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FAO sets the record straight on flawed livestock emission comparisons–and the livestock livelihoods on the line

Artworks by Austrian artist August Walla.

As the media frenzy caused by a ‘planetary health diet’ proposed in a new report from an EAT-Lancet commission this month continues, it is perhaps timely to recall that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has set the record straight regarding a flawed comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock and transport sectors, a comparison that is commonly used to support arguments for the world to stop eating meat.

The EAT-Lancet report summarizes scientific evidence for a global food system transition towards healthy diets from sustainable agriculture. The report concludes that a global shift towards a diet made up of high quantities of fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein and low quantities of animal protein could catalyze the achievement of both the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement to combat climate change.

Anne Mottet, an FAO livestock development officer specializing in natural resource use efficiency and climate change, and Henning Steinfeld, head of FAO’s livestock sector analysis and policy branch, where he focuses on environmental issues, poverty and public health protection, usefully remind us of:

The pitfalls of simplification when looking at greenhouse gas emissions from livestock

Here’s what they say.

‘What we choose to eat,  how we move around and how these activities contribute to climate change is receiving a lot of media attention.

In this context, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and transport are often compared, but in a flawed way.

The comparison measures direct emissions from transport against both direct and indirect emissions from livestock.

‘The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) . . . estimates that direct emissions from transport (road, air, rail and maritime) account for 6.9 gigatons per year, about 14% of all emissions from human activities. These emissions mainly consist of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide from fuel combustion. By comparison, direct emissions from livestock account for 2.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent, or 5% of the total. They consist of methane and nitrous oxide from rumen digestion and manure management.

‘Contrary to transport, agriculture is based on a large variety of natural processes that emit (or leak) methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide from multiple sources. While it is possible to “de-carbonize” transport, emissions from land use and agriculture are much more difficult to measure and control.

‘Using a global life cycle approach, FAO estimated all direct and indirect emissions from livestock (cattle, buffaloes, goat, sheep, pigs and poultry) at 7.1 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year, or 14.5% of all anthropogenic emissions reported by the IPCC. In addition to rumen digestion and manure, life cycle emissions also include those from producing feed and forages, which the IPCC reports under crops and forestry, and those from processing and transporting meat, milk and eggs, which the IPCC reports under industry and transport.

Hence, we cannot compare the transport sector’s 14% as calculated by the IPCC, to the 14.5% of livestock using the life cycle approach.

‘. . . Comparing transport and livestock raises another issue. Wealthy consumers, in both high and low income countries, who are rightly concerned about their individual carbon footprint, have options like driving less or choosing low carbon food.

However, more than 820 million people are suffering from hunger and even more from nutrient deficiencies.

Meat, milk and eggs are much sought after to address malnutrition.

Out of the 767 million people living in extreme poverty, about half of them are pastoralists, smallholders or workers relying on livestock for food and livelihoods.

The flawed comparison and negative press about livestock may influence development plans and investments and further increase their food insecurity.

‘. . . Countries, particularly in Latin America, are responding to these challenges by developing low carbon livestock production that will achieve emission reductions at scale, focusing on emission intensity, soil carbon and pasture restoration, and better recycling of by-products and waste. Such programmes also produce a number of environmental and socio-economic co-benefits, like biodiversity and water conservation, or generation of rural employment and income.

‘The world needs both consumers that are aware of their food choices and producers and companies that engage in low carbon development. In that process, livestock can indeed make a large contribution to climate change mitigation, food security and sustainable development in general.’

Read the whole article by Anne Mottet and Henning Steinfeld: Cars or livestock: Which contribute more to climate change?, Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 18 Sep 2018.

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