and Kaitlyn McClelland, M.S.
University of Minnesota Meat Science
The United Nations Food and Agricul-tural Organization (FAO) published a report in 2006 titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” In this report it was estimated that 18 percent of human produced greenhouse gases are either directly or indirectly related to livestock production.
The report estimates that livestock emissions account for more human produced greenhouse gasses than transportation. Unfortunately, it is this report that has been used in media reference and has begun to lead public policy.
Perhaps the most detrimental consequence in referencing this report when considering public policy is the tighter restriction that could potentially be placed on agricultural production when the planet is faced with massively increasing demands for wholesome food. It is estimated that by the year 2050, global agriculture will need to more than double its current output to meet the nutritional demand of the growing population.
When faced with the daunting challenge of feeding an increasing population, it is critical to understand realistic estimations concerning agriculture’s impact (or more pointedly, livestock production’s impact) on the environment.
A body of research exists that demonstrates that the FAO report has greatly overestimated the effect that livestock has on greenhouse gas emission. This research is largely summarized in an article titled “Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contribution to Climate Change,” published in Advances in Agronomy (Volume 103, 2009).
This article summarizes the findings of a number of researchers and organizations, two of which are the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the California Energy Commission. These two agencies estimate the human produced greenhouse gases directly attributed to livestock at less than 3 percent, a figure that is much lower than the global estimate.
The primary reason for the large difference between the global estimation by the FAO and the national estimation by the EPA and CEC is the large amount of weight given in the calculation to land clearing or deforestation for the purpose of livestock production.
Additionally, as pointed out in the “Clearing the Air” article, the FAO attempts a life cycle analysis of global livestock production; however the same approach is not taken when evaluating the transportation sector.
It is critical to understand that the expansion of agriculture in the attempt to meet future population growth will largely take place in developing forested areas such as South America and parts of Asia. This means that future growth in these countries will have to come at the sake of carbon sequestering forests.
In fact, agriculture in developed parts of the world such as the United States and Europe, accounts for a very small portion of total human produced greenhouse gases. This is due to several factors, but is largely in part due to the efficiency of agriculture in these parts of the world and less of a need for deforestation.
In the United States, transportation accounts for at least 26 percent of greenhouse gas emissions as compared to 5.8 percent for all of agriculture, or the even smaller 3 percent attributed to just livestock production.
In other parts of the world, these numbers may be largely reversed, as these lands have very little transportation and far less efficient agricultural practices.
Therefore, it stands to reason that instead of lambasting the United States in popular media for meat consumption and the effect of livestock on the environment, it should be held as a model of efficiency.
In the last 25 years, forestland in the United States has increased by 25 percent and the amount of land used for agriculture has decreased, allowing for a smaller geographical footprint.
Additionally, modern livestock practices have created a more efficient animal with more food provided to the consumer per animal unit. Even within the FAO report, it is stated that more intensive livestock production will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and provide a more long-term solution to a sustainable agricultural industry.
As a part of American agriculture, you are part of the most efficient agricultural production system on the planet. You are encouraged to share this information with those who are misinformed by popular media, and furthermore make them understand that not only are you not a part of the problem, but a part of the solution.