successful. The Google News tab had it as a most-cited selection.
Worse, Brad Plumer — the Post journalist turned pseudo-scientist for ten minutes, inspires Kevin Drum, blogger at Mother Jones to out pseudo the pseudo-scientist for another five minute calculation:
Brad Plumer brings us news that maybe it was all a big mistake. After all, the pink slime processors recover an extra ten pounds of edible beef from each cow, which means we need fewer cows to feed us all. And fewer cows means less global warming …
I am now going to embarrass myself by playing amateur economist. What follows might be totally off base, so real economists are welcome to scoff and tell me what I’ve done wrong.
Here goes: According to [a] paper, the price elasticity of beef is -0.61. So a 1% increase in the price of beef produces a .61% decrease in the demand for beef.
According to this report, pink slime reduces the price of ground beef by about 3 cents per pound. Roughly speaking, that’s a decrease of 1%.
An average cow produces about 500 pounds of edible meat.
Harvesting pink slime increases that by about 10-12 pounds or so. Let’s call it 11 pounds.
Total beef consumption in the U.S. amounts to about 34 million cows per year, or 17 billion pounds of beef.
So here’s what we get:
Banning pink slime raises the price of beef 1% and therefore reduces demand by .61%.
[More no-way-to-prove-it rubbish figures deleted.]
That comes to 540,000 cows.
In my experience, a lot of scientists would no more bother to explain to journalists why they’re wrong than they would spend time talking to a plate of singing maggots. Sometimes the world is worse off for it.
But, in this case, it’s unproductive to explain to the fool why he hasn’t come up with a great equation of truth in a couple minutes.
How much greenhouse gas emission is curtailed if all the plants that produce pink slime 24 hours a day go off-line permanently?
I have no idea. However, they produced a lot of material and Beef Products has already been forced to stop production at a number of them.
“Canadians needn’t worry – nothing has slimed its way across the border, nor will it, because Health Canada bans the importation and sale of meat products treated with ammonia,” reads an editorial from a big Canadian newspaper
If one uses the elementary reasoning of the tallywhackers, one might have to entertain the idea that Canada is contributing more to global warming than it ought because it doesn”t maximize use of the cow through pink slime processing. Why not get more for less? What’s wrong with them?
How much global warming would be added or subtracted if the US didn’t have a mass animal meat food processing system producing such mountains of excrement that potential disease mitigation through unusually tortured band-aid technology like pink slime production becomes a profit-source?
The next day Plumer acknowledged his reasoning had inspired some
disagreeable mail. (I sent him a comment.)
“Spraying beef trimmings with ammonia gas was an ingenious way to suppress [the] E. coli outburst,” he writes, oddly. Outburst is not really a word one might use to describe the amount of microbial life that generally comes in excrement. Animals needs their intestinal flora.
But toxic E. coli in cows is now perpetuated because of the use of manure on feedstocks consumed by the animals. As life does, it has found a niche even as a stranger in the environment.
Anyway, ingenious is also certainly not a word for describing technology that’s merely mitigating. Ingenious is doing basic science that explains the problem.
Not ingenious is coming up the equivalent of stop-gap security patches for the problem, like pink slime, an E. coli vaccine for cows, or different antibiotics to stuff into the animals.
Plumer doesn’t really show that he understood much, if any, of this while concocting his columns.
“But phasing out pink slime won’t get rid of the underlying bacterial factories,” he continues. Finally, some truth.
Here’s an earlier post on whether a ban on “lean, finely textured beef” would be bad for greenhouse-gas emissions — if it meant that more cows would need to be raised and slaughtered as a result. A lot of readers took that post as a defense of pink slime, though it was more a way of illustrating how meat-consumption habits contribute to climate change …
But there are many ways to do that, none involving making up stories about how pink slime production maybe reduced greenhouse gas. However, such stories wouldn’t have stuck out so well in the crowd.