"Bogus" is the word that University of California-Davis Professor Frank Mitloehner used to describe the FAO's original estimation of livestock's contribution to greenhouse gasses during his presentation today at the Cornell Nutrition Conference being held in Syracuse, N.Y. With a presentation titled, "Clearing the air on livestock and climate change, "Mitloehner explained the intricacies of errors within the FAO's 2006 publication "Livestock's Long Shadow." That publication reported that livestock accounted for 18 percent of greenhouse gas production across the globe, which was more than all forms of transportation combined. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) is a body within the United Nations.
Mitloehner started his quest to debunk their findings by learning how the figures were calculated. For livestock, a full-scale life cycle assessment was conducted. Everything from emissions on the farm to emissions of fertilizer production were factored into the calculation. Keep in mind, though, that worldwide livestock production methods are extremely variable. In developed countries, such as the United States, research reports that livestock accounts for around 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions – which is consistent with multiple studies. This low figure can be attributed to our many efficiencies in production, as well as the massive amount of transportation and energy utilized in other sectors here in the U.S. However, in developed countries like Uruguay, Mitloehner says, livestock production can account for as much as 90 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Keep in mind that, transportation and energy use is very modest in size in these countries. In addition, production practices such as clear-cutting forests add massive amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.
When the original figures were reported by the FAO in 2006, it was simply an average across all nations. Therefore, the figure is not accurate for any of the countries. But the inaccuracies do not stop there, he says. "When we report an 18 percent contribution, we assume we know what the other part is," Mitloehner says. But we do not, in fact. While a full-scale life cycle assessment was used for livestock's contribution, only direct emissions were used when calculating transportation's contribution. The greenhouse gas additions from the rubber tires, manufacturing processes, and so forth, were not taken into account.
Luckily, the FAO is responding to Mitloehner's criticism and admits to their off-calculations. Media outlets are beginning to report this; yet, the acceptance is not widespread. So why are these old estimations still being touted? He quickly points the finger at "powerful people with agendas." It is a sad truth that we in agriculture must understand. "It is much easier to point the finger at a cow than looking at ourselves," he concludes.