FAO’s new partnership: Needs improvement to compete with Meat Free Monday!

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By Robert Goodland

Robert Goodland retired as Lead Environmental Advisor at the World Bank Group after serving there for 23 years. He was elected President of the International Association for Impact Assessment, and won the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s first (and as yet only) Harold Jefferson Coolidge award for outstanding lifetime achievement in environmental conservation.

The partnership will be chaired by Frank Mitloehner, and aims to “establish a shared understanding of how to assess the environmental performance of the livestock sector” and “to improve that performance.”

Improved performance sounds good – but one might question the FAO’s wisdom in partnering with groups that have vested interests in maintaining or increasing today’s livestock populations.

Meat Free Monday (MFM) supporters may recognise the FAO as the publisher of the 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow, which helped inspire the establishment of the MFM campaign. That report concluded that livestock are responsible for about 18 per cent of human-caused global-warming greenhouse gas. Yet the report projected a doubling in livestock production by 2050, and made no recommendation to avoid that doubling.

Livestock’s Long Shadow was nevertheless referenced by a number of assessments and recommendations that followed. Notably, a 2009 assessment that itself became widely cited was developed by environmental specialists employed by two other United Nations specialised agencies, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation. I’m one of those specialists. We found gaps in the FAO’s assessment, and concluded that, in fact, at least 51 per cent of human-caused greenhouse gas is attributable to livestock.

The FAO even invited Jeff Anhang and me to its headquarters in Rome to present our analysis – which includes a calculation that replacing 25 per cent of livestock products with “better alternatives” by 2017 could almost fully achieve the objectives of UN climate treaty negotiations.

Other climate authorities have recommended even stronger measures – with vegetarian diets prescribed by Lord Nicholas Stern, former World Bank chief economist, and Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Another notable assessment came from the UN Environment Programme, which prescribed “a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

However, the chair of the FAO’s new partnership, Frank Mitloehner, is known for his claim that 18 per cent is much too high a figure to use in developed countries. He has asserted that it is simply not true that consuming less meat and dairy products will help stop climate change, and has repeatedly criticized Paul McCartney for saying so. Instead of recommending vegetarian foods, he has prescribed replacing fossil fuel infrastructure to stop climate change.

Yet Frank Mitloehner has not addressed what can be done about the fact that sufficient renewable energy infrastructure is projected to take at least 20 years and $18 trillion to develop. That’s long past the period of the next five years – when atmospheric carbon may increase to irreversibly catastrophic levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency.

In fact, it would be good for the FAO to explain why it decided that the best choice as chair of its new partnership is Frank Mitloehner, an associate professor who has disclosed that his research has been funded by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. He is not a specialist in environmental assessment, while good practice in environmental assessment is to employ independent environmental assessment practitioners.

Whereas the FAO’s new partnership assumes that meat production worldwide will “more than double” from 1999-2050, the International Food Policy Research Institute has set out a scenario by which meat production will decline at least through 2030.

Also troubling is that the FAO’s new partnership includes only France, Ireland, the Netherlands and New Zealand – four wealthy countries – and no poor country.  Yet the former Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute, which normally promotes livestock, wrote of his concern about the impacts of industrially-produced meat on “poor countries,” as “factory-farmed” livestock eat grains ”that might instead have fed people.”

The key difference between the FAO’s 18 per cent and our 51 per cent figure is that ours (but not theirs) accounts for how large-scale deforestation and forest-burning, driven by exponential growth in livestock production (now more than 60 billion land animals per year), have caused not only excess greenhouse gas – both from accelerating volatilization of soil carbon and from the livestock themselves – but also a dramatic decline in the earth’s photosynthetic capacity.

Conversely, our prescription to replace at least a quarter of today’s livestock products with better alternatives would both reduce emissions and allow forest to regenerate on a vast amount of land, which could in turn absorb excess atmospheric carbon to reduce it to a safe level. Indeed, this may be the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change in the next five years as needed.

Supporting initiatives such as the Meat Free Monday campaign plays a significant role in this. One meat-free day per week can go a long way towards meeting our recommendation – and more meat-free days would be even better. After all, it’s not really about taking meat or other livestock products away. It’s rather about seeing whether they can be replaced with better foods, and thereby improve people’s lives. The FAO should try it!

 

 

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