Misleading climate statements rampant in IATP’s dairy report

Dairy Cow at UC Davis
Photo by Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis

By Frank Mitloehner

The agriculture sector faces two tremendous challenges in our lifetime – feeding a global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 and doing so while helping to keep the planet from warming beyond 1.5°C. These intertwined challenges are already playing out in the dairy sector, where demand is increasing globally, particularly in developing regions of the world. And while the dairy sector can make further progress – and we need it to do so – we have seen certain regions manage to reduce emissions while increasing production.

Simply put, dairy farmers have made progress in concurrently feeding the world and improving their environmental footprint. Granted, there is still much more to be done, but losing sight of successes to date doesn’t help get food to people who need it nor does it alleviate global warming.

This seems to be lost on the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Publication (IATP). The organization’s recent paper, “Milking the Planet: How Big Dairy is Heating Up the Planet and Hollowing Rural Communities,” is rife with misleading and dubious statements. It further distracts the global community from real climate solutions and ignores the dairy sector’s gains in providing vital nutrients and calories to a growing worldwide population.  

Here’s a list of the most egregious comments in the paper, which are followed by the facts:

Claim 1: Scientific evidence mounts that our food system is responsible for up to 37 percent of all global emissions.

Fact 1: This is a deceptive statement that seems to allude to global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, all agriculture is responsible for 24 percent of greenhouse gases. Globally, beef and dairy cattle contribute 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Claim 2: There's scientific consensus that our global food system and land use change are having a dramatic impact on climate change.

Fact 2: When it comes to cattle – a major part of the global food system – referring to land use change when reporting emissions is problematic. Both globally and in the United States, nearly two-thirds of all agricultural lands is considered marginal, meaning it’s unsuitable for growing crops. However, marginal farmland can be grazed by ruminants that consume the forage grown on it and transform it into protein that is digestible by humans. As such, cattle and other ruminants are upcylcers.  

Dairy Digester in California
A dairy digester in California. Photo courtesy of Dairy Cares.

Claim 3: (In reference to dairy corporations as a major source of global warming) … In California, these mega-dairies are further supported through public subsidies for controversial methane digesters ... which allow air and water pollution to continue even as they perversely incentivize additional manure production.

Fact 3: These so-called “controversial digesters” are in fact responsible for a
25 percent reduction in methane emissions from dairies in California. Dairy digesters are the most carbon-negative technology in use in the state today, actively removing from the atmosphere carbon put there by the burning of fossil fuels.

Claim 4: The total combined emissions of the largest dairy corporations rose by 11 percent in just two years.

Fact 4: If companies consolidate, then of course their numbers rise as they absorb other operations. It’s worth noting that as the sector has increased production, emissions haven’t risen at the same rate. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between 2005-15, demand for dairy grew globally by 30 percent, particularly in developing countries. But emissions only grew by 18 percent. This speaks to the efficiency of the dairy sector as it works to feed a population that is on track to triple from 1970-2050.  

Claim 5: Thirteen of the world’s largest dairy corporations combined emitted more greenhouse gases in 2017 than either BHP, the Australia based mining, oil and gas giant, or Conoco Phillips, the United States-based oil company.

Fact 5: Comparing greenhouse gases from livestock to fossil fuels is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Methane from animals warms the planet differently than CO2 from fossil fuels. As biogenic methane is emitted, it’s also being destroyed in the atmosphere in roughly 10 years’ time. On the other hand, CO2 from fossil fuels accumulates in the atmosphere, continuing to warm long after it’s emitted.

Claim 6: Unlike growing public scrutiny on fossil fuel companies, little public pressure exists to hold global meat and dairy corporations accountable for their emissions. 

Fact 6: This may be the most dangerous claim in the report. CO2 is the most abundant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, and if we’re going to limit warming, we must stop it from accumulating in our atmosphere. Shifting blame to cattle is a smokescreen that serves to divert our attention from the most significant climate polluting sector, and language like this only distracts us from serious climate solutions.

Claim 7: Emissions data was obtained using the FAO’s GLEAM methodology and the IFCN dairy research network’s calculation of companies’ production quantities

Fact 7: My trusted colleague at the FAO, Aimable Uwizeye, Ph.D., pointed out a relevant fact on Twitter. He wrote that the “report is based on rough estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from dairy companies. [IAPT] authors multiplied regional average emission intensity from GLEAM with volume of milk reported by each company, which is inaccurate as it doesn't reflect the practices along the supply chains. It is also misleading to state that the study is based on FAO GLEAM methodology. In reality, the study is using aggregated regional emission intensities, which are not suitable to estimate emissions for multi-national dairy companies, sourcing their milk from diverse dairy farms.”

Imagine if the same time and energy spent attacking livestock were instead spent on the largest climate polluters out there – or even supporting cattle as a part of a climate solution. Yes, cattle can help pull carbon from the atmosphere, and if we work together, we can feed a growing population while also curbing climate change.

It seems to me that the IATP had a point to make with this report, and it’s unfortunate it came at the sake of important facts.

This article has been adapted from a Twitter thread by Frank Mitloehner aka @GHGGuru. You can view and share the thread here: https://bit.ly/GHGGuru-IATP-Thread.

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