Don't blame cattle industry for climate change, air quality scientist says

May 22, 2019 - 5:59 am
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An air quality scientist says the idea that cattle cause significant greenhouse emissions is all based on one faulty study commissioned by the United Nations. 

At a Senate Agriculture Committee Hearing on climate change, Dr. Frank Mitloehner of University of California Davis said the UN Food and Agricultural Organization put out a report in 2006 that said flatulence from livestock accounted for 18 percent of carbon-based emissions, outpacing all forms of transportation. Mitloehner contacted the FAO to point out what he called an oversimplified method of gathering data.

"The claim, incorrect by a long shot, was the result of a methodological error," Mitloehner said. "The claim that was responsible for the lion's share of greenhouse gases was the shot heard 'round the world. To this day, we struggle to unring the bell."

The subject received renewed attention when the office of freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) released a report detailing a so-called Green New Deal. The report listed cow emissions as a driver of climate change. She advocated skipping meat and dairy once a week. Ocasio-Cortez later retracted the report. According to an article in New Food Economy, if all Americans adopted vegan diets, it would only reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 2.6 percent.

Livestock account for less than two percent of all greenhouse emissions, Mitloehner said. The FAO's lead author changed the report, Mitloehner said, but activists and some lawmakers continue to call for regulations to bring about a meatless future.

Kansas rancher Debbie Lyons-Blythe also testified at the Tuesday meeting. Her family runs a multi-generational ranch in Morris County. 

"According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, direct emissions from beef cattle account for less only represent two percent of all greenhouse gases in this country," Lyons-Blythe said.

Scientific breeding over the decades has allowed ranchers  to produce more beef with 33 percent fewer cattle than before. Each animal grows faster and uses less feed and water, reducing its carbon footprint, Lyons-Blythe said.

The rancher also said cattle herds are the best way to protect and maintain vast grasslands in the United States, which she said are critically important for carbon sequestration, which is removing carbon from the air.

"As my grandpa used to say, leave the land better than you found it," Lyons-Blythe said. "Farmers and ranchers are truly the original environmentalists."

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