On this point, Gerber agrees. “[The 18 percent] is a global figure that covers a wide variety of farming systems and development objectives,” he said. “Different countries have different first priorities in terms of feeding their people, or preserving environment, or protecting public health. So, using that 18 percent figure to try to draw conclusions for the U.S., or for the U.K., or for the Sudan is of course wrong.
“This is why there is a major effort here now, which is requiring much more work, to disaggregate this 18 percent into various commodities – eggs, milk, beef, poultry, and so on – in different farming systems and different regions to understand where are the emissions and where are the big pockets of reduction potential. We’re also coupling that with economic work to see what the most cost-effective options are to reduce environmental impact.”
Mitloehner agrees that the FAO is taking admirable steps to improve its reports. He called the press’s single-minded focus on conflict between him and the organization unfortunate, and stressed that despite its faulty comparison between livestock and transportation emissions, the FAO is doing valuable research.
“We are predicting a massive increase in the demand for animal protein, so the question is: how do we satisfy that demand without having a major environmental impact? That’s why what the FAO is doing is so laudable,” Mitloehner said. “Livestock’s Long Shadow’ was a good first attempt and they are working on follow-up studies right now. I’ve had the privilege to look at some of them and they are much better because they are refined by region. So, the follow-up reports will talk about how the United States livestock industry compares to those in, say, sub-Saharan Africa, or India, or Brazil, and why some areas have a higher environmental impact per unit of meat or milk produced than others.”
Gerber noted that the FAO will not do country profiles, however. “We won’t disaggregate by country because our data is not accurate enough and I think there is also the risk of pointing fingers,” he said. “So, for now, we will do political regions, we’ll do climatic zones, we’ll do farming systems, but across boundaries.”
Mitloehner and Gerber complained, respectively, that the media’s focus on conflict and attempts to cast the former’s criticism as yet another blow to climate science are “regrettable” and “pour oil on the fire.” The two men clearly disagree on some fundamental points, and the FAO’s comparison between livestock and transportation emissions is indeed a newsworthy mistake. But the impression left by most news articles is one of scientists bogged down in disagreement—when, in fact, there is a lot of consensus about how research could be improved.
Indeed, it seems fair to say that Mitloehner and Gerber agree on three points: the need to do a lifecycle analysis for the transportation industry; the need to “disaggregate” livestock statistics; and the need to reduce the environmental impact of both industries.
“I think it’s time that we work across the globe really on transferring knowledge and help particularly those areas like India and China to produce in a way that is as environmentally benign as possible,” Mitloehner said. “I think we have that responsibility. So it would be nice if we would take some of the politics out of the discussion and really focus on getting things done and resolved and addressed.”