How the global attack on agricultural emissions began; meet Dr. Frank Mitloehner…

The year was 2006.

The President of Ireland: Mary McAleese; the Taoiseach: Bertie Ahern (Fianna Fáil); the Minister for Agriculture: Mary Coughlan (Fianna Fáil).

It was the year of a historic heatwave, culminating in a century-breaking temperature high of 32.3°C, recorded in Elphin, Co. Roscommon.

Ireland was ranked as the second wealthiest country in the world (next to Japan) and the demographic of Irish millionaires rose by a staggering 10% (Bank of Ireland ‘Wealth of the Nation’ report).

Yet farm incomes plummeted by a devastating 13% on 2005 levels (Teagasc).

But this is not the reason why 2006 should resonate profoundly with farmers.

On November 29 of that particular year, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations published its pioneering ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options’ report.

Following a “life-cycle assessment” approach (explained later), the report made a sobering claim that livestock is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – making it a greater emitter than the global transportation sector.

The report generated a barrage of striking world-wide headlines such as: ‘Cow emissions more damaging than cars’ (The Independent, UK); ‘Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars’ (UN news); ‘Global warming culprits: cars and…cows?’ (abc, US).

But for Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor and air quality specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California in the city of Davis, something didn’t add up.

A native of Germany, the eminently qualified Dr. Mitloehner has a degree in animal science; a masters in agricultural engineering (specialising in the environmental impact of livestock); and a PhD on the environmental management of feedlot cattle.

Beyond his US base, Dr. Mitloehner has also worked in an agri-environmental impact capacity in Australia, South Africa, Paraquay, South America and China. His expertise has regularly informed both national and international carbon policy.

And so, he felt compelled to take a long, hard, critical look at the front-page FAO figures – a move that would ultimately lead to an astonishing discovery.

The methodology underpinning the research was flawed.

Correcting the record

Although the professor’s tireless efforts to correct the record eventually resulted in the FAO’s 18% figure for global livestock greenhouse gas emissions being revised downward to its now conclusive 14.5%, Dr. Mitloehner tells AgriLand that the consequences of that particular report continue to play a significant role in the climate quagmire that global agriculture finds itself in today.

This is his story.

What’s in a percentage?

First thing’s first: Dr. Mitloeher specifically wants to start the conversation by focusing on the abundance of numbers circulating in relation to the global agricultural emissions debate.

“Let me premise this by saying that generally people use percentages to express the relative importance of agriculture – and if you use a percentage that percentage looks high.

“While all agriculture in the world combined contributes to about 24% of all greenhouse gas emissions, animal agriculture is 14.5%. [FAO]

“But, again, these are percentages and express the relative importance of agriculture throughout the world – and here is why you need to be so careful with that.

“In the US, for example, all of agriculture makes up 9% of all greenhouse gases: yet animal agriculture is about 4%. [EPA]

“In a country like Paraguay that number for livestock is 50% and in some countries in Africa that figure is 90%. [FAO]

“So if you express contributions in a percent manner, and then have a global average, then that global average doesn’t really mean anything to a country like the US, or Paraguay, or African countries because it is just that, a global average.

“It doesn’t really do justice in terms of quantifying the exact impact.”

Destructors

Enter: ‘the destructors’.

“The problem is that there are destructors out there that have an anti-agriculture agenda – and they like to use the global numbers because they are so high to make people stop eating animal-sourced foods.

“And they have been quite effective because these numbers are high.

“The reason they are high is because in many of the South African countries, Asian countries and so on, livestock is very inefficient and livestock live for a long time – so it is not reflective of what you have in Ireland, or what we have in the United States.

“The FAO’s 14.5% global figure for livestock is an accurate number. It describes life-cycle emissions meaning everything from cradle to grave – from growing feed crops, to animals eating and digesting it, to producing enteric emissions [belching and manure], to the transport from farm to processor, processor to consumer: all of that is included, – so the 14.5% is an accurate number globally.

