Outdated UN Report Still Overshadows Animal Agriculture

UN's 2006 report on global animal agriculture's environmental impact still gives anti-animal ag activists ammo despite U.S. industry's progress.

Published on: Jan 23, 2014

The U.S. livestock industry has suffered negative press for years. But in 2006, anti-animal ag groups received fresh ammunition for their cause – ammo that's still fired today, at will and without qualifications. And McDonalds and Walmart are listening.

The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization issued a 2006 report entitled "Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options". It was a 284-page indictment of the harmful effects of livestock on the global environment.

Consider the opening round of the summary and conclusions section: "As we have seen, the livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole. Globally, it's one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity. In developed and emerging countries, it's perhaps the leading source of water pollution."

A CLEANER NOSE: U.S. food animal industries have already substantially reduced environmental risks associated with beef, pork, poultry and dairy production.
A CLEANER NOSE: U.S. food animal industries have already substantially reduced environmental risks associated with beef, pork, poultry and dairy production.

Related: How Sustainable is Livestock Production?

Despite major efforts of the U.S. beef to refute many of the report's so-called facts, it remains a much-quoted source for critics intent on curtailing U.S. food animal production systems. Despite much evidence to the contrary, these critics fail to recognize huge differences between how animals are produced in this country compared to countries with little or no environmental awareness.

One section delves into who should control how animals are raised. It's titled "Consumers may drive change towards a sustainable livestock sector." Here are its three major points:

* "Growing economies and populations combined with increasing scarcity of environmental resources and rising environmental problems are already translating into a growing demand for environmental services."

* "There are reasons for optimism that the conflicting demands for animal products and environmental services can be reconciled. Both demands are exerted by the same group of people, the relatively affluent, middle to high level income class, which is no longer confined to industrialized countries."

* "This group of consumers is probably ready to use its growing voice to exert pressure for change and may be willing to absorb the inevitable price increases."

* "Development of markets for organic products and other forms of eco-labeling are precursors of this trend, as are the tendency towards vegetarianism within developed countries and the trend towards healthier diets."

Recent announcements of major beef purchasers – McDonalds and Walmart – confirm that they believe it's in their best interest to cater to consumers who are increasingly asking for "eco-labeled" products.

Redeeming beef industry study

Recognizing the need to assess "sustainability", the National Cattlemen's Beef Association initiated a three-year "Sustainability Lifecycle Assessment" study. It's important to know where you are before you can know where you need to go.

While far from complete, preliminary results show that the beef industry has improved sustainability an overall 5% over a six-year period. Comparing 2011 to 2005, the industry has:

* Decreased emissions to soil by 7%

* Decreased greenhouse gas emissions by 2%

* Decreased emissions to water by 10%

* Decreased water use by 3%

* Decreased land use by 4%

* Decreased resource consumption and energy use by 2%

Critics will immediately cry "biased" and "self-serving" since the study was conducted with beef check-off dollars. Anticipating such criticism, NCBA submitted the study to the National Standards Foundation, the largest accredited, third-party certifier of research results. NSF certified that the results met national conformity standards and were valid.

Harpster is a Centre County, Pa., beef producer and retired Penn State University animal scientist.