JoAnn Alumbaugh
JoAnn Alumbaugh

A recent article in the Des Moines Register reported that “greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry and fisheries have nearly doubled during the past half century and could increase another 30 percent by 2050 without additional efforts to reduce them.” The information was from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

The FAO said emissions from crop and livestock production grew from 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2001 to over 5.3 billion metric tons in 2011, an increase of 13 percent.

In the next-to-last sentence of the article, readers will find that in 2011, nearly half (45 percent) of greenhouse gas emissions came from Asia, followed by the Americas at 25 percent. Most people reading the article will assume the greenhouse gas increase is in the United States rather than in developing countries, where it was due to an expansion of total agricultural production. As developing countries increase their disposable incomes and add more animal protein to their diets, it would stand to reason at greenhouse emissions would increase exponentially to livestock production.

Furthermore, the greenhouse gases associated with agriculture are not growing as fast as emissions produced from fossil fuels used in other industries. This statement can be found in the last sentence of the Register article.

Responsible journalism often takes a back seat to sensationalism for urban news outlets, and it’s important for readers to use objectivity in evaluating news, rather than believing the author will provide it.

To be fair, it is possible that the skewed information came directly from FAO, as the focus seems to be on livestock rather than other sources.

"FAO's new data represent the most comprehensive source of information on agriculture's contribution to global warming made to date," said Francesco Tubiello of the Organization's Climate, Energy and Tenure Division, as quoted in the article. "Up to now, information gaps have made it extremely difficult for scientists and policymakers to make strategic decisions regarding how to respond to climate change and have hampered efforts to mitigate agriculture's emissions."

The study found the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture occurs when methane is produced by livestock during digestion and released via belches. In 2011, this was responsible for about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture.