Legal Outlook: Is livestock production causing climate change?

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The new 2013 FAO Report from Rome states: "Livestock matters to climate change. The sector contributes 7.1 gigatonnes (giga=billion) CO2-eq (equivalent) to global anthropogenic GHG emissions – a contribution that can be readily reduced by up to one-third – placing the sector as an integral part of any solution to climate change.

Once again, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has weighed-in against agriculture and livestock. The 115-page FAO report titled "Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock" was released Sept. 26.

The report was written by several people, including Dr. Pierre Gerber, a PhD. from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland.

Harshly criticized
Gerber has on occasion been harshly criticized by University of California professor Dr. Frank Mitloehner, who has stated Gerber's prior work is, "Simply not scientifically accurate to blame livestock for climate change." 

Gerber told the BBC in an interview and was quoted as saying he "accepted the criticism."

Notwithstanding these facts, Gerber and his team now say, "The global livestock sector contributes a significant share to anthropogenic GHG emissions, but it can also deliver a significant share of the necessary mitigation effort."

FAO claims livestock emissions represent 14.5 percent of human-induced global warming emissions. In an earlier publication, Gerber claimed livestock contributed 18 percent of human-induced emissions.

In Chapter 1, FAO declares that the livestock sector is a large user of natural resources and it needs to address its environmental footprint.

The report is based on a newly developed Global Livestock Environment Assessment Model (GLEAM). This model claims to take into account geographical patterns of soil in the world and the major livestock species grown in the world such as buffalo, cattle, goats, pigs and poultry.

The model measures three GHGs emitted from food and agricultural activities: methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Page six of the report notes that GLEAM is built on five modules: the herd module, feed module, manure module, system module and allocation module.

The model allegedly considers all sources of emissions along the livestock supply chain. Of the 7.1 billion tons of CO2-eq per year emitted by worldwide livestock, the report claims that 4.6 billion tons of GHGs (65 percent) come from cattle and dairy; beef is slightly more than dairy by comparison. Global emissions from hogs are estimated at 668 million tons and poultry at 612 million tons.

The report does show that a large portion of animal emissions are from Latin America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

The report reviews techniques and practices to mitigate emissions. "Diet manipulation and feed additives have been identified as the main avenues for the mitigation of enteric CH4 (methane) production," the report states. FAO explains diet also affects manure emissions by altering the content of the manure and urine. On p. 48, the FAO in Table A lists feed additives, forage quality, grazing management, macro-supplementation and micro-supplementation as available techniques and practices.

Reduced emissions
Of course, FAO has available techniques for grazing, housing, manure treatment, manure storage and manure application. In Chapter six of the report, it concludes that the mitigation techniques identified by FAO can result in large environmental benefits and in fact can result in reducing emissions from 14-41 percent in the ruminant and pig production systems in Asia, Latin America and Africa. FAO does admit that dairy systems in Europe and the United States have already demonstrated high levels of productivity, but the emissions can still be reduced by 14-17 percent, or 54-66 million tons, of CO2-eq with more improved management systems, feed supplementation and energy-saving equipment.

To put livestock's contribution in some rough perspective, I checked several sources as to CO2 emissions. There seems to be agreement that forest fires release over 400 billion tons of CO2 every year. (There is, apparently, no FAO concern about stopping this emission!)

Manmade activities worldwide are in the range of 29 billion tons per year. As a nation, the United States emits approximately 6 billion tons of CO2 and China over 6 billion tons. Germany, for example, is listed at approximately 800 million tons.

The FAO report is likely to be controversial. It remains to be seen whether FAO is correct when another author of the report claims "livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's serious environmental problems."

Is FAO correct or is Dr. Mitloehner, who claims it is simply not accurate to blame livestock for climate change?

Let us know your opinion.

Gary H. Baise is a principal at OFW Law (Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz P.C.). This article first appeared in Farm Futures magazine. The opinions presented here are expressly those of the author. For more information, go to

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Waterloo, IA  |  October, 08, 2013 at 09:51 AM

Every time I see someone talking about the environmental impact of livestock I think of Dr. Allan Savory and his TED presentation. These models tend to assume that the absence of livestock is carbon neutral, but this simply isn't true. Grazing animals are fundamental to many ecosystems. Yes, the way the animals and land are managed does have a huge impact and I'm sure we can and will constantly find ways to improve both, but the math just isn't as simple as "cows produce this much greenhouse gas". Cows also participate in carbon sequestration as they trample, digest and redeposit grasses. Properly grazed herds of cattle, sheep and goats have actually reduced net greenhouse emissions.

kansas  |  October, 08, 2013 at 11:38 AM

In these days of Politicized "Science" of consensus, and the rise of Celebrity Scientists, there's only one test - follow the money & fame. Who is profiting and/or making their living by delivering the "right" information to support a particular political ideology's necessary supporting "evidence". And, who is rewarded with the most grants, consulting fees and media interviews.

Germany  |  October, 10, 2013 at 05:22 AM

Now let's be serious: Which serious scientist compares greenhouse gas emissions of livestock with those of other industries? While it is on the one hand emissions from renewable sources (plants for feed), on the other hand industries emit emissions from fossil sources. What is renewable? See also (regretably in German)

Germany  |  October, 10, 2013 at 09:10 AM

oh god! Look here: FAO webinar "Learning events Tackling climate change through livestock: Global assessment and multi-stakeholder initiative"


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