“But that number should not be used parochially.”

Life-cycle assessment

The professor warns that often times emissions from agriculture and emissions from other sectors are not calculated in the same way.

The FAO’s 2006 ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options’ report is a case in point.

For three years Dr. Mitloehner attempted to shed light on the report’s inaccuracies, then in 2009 he presented a rebuttal on the FAO report at a leading global scientific conference.

“I had a long discussion with the FAO back in 2009 about the life-cycle assessment they used to assess the impact of livestock on climate.

“While the methodology is very comprehensive and they did it well, in their report they then compared livestock emissions to transportation emissions – cars, trucks, trains, planes, ships and so on.

“They said that globally livestock emits more than transportation – and that, in my opinion, was the start of what we are experiencing now.

“That is this frenzy around livestock emissions and this constant repetition of people saying that ‘livestock emits more than transport’. That is simply not true.

“The FAO soon after I criticised them, agreed with my criticism.

“While they used a comprehensive methodology from livestock – looking at everything from soil, to feed, to animals, to manure, to transportation of goods, to consumption of goods, what is called the ‘life-cycle assessment’ – for transportation they only looked at tailpipe emissions.

“Meaning they only calculated what comes out of the exhaust pipe of vehicles and not the production of cars, trucks, planes, trains, cranes, roads, harbours, airports and so on.

“That was an apples and oranges comparison.” 

The FAO acknowledged its error and formally retracted and clarified the record in March 2010.

The development initiated another world-wide media buzz, this time the headlines included: ‘UN admits flaw in report on meat and climate change’ (Telegraph, UK); ‘Don’t blame cows for climate change’ (CNN, US); ‘McGuinness welcomes UN ‘clarification” (RTÉ).

However “the destructors” that Dr. Mitloehner refers to continue to use the exaggerated figures to this very day.

“They [FAO] took it back; but the horse had left the barn. People still run with it and with the comparison between livestock and transportation, which was flawed.

Dangerous assertion

In the years following Dr. Mitloehner’s criticism of the report, he was invited to spearhead a prominent new initiative between national governments, the international livestock sector and NGOs called ‘LEAP‘.

LEAP is a multi-stakeholder partnership focused on the environmental bench-marking of livestock supply chains and it has produced global guidelines for large ruminants, small ruminants, poultry, swine, feed, biodiversity, water and so on.

The initiative is now considered the international gold standard for how to measure and model the environmental footprint of the livestock supply chain.

“I was the first chairman of that; we have a good working relationship today and I’m glad about that.

“But those people that have a beef with livestock, who are critics of livestock, they originally worked on the animal welfare front or sometimes on the food safety front.

“Then they saw that these subjects didn’t really resonate with the public enough to get people to stop eating animal sourced food.

“However, they found that the climate angle really resonates well.

“And so, the same people that still criticise livestock and poultry production – who were originally on the welfare / animal rights front – they have now switched over to the climate front.

“They found plentiful ammunition and they have used it very skillfully since.”

But the professor stresses that the main issue is not that these individuals and groups are continuing to use the old FAO figures.

“The main issue is that the world considers climate change as one of the most important challenges to humanity, but all contributing factors – including transportation, energy production, industries and food production – everything must be on the table.

“While most climate scientists agree that the number one source of greenhouse gas in the world is related to the use of fossil fuels – namely oil, coal and gas – [for example in the US 80% of all greenhouse gas stems from the use of fossil fuel, while 4% stems from livestock] those destructors say ‘no, that is not the case; the most important detriment to our climate is people eating meat or consuming dairy’.

“That is just an incorrect and a dangerous assertion because it keeps the eye off the ball of reducing fossil fuels. 

“It makes people think that the most important thing that they need to control is what they eat – and they can relax on what they drive, how often they fly and so on. That is a dangerous destruction for reality.

Stay tuned for more from AgriLand‘s interview with Dr. Frank Mitloehner…

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