Record heat spiked by collusion between the meat industry and FAO

by Robert Goodland

The past year has been the warmest ever in the United States, with record heat sweeping across the country last week, causing at least 52 human deaths and also harming livestock. In fact, livestock are not only harmed by human-caused global-warming greenhouse gas, but also cause about 18% of it, according to Livestock’s Long Shadow, a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report by FAO livestock specialists (who normally promote livestock).

In contrast, environmental specialists employed by two other UN specialized agencies, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, have developed a widely-cited assessment that at least 51% of human-caused greenhouse gas is attributable to livestock. I’m one of those specialists.

One might expect the FAO to work objectively to determine whether the true figure is closer to 18% or 51%. Instead, Frank Mitloehner, known for his claim that 18% is much too high a figure to use in the U.S., was announced last week as the chair of a new partnership between the meat industry and FAO.

FAO’s new partners include the International Meat Secretariat and International Dairy Federation. Their stated objective is to “assess the environmental performance of the livestock sector” and “to improve that performance,” starting with a three-year project to establish “methods and guidelines.”

Yet within five years, greenhouse gas may increase to irreversibly catastrophic levels if nothing is done to change course, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency.

The new partnership assumes that meat production worldwide will “more than double” from 1999-2050. But the International Food Policy Research Institute has set out a scenario by which meat production will decline at least through 2030. Climate authorities such as Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the seminal Stern Review on the economics of climate change, and Rajendra Pachauri, IPCC chair, have even recommended vegetarian diets to reverse climate change.

FAO’s new activity isn’t entirely a surprise, as its livestock specialists have elsewhere acted to reverse a common perception that a prescription for less livestock was built into their report Livestock’s Long Shadow. For example, its lead author and a co-author later wrote to prescribe more factory farming, not less, and no limit on meat.

Yet Livestock’s Long Shadow may not be uniformly endorsed by the whole FAO, as it invited Jeff Anhang and me to present our analysis first at FAO headquarters in Rome, then in Berlin.

FAO’s basic purpose is to “promote the common welfare” in a “neutral forum.”  However, FAO’s new partnership includes only four wealthy countries, and no poor country.  Yet the former Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which normally promotes livestock, expressed concern about the impacts of industrially-produced meat on the poor – saying that “factory-farmed” livestock eat grains ”that might instead have fed people.”

Factory farming was critiqued even by a co-author of Livestock’s Long Shadow, Cornelius De Haan, when he was lead author of the World Bank’s 2001 livestock strategy. That strategy pegged livestock’s adverse impacts at a lower level than in the 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow — yet the World Bank strategy recommends that institutions should “avoid funding large-scale commercial, grain-fed feedlot systems and industrial milk, pork, and poultry production.”

Conversely, the stated goal of Frank Mitloehner, chair of FAO’s new partnership, is to promote intensified livestock production.

A new ILRI strategy concludes that “livestock is back on the global agenda,” and that increased productivity must come from “intensified” systems. A videotape reveals a push for research to support ILRI’s predetermined conclusions, as the new Director-General states: “How do we elevate the livestock game? … In the past we have not looked so much at the issue of food consumption in urban areas… A good bit of the negative criticism of livestock is its contribution to greenhouse gases and its very high environmental footprint – so we must develop stronger research responses to these challenges.”

Evidence shows that ILRI may fear public acceptance of our widely-cited assessment that livestock are responsible for at least 51% of human-caused greenhouse gas. ILRI was sufficiently concerned about acceptance of the 51% figure that it raised the issue with its annual meeting’s participants before, during, and after its 2010 meeting – and found that acceptance of the 51% figure by the meeting’s participants actually rose from about 1.5% before the meeting to about 7.5% after the meeting.

Yet Livestock’s Long Shadow apparently undercounted by a large margin the amount of land used for livestock and feed production – estimating it at 30% of all land on earth, while ILRI has estimated it at 45 percent. Other gaps in Livestock’s Long Shadow may have occurred because it was authored by livestock specialists – while international good practice in environmental assessment is to have projects with major environmental impacts (such as global livestock and feed production) be assessed by environmental assessment specialists.

The key difference between the 18% and 51% figures is that the latter accounts for how exponential growth in livestock production (now more than sixty billion land animals per year), accompanied by large scale deforestation and forest-burning, have caused a dramatic decline in the earth’s photosynthetic capacity, along with large and accelerating increases in volatilization of soil carbon.

Agriculture is outdoors to a unique degree, exposing it to greater risk from emissions attributable to livestock than any other industry’s risk from the same emissions. So food industry leaders have a compelling commercial incentive to reduce these emissions.

While the FAO and ILRI argue that millions of poor people have no alternative to raising livestock for their livelihoods, tens of millions of poor people’s livestock have died in the past few years due to climate disasters. Replacing them would risk a similar fate for the new animals.

Conversely, replacing at least a quarter of today’s livestock products with better alternatives would both reduce emissions and allow forest to regenerate on a vast amount of land, which could then absorb excess atmospheric carbon to reduce it to a safe level. This may be the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change in the next five years as needed. Sufficient renewable energy infrastructure is projected to take at least 20 years and 18 trillion dollars to develop.

Substitutes for livestock products require no subsidies or offsets. Consumers can buy more of them tomorrow.

Leave a comment