Frank Mitloehner: Cattle and air quality
On. Nov. 26, 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) released a report titled, “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” Based on this report, senior UN FAO official Dr. Henning Steinfeld stated that the meat industry is “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems” and that “urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”
Furthermore, the report’s primary publicized finding was livestock production accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the statistics cited by “Livestock’s Long Shadow” differ significantly from those calculated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2009, the EPA said that the vast majority of GHG emissions come from the use of fossil fuels and electricity, not livestock.
Frank Mitloehner, an internationally-renowned authority for agricultural air quality, animal-environmental interactions and environmental engineering, is an associate professor and air quality specialist in Cooperative Extension at the University of California-Davis, and he was one of the researchers who worked to disprove the UN report. In fact, his findings helped to discover that the claims made about global livestock production are not relevant to the U.S. In fact, they proved that U.S. agriculture sector accounts for only 5.8 percent of annual U.S. GHG emissions.
Mitloehner is committed to sharing his findings and clearing the air on cattle and air quality.
“When the UN report came out in 2006, nobody doubted it,” said Mitloehner. “Unfortunately, the report is referenced everywhere, and it’s a flawed study. Livestock in developed countries has relatively small GHG contributions, and the report’s findings of 18 percent is an international number, not one that is representative of the U.S. GHG emissions contributed by large transportation, energy and industry dwarf that of agriculture.”
He explained that in developing countries, livestock can be a dominant contributor to the GHG portfolio due to deforestation, which inflates the number by one-third. Many are surprised to learn that over the last 20 years, the U.S. has had a net increase of forest land by 20 percent. In addition, comparing livestock to transportation is inappropriate, he added, because the report doesn’t even include transportation numbers.
“Today the authors of the UN study say the U.S. is a model for livestock production around the world,” said Mitloehner, who appreciates the admission but believes the damage is already done for livestock producers. “Meatless Mondays is in the news a lot. San Francisco has declared Monday to be meatless in the city because they are trying to save the planet. Paul McCartney is urging places like France and India to do the same.”
Obviously, the trend is growing, but Mitloehner hopes to share findings from his report, “Shrinking The Shadow,” to offset the damage done by the UN report.
“When I came to California in 2002, it was bizarre how much cattle were in the news in regards to air quality,” he said. “California is a bit hysterical about air pollution anyway; it’s home to the worst quality of air in the country (Silicone Valley). In California, whether you have a factory, a walnut farm or a dairy, you have to have the same air permits. Who cares what happens in California? Well, my reality is dealing with urban conflict every day, which turns into regulatory pressures and lawsuits. Whatever is established here sets a precedent for other states.”
One thing he discovered was a list of top 25 smog-forming pollutants that said dairy was the number one source of smog in California, followed second by trucks. Based on the emission inventory, California courts wanted to cover up lagoons to capture the gases. The dairy industry was involved in the lawsuit, and the court decided more research was needed.
“I looked into this and found the research was from 1938 and referenced methane, which is not smog-forming, it’s a GHG,” explained Mitloehner. “This is problematic in respect to dairy cows.”
His research team looked at liquid manure, solids, feedstuffs and equipment to evaluate the true environmental impact from a dairy. The National Air Emission Monitoring Study conducted by the EPA was recently completed, and Mitloehner said, “We were blown away to see how little the dairy farm produced.”
An important finding in the study shows that fermented feed like corn silage has a greater impact on air quality.
“Manure wants to stay in liquid form; it won’t go into the gas phase,” said Mitloehner. “Lagoons are actually the least smog-forming in comparison. Ten to 25 percent of dry matter in silage is lost every time the face of the pile is broken and new silage is exposed to the air and sun.”
Mitloehner said the big picture is that U.S. agriculture is a model for the rest of the world to follow because of its growing efficiency and environmental stewardship. He predicted the next focus for activists will be on calf-raising, which is where he’s focusing his research on right now.
“My goal is to clear the air on cattle’s impact on climate change and air quality,” he concluded. And, Mitloehner’s commitment to sharing that message is making an impact. He encourages others to share the good news of U.S. agriculture and the environment with others, as well.
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