Findings from US research will give heart to cattle farmers worldwide

The fight against misinformation claiming livestock is the biggest cause of climate change was ratcheted up at last week’s Alltech One 19 conference in the US.

The defence of ruminants was led by Frank Mitloehner, PhD, professor and air quality specialist for the Department of Animal Science at the University of California Davis, and his presentation of new facts from carbon footprint lifecycle assessment by the US Department of Agriculture’s research service, and the Beef Checkoff (which uses its funding from the beef industry for research and promotion).

The findings (see sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X18305675) from this US research will give heart to cattle farmers worldwide in their fight against spreaders of misinformation on the role of livestock in climate change.

“This lifecycle assessment delivers the most comprehensive and accurate assessment of the environmental impact of beef cattle in the US to date,” said USDA researcher and study co-author Alan Rotz.

A headline finding is that beef production, including animal feed, generates only 3.3% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, dramatically lower than an often quoted figure of 14.5%.

This compares with 80% of US GHGs coming from fossil fuel activity, which includes 28% of the total from transport. But only 0.7% of fossil fuel activity, and 5% of blue water (which excludes rainwater), are attributed to beef, in the USDA/Beef Checkoff findings.

Researchers collected data from more than 2,200 cattle farms in seven US regions, to estimate national impacts on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, fossil energy use, water consumption, and reactive nitrogen loss.

At One 19, Dr Mitloehner said there has been “ridiculous” misinformation on the amount of food absorbed by the beef industry, but the new figures in the US show cattle consume only 2.5lbs of grain per pound of beef produced — and nearly 90% of grain-finished cattle feed is inedible for humans.

Therefore, beef is the best way to upcycle protein, when including its use of otherwise useless marginal land, said the UC Davis expert.

He said, “Our special friends say get rid of ruminants, which would make 70% of agricultural land redundant, and remove their natural fertiliser.” He noted that without livestock, there is no organic fertiliser.

At One 19, Dr Mitloehner also warned that often-cited data in the 2006 FAO report (Livestock’s Long Shadow), and other soon-to-follow reports, will continue to make inaccurate claims about food production. The FAO report said livestock production was responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions (more than transport).

Mitloehner says the FAO incorrectly compared all emissions associated with meat production (including fertiliser, land clearance, methane, and vehicle use) with only a transport tailpipe emissions figure.

Mitloehner, who grew up in West Germany, emphasises he serves the public, as a faculty member at a public university, and is not just a livestock advocate.

He has also challenged the EAT-Lancet “healthy diets from sustainable food systems” report, saying it assumed most land used for agriculture could be converted to cropland.

But 70% of farmland is too marginal for crops, and grazing animals are the best land use. He has warned that efforts to reduce meat and milk production globally will only cause more hunger in poor countries.

In his One 19 presentation, he emphasised that methane remains in the atmosphere for only 10 years. Methane is emitted by livestock, and has up to 28 times the global warming power of CO2.

However, after 10 years in existence, a cattle herd is no longer adding to the amount in the atmosphere of this greenhouse gas.

British scientist Dr Michelle Cain at the University of Oxford has also addressed this, noting that treatment of all greenhouse gases as CO2-equivalent misrepresents the impact of short-lived gases such as methane. She explains that if methane emissions are held at a constant level, its warming potential does not increase, whereas constant CO2 causes year-on-year increases in warming, because it accumulates in the atmosphere.

“For countries with high methane emissions, this can make a huge difference to how their progress in emission reductions is judged,” says Dr Cain.

The day after his One 19 presentation, Dr Mitloehner gave testimony before a US Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on climate change.

With up to 2.5m hits per month on his @GHGGuru Twitter feed, Dr Mitloehner plays a significant role in the sustainability debate, which is now further ratcheted up in the US by the emergence of a vegan Democrat presidential nominee — Cory Booker, ranked No 8 by CNN of the 24 already declared candidates.

Meanwhile, enough Americans have turned against meat to bring plant-based meat annual sales to $888m, led by Burger King’s Impossible Whopper.

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