Former employees of the United Nations organization focused on agriculture state that efforts to address methane emissions were suppressed.
Former members of the UN’s agricultural division have stated that they faced censorship, sabotage, and victimization for over ten years after speaking out about the significant impact of methane emissions from livestock on global warming.
The FAO team responsible for calculating the impact of cattle on rising temperatures reported feeling pressure from countries that provide funding to the organization. This coincided with efforts by FAO leadership to restrict their research.
The accusations go back to the time period following 2006, when certain individuals who chose to remain anonymous spoke to the Guardian and authored Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS), a significant report that brought attention to the impact of farming emissions on the climate. LLS was the first to calculate the environmental toll of the meat and dairy industry, revealing that 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, particularly cattle. This report surprised an industry that had previously viewed the FAO as a trustworthy ally, and led to an internal crackdown by FAO leadership, according to the sources.
According to a former official, the lobbyists clearly had an influence on proceedings at the FAO. Their presence resulted in significant censorship and hindered the production of necessary documents. Despite this, the official had to constantly fight against biased editing in order for their documents to be approved by the corporate communications office.
Serving and former FAO experts said that between 2006 and 2019, management made numerous attempts to suppress investigations into the cow/climate change connection. Top officials rewrote and diluted key passages in another report on the same topic, “buried” another paper critical of big agriculture, excluded critical officials from meetings and summits, and briefed against their work.
According to another former employee, there was significant internal pressure and potential repercussions for permanent staff involved in this project, which could negatively affect their future career prospects. The work environment was not conducive to a positive and productive experience.
Researchers are worried about the decreasing estimation of livestock’s impact on emissions by the FAO. The initial figure of 18%, released in 2006, was later reduced to 14.5% in a subsequent report titled “Tackling Climate Change Emissions” published in 2013. The latest assessment using the “Gleam 3.0” model suggests it is now around 11.2%.
However, numerous researchers track agricultural emissions on a divergent path. According to a recent analysis, 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to animal products, while a 2021 study suggests this percentage falls within the range of 16.5% to 28.1%.
According to a new study by Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor of environmental sciences at New York University, the FAO’s reliance on emissions modeling, rather than verifiable atmospheric data, may result in an underestimation of methane emissions from livestock in countries like the US by as much as 47%. Hayek pointed out that models are simply approximations and require ongoing validation, but the FAO’s research has lacked this validation for several decades.
According to livestock development officer Anne Mottet from the FAO, the fluctuating statistics are a result of improvements in methodologies and not necessarily a decrease in the number of livestock.
According to her, the FAO’s approach to addressing climate change involves incorporating livestock and collaborating with governments, farmers, and industry. Despite the significance of these stakeholders, there has not been much pressure from them.
The updated methodology used in the new report resulted in more precise numbers, according to the speaker. This was due to improved access to data and tools, as well as ongoing enhancements and updates to the IPCC’s emission calculations.
The Guardian held extensive discussions with approximately 20 past and present employees of the FAO. Their stories were verified to the best of our ability. The sources, who chose to remain anonymous, depicted a culture in which investigating the link between livestock and climate change was discouraged and, in certain instances, silenced. They also reported instances of management intentionally sabotaging research and research networks. Henning Steinfeld, the leader of the FAO’s livestock analysis unit, stated that diplomats and meat industry lobbyists influenced senior FAO executives to not fund projects related to environmental effects.
According to the source, the working environment is not one where someone would directly tell you to stop your work because they don’t like it. Instead, they would make it difficult for you by excluding you from meetings with donors, not giving you speaking opportunities, and withholding support from various units within the FAO that others receive.
Jennifer Jacquet, a professor of environmental science at the University of Miami, stated that it was not a coincidence that the FAO had changed its evaluation of farm emissions. She referenced the accounts of previous officials and suggested that it is a familiar scenario where the meat and dairy industry holds significant sway over policymaking.
According to Gert Jan Nabuurs, lead author of the UN International Panel on Climate Change’s latest report on forestry and agriculture, FAO data served as a main source of information.
The organization’s current priority is ensuring that scientific advancements are accessible to farmers worldwide. In September, it held the inaugural global conference on sustainable livestock transformation, which explored topics such as animal feed, precision farming, and animal genetic resources. The conference aimed to exchange knowledge on effective practices and initiatives for utilizing natural resources and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.
For the first time, the goal is to establish how food systems should adapt in order to meet the global target of keeping temperature increases below 1.5C from pre-industrial levels.
The FAO and various representatives from the meat and dairy industries declined to provide a statement for this article.