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Addressing Inaccuracies in Agriculture Emissions Reporting

In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published the “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options” report. The report claimed livestock contributed 18% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. The report generated negative attention that is still present today. Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor and air quality specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, who was recently interviewed by AgriLand, took it upon himself to address the flawed report.

Dr. Mitloehner concluded, eventually accepted by the FAO, that worldwide agriculture contributes to 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions and animal agriculture contribution is 14.5%, not the previously reported 18%. Dr. Mitloehner makes the case that 14.5% is an accurate percentage, globally. “It describes life-cycle emissions meaning everything from cradle to grave.” He does, however, warn that this “number should not be used parochially.”

Additionally, Dr. Mitloehner emphasizes the importance of realizing what a global percentage represents. “In the US, for example, all of agriculture makes up 9% of all greenhouse gases: yet animal agriculture is about 4%. In a country like Paraguay, that number for livestock is 50% and in some countries in Africa, that figure is 90%.” Dr. Mitloehner continues, “So if you express contributions in a percent manner, and then have a global average, then that global average doesn’t really mean anything to a country like the US, or Paraguay, or African countries because it is just that, a global average. It doesn’t really do justice in terms of quantifying the exact impact.”

The FAO reported animal agriculture contributed more to greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. “It makes people think that the most important thing that they need to control is what they eat – and they can relax on what they drive, how often they fly and so on. That is a dangerous destruction for reality.” When reporting transportation emissions, the FAO only examined tailpipe emissions and not the production process itself, resulting in a flawed measurement.

Following years of research, Dr. Mitloehner informed the FAO of his critic, and they agreed. In March 2010, the FAO acknowledged its error and retracted the record. Regardless of the retraction, “People still run with it and with the comparison between livestock and transportation, which was flawed.”