Drover's News

The Scientist who Debunked Livestock’s Long Shadow

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

This week, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) named University of California-Davis Professor Frank Mitloehner, PhD, as the 2019 Borlaug CAST Communication Award recipient.

If you are not familiar with Dr. Mitloehner’s work, he is the air-quality researcher and Extension specialist who has brought reason and responsibility into the discussion of cattle and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

When the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published its 2006 report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” one claim captured most of the headlines. The report’s authors contended that livestock production was responsible for “18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than transport.” That claim seemed unbelievable, and it was. Mitloehner and his colleagues studied and evaluated the report, and eventually outlined critical flaws in their analysis that resulted in livestock’s role being dramatically overstated.

Mitloehner introduced us to the concept of “lifecycle analysis” (LCA) for benchmarking and tracking the environmental “footprint” of an industry. He also demonstrated that the FAO’s lifecycle analysis of livestock production was different and more extensive than that used for the transportation sector, resulting in a major error in the conclusions. He later released a white paper titled "Livestock's Contributions to Climate Change: Facts and Fiction," which has helped the industry build its case and fight misinformation, with mixed success.

In a recent LCA published by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) with support from the Beef Checkoff, researchers found that U.S. beef cattle production accounted for 3.3 % of all U.S. GHG emissions. By comparison, transportation and electricity generation together made up 56 % of the total in 2016 and agriculture in general 9 %.

Mitloehner also pointed out that while the media and activists latched on to the 18% figure, many missed another key finding in the report that reducing the environmental footprint of livestock production will require improvements in production efficiency gained through technology. Production practices from our grandparents’ era look, at first glance, environmentally friendly. It turns out though, that those systems require more land, more feed, more water, more time and more human labor, and result in more GHG emissions, compared with modern, more intensive production systems, and we continue to improve as we adopt technologies that make food production more efficient.  

So congratulations to Dr. Mitloehner, and congratulations to CAST for honoring a scientist whose work has made a positive impact on the ways our industry addresses the issue of sustainability.

The Borlaug CAST Communication Award is sponsored by the CropLife Foundation. CAST announced the 2019 BCCA recipient at the USDA Whitten Building in Washington, D.C., on April 16. An award presentation will be held during a side event at the World Food Prize Symposium on October 16. 

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