Commentary: U.N. appointment positive for beef producers

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Last week, the United Nations announced the selection of Frank Mitloehner, PhD, to chair a committee within the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to measure and assess the environmental impacts of the livestock industry. This is a positive development as Mitloehner, an air-quality specialist at the University of California-Davis, will bring objective, scientific leadership to an organization that has shown some anti-livestock bias in the past.

The story begins in 2006, with the release of the FAO report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” That report’s authors infamously claimed the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, a greater share than all transportation combined. That figure continues to appear regularly in the media and anti-livestock-production literature.

Many at the time believed the FAO claims were overstated, but it was Mitloehner who, along with some UC-Davis colleagues, investigated the research methods and data behind the conclusions. In 2009, the team published their analysis, titled "Clearing the Air: Livestock's Contributions to Climate Change," in the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Agronomy.

The FAO figures were based on a “lifecycle analysis,” which is intended to quantify all the GHG emissions generated across an entire industry or production process. Mitloehner outlined three approaches to a lifecycle analysis for greenhouse-gas emissions. The simplest form, called LCA-1, measures only direct emissions, such as those from a bovine’s rumen fermentation, manure and urine. A more comprehensive analysis called LCA-2 measures direct, plus indirect emissions such as those from processing, transportation and deforestation associated with livestock production. The most complete analysis, LCA-3, would include direct and indirect emissions from livestock, plus indirect emissions from associated activities, such as production of fertilizer and pesticides used in the production of feed crops.

With that background, he points out that authors of the U.N. report committed some glaring errors. First, in their estimates of emissions from livestock production, they used the full LCA-3, including all direct and indirect emissions from the entire production cycle. That would be fine, except that in analyzing the transport sector they used the simple LCA-1, measuring tailpipe emissions only. That led to the grossly inflated 18 percent figure and the pervasive falsehood that livestock accounts for more emissions than planes, trains and automobiles.
Mitloehner’s research has found that, in the U.S., raising livestock accounts for 3.4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, while the nation’s transportation sector contributes roughly 26 percent.

In developing nations, the contribution of livestock emissions relative to those from transportation is higher. This is due to less-efficient production practices and to land-use change, such as where native forests are removed to accommodate livestock. Also, transportation and other industries are less developed in these countries, meaning livestock’s contribution to their total GHG emissions is relatively larger.

After Mitloehner’s study was published, the authors of Livestock’s Long Shadow admitted their error, but the report continues to fuel a widely held belief that livestock are the leading cause of GHG emissions.  

As chair of the new committee, Mitloehner will lead representatives of national governments, livestock industries, nonprofit and private sectors in establishing science-based methods to quantify livestock’s carbon footprint, create a database of greenhouse gas emission factors for animal feed, and develop a methodology to measure other environmental pressures, such as water consumption and nutrient loss. “By the end of three years, we’ll have a methodology that’s globally accepted, that anyone in the world can use to quantify the environmental impact of their livestock,” Mitloehner said.

It is encouraging to see the FAO, which can have significant influence on international policies relating to agriculture and sustainability in food production, select a scientist who truly understands the issue to lead this effort. We’ll look forward to seeing results of the committee’s work.

In March 2012, Drovers/CattleNetwork hosted a webinar titled “Beef Sustainability,” which features Dr. Mitloehner and can be viewed online.

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Utah  |  October, 22, 2012 at 09:34 AM

A more positive step would be for the US to resign from the UN and tell them to take their headquarters to another country.

Colorado  |  October, 22, 2012 at 12:27 PM

I agree. Don't they know that farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of the land? They cannot afford to not be good stewards. That's their livelihood!

USA  |  October, 22, 2012 at 12:55 PM

Resign hell!! If we'd just stop paying their bills, they'll fold and sink into the ocean. That's a far better sceanerio than the UN still being located somewhere on the planet

ft.worth  |  October, 22, 2012 at 02:53 PM

the un wants to appoint a man the industry agrees with and you guys want to quit? Join the real world and lets move our protien source forward throughout all the nations of this great planet. We ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. Lets sell our beef everywhere. No more whining. Lets work.

Kansas  |  October, 23, 2012 at 01:43 PM

Anyone have a citation for where the authors of "Livestock's Long Shadow" admitted their error?

SD  |  October, 24, 2012 at 06:08 PM

It sure seems the world might be a better place if we did NOT have the UN. And if it were NOT funded so well by the USA. However, it does exist, and maybe if we would do what we can to improve it UNTIL we can eliminate it, the harm done to US agriculture might be less. If we DON"T participate in this, we can't expect it to be anything but bad for us, recognizing it MAY not do us much good at the best........why assure that by NON-participation???

Kim Klocke    
NE Iowa  |  October, 27, 2012 at 07:16 AM

All the money and other resources spent on the UN and their studies, and experts would sure go a long way in helping move food production ahead in the parts of the world that could use it..

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