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Ranchers must clear the air of production falsehoods

Progressive Cattleman Editor David Cooper Published on 31 October 2017

When critics of livestock agriculture take aim at the beef industry and its impact on the environment, cattlemen can’t afford to run, hide or sit idle.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist in cooperative extension at the University of California – Davis, knows firsthand how scientific data has been manipulated to demonize livestock agriculture. The strategy to fight those misperceptions? Learn the facts about your cattle production methods and then get to work defending them.

“The media is just full of articles portraying the livestock industries in a very negative way,” Mitloehner said Oct. 11 at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef Communicators Summit in Denver, Colorado. “I think the beef industry like any other livestock industry should be well educated on the topic whether or not you believe in [sustainability], because your customers do.”

Dr. Frank Mitloehner

Mitloehner went to the forefront of the debate in 2006 when the Food and Animal Organization of the U.N. (FAO) released the report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which reported that livestock producers created 18 percent of all human-related greenhouse gas, a larger share of emissions than what is created by all of transportation.

“And if that sounded fishy to you, it sounded fishy to us,” Mitloehner said.

He and other scientists tackled the report and found major mistakes. The biggest was that two different models were used to assess livestock ag and transportation.

Livestock had a life-cycle assessment, showing the environmental footprint for a gallon of milk and a pound of beef, in which “you look at everything from the soil, to the crops that eventually become feed, to the animals, then the manure [and] manure being applied to soil again, the transportation of the product to supermarket or to restaurant.”

FAO did that for livestock, but they didn’t do that for transportation.

“In other words, they didn’t look at the environmental footprint of producing the steel, the rubber, the roads, the harbors, the airports, getting the oil out of the ground in Saudi Arabia and shipping it to Texas, refining it, getting it to the gas stations and then burning it in your car. But they only looked at burning the gas in your car.”

Such a classic apples-to-oranges comparison, Mitloehner said, can’t be valid when saying livestock emit more greenhouse than transportation or energy. Those who wrote the U.N. report even admitted the criticism was valid.

Mitloehner and other colleagues responded with another report, “Clearing the Air, Livestock’s Contribution to Climate Change,” and found that livestock agriculture in developed nations such as the U.S. is significantly lower in greenhouse gas emissions. According to EPA data, livestock production emits just 3.4 percent of greenhouse gas in the U.S. compared with 26 percent from transportation.

Speaking of the FAO and its revisions, Mitloehner said, “I give them a lot of credit, because who in the world makes a mistake and goes out in public and tells the world?”

The issue, however, is that with revisions showing transportation with much greater impact than initially reported, the media are slow to acknowledge the change and continue targeting animal agriculture.

“The problem is that a lot of the media outlets that have loved that 18 percent number, and who have loved the comparison of livestock to transportation, have not accepted what the authors of that report acknowledge themselves,” Mitloehner said. “They still put out that 18 percent. You read it up until this day.”

Facing the definitions

Mitloehner doesn’t believe today’s producers win any arguments by shirking from science and data proving the reality of climate change.

“Do I believe climate change exists? The answer is yes. There has always been heating and cooling through the world’s history. What is different now from the past, recent heating trends have been more frequent and more intense, and the most recent concentrations of some of the greenhouse gas have far exceeded normal levels.”

Greenhouse gas molecules trap heat, which makes the planet habitable. But gas levels have exceeded normal ranges as carbon and fossil fuels are extracted and burned.

The EPA has reported transportation creates 27 percent of greenhouse gas, with energy production and use going up to 33 percent.

“The entire agriculture sector, both animal and plant, makes up about 10 percent,” Mitloehner said, with livestock ag producing 3.8 percent.

“So to say livestock exceed vehicle emissions, that is not true. And the first ones to tell you that are the EPA folks, the agency there to generate emissions inventory. They will be your biggest friends. Use them.”

Food choice campaigns

Mitloehner said the public is being sold a fraud on Meatless Monday campaigns, when they claim that one less burger reduces one-seventh of emissions. “It misleads the public to believe our food choices are the number one contributor to these issues. Food choices matter, but they don’t’ come close to what you drive.”

If consumers wanted to tackle a food choice that can improve sustainability, Mitloehner said food waste is the bigger culprit.

“Forty percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes to waste, and the same number holds true throughout the world.” Global waste is more related to harvest ability, equipment and transportation to the market. But in the U.S., it’s more related to sale-by stamps on food.

“We’re wasting a lot of food,” Mitloehner said. “When you think about the entire food supply chain, this is the worst atrocity we have to deal with right now. Everybody would agree this is not tolerable for a society like ours.”

Sustainability of modern agriculture

Mitloehner’s research shows that modern agricultural tools and production are critical to reducing air emissions from livestock. Farming and ranching in developed nations is far ahead of developing countries in sustainable practices.

And where population growth and food demand are growing fastest are in those nations that need to learn from U.S. production methods.

“There is a strong relationship between efficiency and productivity of livestock to sustainability.

“A cow that produces very little milk has a greater carbon footprint than one that produces more milk. It’s basically like a car sitting idle.”

With fewer dairy cows and fewer beef cattle than in previous decades, the U.S. is producing more milk and still producing the same amount of beef.

“And what has allowed us to go down to 9 million dairy cows? What has led to going down to 90 million beef cattle? Improved reproduction, improved veterinary care – that’s vaccinations or prevention of disease – improved animal genetics and the feeding of more energy-dense diets. This concert of tools has allowed us to shrink the number of animals needed to produce a given amount of food. It’s that simple.”

Beef producers have a role to explain those efficiencies with the experience and change they’ve seen on their ranches.

“You have to be a compassionate folk that you really are, and not be scared of [critics]. I find that the normal rancher and farmer has the greatest credibility out there, if he or she is able and willing to say what they do and why.”  end mark

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PHOTO: Dr. Frank Mitloehner presents a slide at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef in Denver. Photo by David Cooper.