Animal rights activist groups have long attacked every aspect of the animal production industry and continue to gain support by distributing misinformation about agriculture’s toll on the environment. Thanks to their use of controversial gimmicks and celebrity endorsements, they’ve experienced a fair amount of success with campaigns like “Meatless Mondays” and “Rather go naked than wear fur.”
These messages easily reach the eyes and ears of America’s youth by simply turning on the TV or driving past a highway billboard, and counter messages are seemingly nowhere in sight. The environmental claims even appeared to be backed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO) at one point.
In 2006, the UN-FAO published a report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” stating that livestock production is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gases (GHG) globally, surpassing the amount attributed to all forms of transportation combined. The findings made international news and served as fuel for further attacks.
After the comparison of livestock vs. transport was publicly challenged by air quality specialists, the UN-FAO retracted it. Today the UN-FAO is working on developing a new model to measure animal agriculture’s true impact on the environment, and the Institute for Feed Education & Research (IFEEDER) has approved funding for two U.S. representatives to be involved in the process on behalf of the feed industry.
Additionally, IFEEDER will fund two education initiatives aimed at grade school children to teach them about the benefits of animal agriculture and help reverse the mainstream attitude toward modern food production.
When “Livestock’s Long Shadow” concluded that the livestock industry produced more GHG emissions than the entire transportation sector, Dr. Frank Mitloehner, associate professor and air quality extension specialist at University of California-Davis, questioned the methodology behind the results.
“When I disputed the FAO’s findings, the discussion we had was based on methodological issues,” says Mitloehner. “For livestock, they used a certain method called a true lifecycle assessment, but they didn’t use the same holistic method for transportation, so direct comparison between the two sectors was inaccurate.”
Mitloehner says according to the EPA, the U.S. livestock sector — including all species — produces approximately 3.4% of total GHGs. Meanwhile transportation represents 26% and electricity use and production represents 31%.
“Meat production is still a factor, but it’s not the major factor some activists make it to be,” says Mitloehner. “Using the UN-FAO’s initial findings as a reason to stop eating meat is leading us down the wrong path for solutions. It suggests that changing your eating habits will have a profound impact on your carbon footprint, and that’s not the case. It will have an impact, but not a similar impact compared to transportation or heating and cooling choices.”
The UN-FAO is now reaching out across the world to feed organizations like the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) and academic institutions to get the methodology right for a new study it is conducting on population growth and world hunger and a life cycle assessment for all regions in the world.
A new model
Recognizing that livestock production will play a major role in ensuring food security for the growing planet, the UN-FAO is producing a report to help the livestock industry find environmentally conscious ways to increase future output. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons in 1999 to 465 million tons in 2050.
Accurately revising the lifecycle assessment for livestock is imperative to the results of this study and will require data such as how much corn, soy and other ingredients are produced and consumed annually in the United States.