As members of the feed and agriculture industry, we slightly cringe when restaurant servers describe their grass-fed, locally sourced beef as though the alternative should be avoided; we shudder when television cooking show hosts refer to “Meatless Monday” as having an overwhelming impact on the environment; and we shake our heads in dismay when animal rights activists claim it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat.
It’s not that we don’t support small farms or enjoy local meat. It’s not that we have no regard for environmental sustainability or oppose water conservation efforts — that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, environmental sustainability is one of the agriculture industry’s top concerns.
The problem is that negative perceptions of modern agriculture — specifically livestock production — largely stem from baseless claims and misleading reports, such as the 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization paper Livestock’s Long Shadow.
The report’s executive summary stated that livestock was responsible for 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire global transportation sector combined. Because the comparison model used for livestock, called a life cycle assessment, didn’t put transportation on an equal playing field, Dr. Frank Mitloehner, air quality specialist and professor of Animal Sciences at the University of California Davis, as well as other experts and academia in the food and agriculture industry, challenged the claim.
Then after Mitloehner et al. published a counter report, Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contribution to Climate Change, a senior author of Livestock’s Long Shadow publicly admitted it made misleading comparisons of livestock vs. transportation. Today the UN FAO is leading the “Partnership on the environmental benchmarking of livestock supply chains,” gathering information from global livestock and related industries to accurately calculate the current environmental impact.
Global partnership emerges
With participation from the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA), the International Feed Industry Federation (IFIF), other global commodity organizations, national governments and nongovernmental organizations, the partnership is the largest of its kind.
In 2011 the Institute for Feed Education and Research (IFEEDER), a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation whose mission is to sustain the future of food and feed production, approved a $15,000 donation to the project. The funds support the participation of a broad cross section of agriculture professionals with a balanced scientific view to help determine a new life cycle assessment for livestock.
Among those representing the U.S. feed industry on behalf of AFIA for the duration of the partnership is UC Davis’ Mitloehner, who was elected chairman for the first year of the three-year initiative at the steering committee meeting in Rome last summer.
“It’s an extremely important project for the industry, both in the United States and globally,” says Joel Newman, president and CEO of AFIA. “We’re very pleased that IFEEDER was able to support it and allow us to be a major contributor in the process and for [Dr. Mitloehner] to have the honor to chair this first year of the project.”
Not even a full year in, progress is well underway.
“Three technical advisory groups have been formed with experts throughout the world: small ruminants, feed sector and poultry sector,” says Mitloehner. “These three groups are in the midst of establishing the methodology of developing environmental footprints for each industry.”
By the end of the first year, the three groups will have a report, and in the second year the partnership will form beef and swine groups and finish their respective reports.