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Fiction versus fact

By Staff | Feb 4, 2019

During the 2019 Iowa Pork Congress in Des Moines, Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor and air quality Extension agent in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California-Davis debunked myths frequently used in claims that livestock production is destroying the environment.



DES MOINES-Call it the shot heard ’round the world. In November 2006, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released the report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” and livestock producers are still dealing with the consequences.

The report’s primary publicized finding? Livestock production accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the statistics cited by “Livestock’s Long Shadow” differ significantly from those calculated by other organizations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

So who’s telling the truth?

Turns out the FAO report’s estimate of livestock’s contribution to GHG emissions was a global estimate that’s not applicable to the United States or other developed countries, said Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor and air quality Extension agent in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California-Davis. Yet the myths about U.S. livestock production’s negative impact on the environment persist.

“In the U.S., transportation produces 26 percent of GHG emissions, while all livestock production contributes less than 4 percent,” said Mitloehner, who spoke at the 2019 Iowa Pork Congress in Des Moines on January 23. “In California, nearly 50 percent of GHG emissions come from transportation, while 5 percent come from livestock production.”

A vocal minority continues to spread misinformation, however, that livestock producers pollute the environment, support the inhumane treatment of animals and produce food that’s not safe.

“Repetition of falsehoods means that lies will eventually become viewed as the truth,” Mitloehner said. “The people spreading misinformation are trying to take your business and your legacy away from you.”

Take action

So what can a farmer do? Plenty, said Mitloehner, who offered these seven tips:

1. Take a new look at climate change.

“If your consumers believe in climate change, whether you believe it or not, it becomes your issue,” Mitloehner said.

First, it pays to understand the basics of GHG. GHG molecules trap heat from the sun. Without them, life on Earth wouldn’t be possible, because the planet would be too cold.

“The challenge is that we have too many GHG, especially carbon dioxide,” Mitloehner said. Carbon dioxide is one of three main GHG, along with methane and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide has the lowest global warming potential (GWP), Mitloehner said. Methane is 28 times more potent that carbon dioxide, in terms of GWP, while nitrous oxide is 298 times more potent.

There’s more to the story, however.

“Carbon dioxide is cumulative, because of its long lifespan, which is about 1,000 years,” Mitloehner said. “Methane’s lifespan it only about 10 years, however.” New research in 2018 shows that methane (including methane from livestock production) should be treated differently than other GHG, since it is relatively short-lived. “This is why past assessments of methane are flawed, without a doubt,” Mitloehner said.

2. Know the facts.

Some efforts to support “meatless Mondays” or promote vegan lifestyles claim that livestock production harms the environment by excessive GHG emissions.

“Changing from an omnivore diet to a vegan diet for one year equates to one flight to Europe,” said Mitloehner, who emphasized that curtailing or eliminating meat consumption would do little to impact GHG emissions. “It’s in your best interest to know the facts and share them.”

3. Learn about the 2050 challenge.

When Mitloehner was a boy, the global population was roughly 3 billion people. Today, it’s closer to 7.6 billion people. The global population is projected to increase to more than 9.5 billion people by 2050, driven largely by population growth in Africa and Southeast Asia.

“In my lifetime, we’ll have three times more people on Earth, but we won’t have three times the farmland,” Mitloehner said. “Feeding all these people is one of the biggest questions of our time.”

4. Be aware of food waste issues.

Dovetailing with the 2050 challenge is the issue of food waste. Up to 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. and globally is wasted, Mitloehner said.

“That’s a terrible number,” he stressed. “Among the 40 percent, we’re wasting 50 percent of fruits and vegetables in the U.S. and 20 percent of meat and dairy products.”

Some groups are promoting dramatic steps to address food waste. The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health recently cited a reduction of food waste as a key strategy to save the planet. It seeks a 90 percent decrease in animal-based protein consumption while doubling fruit and vegetable production, Mitloehner said.

The EAT-Lancet Commission, whose website says the group “brings together more than 30 world-leading scientists from across the globe to reach a scientific consensus that defines a healthy and sustainable diet,” has implied it’s willing to mandate these consumption levels through laws, subsidies and penalties, trade issues and other measures.

“As a consumer, I look at the amount of animal-based protein that’s suggested, and I cringe,” Mitloehner said. “They are suggesting no more than seven grams, which is a quarter-ounce of beef. That’s a teaspoon of beef per day. For eggs, they’re suggesting 1.5 eggs per week.”

This is not the answer to the 2050 challenge, Mitloehner added. “Show me a more nutrient-dense food than an egg, pork or beef. What in the plant kingdom even comes close to these?”

5. Explain ag in terms that make sense to consumers.

Efficient production of livestock is a much more sustainable solution to the 2050 challenge, Mitloehner said. Even the FAO has stated that production intensity and emission intensity are inversely related. Does the public understand this? No, so relate it to something people understand, Mitloehner advised.

“People don’t know what you mean when you say, ‘My pigs are efficient.’ Explain it in terms of a car. If you drove a car 100 miles 30 years ago, that car used a lot more fuel and produced more emissions compared to the same trip with a modern car. That’s efficiency,” he said.

6. Anticipate the future.

Want a crystal ball to see what’s coming next? Look to Europe, Mitloehner said. Consider the trend towards “green” fast food. This highlights food produced in an eco-friendly way, including the producer’s environmental footprint, commitment to animal welfare and other factors. Consumers in some parts of Europe can check a restaurant’s numerical green ratings, which appear alongside the price and calorie count of menu items like cheeseburgers, Mitloehner said.

7. Speak up for ag.

Too many farmers still shy away from speaking up for their industry. That’s not an option anymore, said Mitloehner who encourages farmers to become active social media users.

“You don’t have to be an expert on all these topics, but you do need to share what you know. All of us have to get the word about. It’s not just up to the professional communicators or academics anymore,” he said.

Mitloehner recalled the time he was on stage speaking with the producer of the documentary film Food, Inc., which includes incorrect, misleading information about modern agriculture. Mitloehner asked the producer where he sourced his information for the movie.

“He told me he contacted 100 farmers and ranchers and made three attempts to reach them all,” he said. “Only three responded.”

All these farmers ran small operations with 20 hogs or 50 chickens.

The filmmaker noted that he did include large livestock farms in the film, too. When asked where he got his information about these operations, he cited People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Human Society of the United States (HSUS), Mitloehner said.

Farmers, not activist groups, should be telling ag’s story, Mitloehner concluded.

“Your industry has been extremely responsive and responsible when it comes to protecting the environment,” he said. Now it’s time to get the message out.”

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