CA livestock researcher to chair UN committee on livestock emissions

Nov 16, 2012

A recently developed international committee designed to measure and assess the environmental impacts of the livestock industry worldwide has announced its election of California Animal Science professor Frank Mitloehner as its first chairman. The committee is a project of the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Mitloehner, a livestock professor and air quality specialist with the University of California, Davis, has spent the last decade at that institution researching livestock emissions, and their effects on air quality. As chair of the new FAO committee, he will join representatives of national governments, livestock industries, nonprofit groups and the private sector in seeking a unified method of measuring emissions across the various sectors of the industry.

In 2006, FAO published a now famous report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” in which it attributed 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide to the livestock industry, a figure that exceeded the reported contribution of the transportation sector. In the U.S., the report was widely publicized, spawning the ‘Meatless Monday’ movement, as well as other attempts by concerned organizations to encourage reductions in meat consumption in order to mitigate the effects of climate change. At the time, several scientists questioned the accuracy of FAO’s claim, including Mitloehner.

According to Mitloehner, however, the focus of the new partnership has nothing to do with debating the 2006 report. “┬┤Livestock’s Long Shadow’ was a report that had far reaching consequences across the world,” he says. “It basically put livestock on stage as the main contributor to climate change. Whether that report was correct or not is not something we are revisiting right now. What we are looking at is how do we accurately measure emissions.”

The key, says Mitloehner, lies in standardizing the way livestock emissions are measured and assessed around the world. ‘“Livestock’s Long Shadow’ was written at a time when we knew much less about proper methodologies for benchmarking environmental impact,” he says. “Our knowledge since then has improved and advanced. The FAO has decided that we need to put the best heads in the world together on this and establish a unified methodology, so that everyone uses the same method worldwide.”

Currently, numerous methods of modeling livestock emissions are in use by different research entities around the world, a situation that hinders direct comparison of data from different projects. “It’s as if Chrysler, GM and Ford were all using different methods of measuring horsepower,” Mitloehner points out. “That’s what is currently happening in the livestock sector. When the Australians say that the carbon footprint of their beef industry is X, and New Zealand says theirs is Y, it doesn’t mean anything. We don’t know how to compare them to one another,” he says. “What we are doing now is providing one model for the world, to compare apples to apples.”

Among other benefits, Mitloehner points out, the methodologies produced through the efforts of the FAO partnership will provide industry organizations a clearer path to address the concerns of retailers, such as McDonalds, who increasingly want to know the carbon footprints of the industries that supply them. Attempts by various groups to address these questions individually may lead to confusing results. “The problem is that these are disjointed efforts,” says Mitloehner. “We have the pork board doing one thing, NCBA doing another, and the poultry group doing still another, and these are not the same. This FAO project will assist in harmonizing these efforts by providing one method for everyone.”

The goal, he says, is not to generate a ‘magic number’ that can be plugged in on a per head basis for each species, but to generate a series of models. The models can then be used by anyone to estimate the emissions resulting from feed, manure, the packing plant, or any of the various facets of the industry.

The collaborative effort is designed to be a three-year project, with Mitloehner serving as chairman of the steering committee for the first year. Among the collaborators are the governments of France, Ireland, New Zealand and the Netherlands, as well as representatives from numerous international livestock and poultry trade organizations. “This is a partnership with the FAO, the global livestock sector, and all of the industries involved,” says Mitloehner. “They have all signed up for this, and they’re all at the table. By the end of three years, we’ll have a methodology that’s globally accepted, that anyone in the world can use to quantify the environmental impact of their livestock.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent