How farming contributes to climate change was downplayed by the UN food organization, labeling anti-livestock advocates as a nuisance.
The evening before the release, Henning Steinfeld was in the midst of handling stressed-out politicians and a spread of bird flu in a different part of the world. The reception of his report was honestly not a top concern for him at the time.
Steinfield, leader of the livestock policy branch at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), had been collaborating with a small team of officials for several months to produce a report examining the connection between the six main types of livestock and climate change. They were aware that this topic could potentially cause controversy. Steinfield expressed his frustration with the lack of attention given to the issue of livestock and the environment, despite private acknowledgement of its significance in regards to climate change, water, and biodiversity. He believed that people were hesitant to delve into the topic due to potential consequences.
A different FAO employee, who goes by the pseudonym “Michel Criollo,” recollected: “Nobody was willing to acknowledge that agriculture has negative effects on the environment, and that we must take steps to address it – even if it means decreasing production or implementing less profitable methods.”
In 2006, climate change was becoming a prominent topic on the global stage, but the contentious discussions and eventual failure of the Copenhagen summit wouldn’t occur for another three years.
Despite the acceptance and widespread discussion of the link between climate change and fossil fuels, the farming industry has somehow avoided scrutiny. Scientists have recognized that the methane emitted by grazing cattle, which accounts for two-thirds of livestock emissions, is a significant contributor to anthropogenic greenhouse gases and the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. However, there has been no effort to accurately measure the extent of this contribution. The scientific community has been primarily focused on other issues, while politicians struggle with the political challenges of reducing fossil fuel usage.
At the time, the FAO was not the first choice to step in and take action. Established in 1945 with the goal of eradicating hunger and enhancing nutrition through promoting agricultural and livestock production, it primarily focused on representing the industry rather than critically examining it.
The team of scientists collaborating with Steinfeld had been deliberating over this matter for a number of years and believed the timing was ideal to delve into it. However, they were aware that they would encounter opposition from the group and from external sources. Steinfeld stated, “It is widely acknowledged that meat and other animal products are deeply intertwined with culture and lifestyles, as well as traditions, faith, religion, and matters of identity that shape individuals. And now we have something that challenges all of that.”
However, when Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS) was released, it caused a storm and broke through long-held taboos. For the first time, some employees have shared their experiences with the Guardian, revealing a period of censorship, sabotage, undermining, and victimization within their workplace. It is rare for officials working in a UN agency to provide insight into their work environment, and most chose to remain anonymous due to lingering effects of the conflicts they faced while employed at the FAO.
The study Livestock’s Long Shadow was the initial basic examination of the environmental impact of livestock and, importantly, the first calculation of the ecological impact of the meat and dairy industry. The results showed that livestock accounted for 18% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, which includes 9% of human-caused CO2 emissions, mainly from clearing land for pasture and feed crops, 37% of human-caused methane emissions, primarily from cow belching, 65% of human-caused nitrous oxide emissions, mostly from manure, and 64% of human-caused ammonia emissions.
The news was explosive. Experts in the environment and advocacy organizations were overjoyed, and a surge of widely viewed documentaries like Meat the Truth and Cowspiracy ensued. However, the study had caused upheaval in the meat business and the effects spread rapidly.
Steinfeld recalled receiving criticism stating that “vegan activists have taken control of the FAO” and receiving personal threats, such as “the anti-livestock individuals are a nuisance that must be eliminated.”
There was a great deal of pressure from various sources. According to Steinfeld, the major countries known for producing meat – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Australia, and the US – all expressed their grievances to the higher levels of the FAO. Additionally, there were numerous protests from the private sector and large-scale producers of meat, feed, and dairy.
Another FAO official “Angus Green” remembered the shock that the FAO would produce a report on this topic. “People were complaining: ‘Why do we need such a report? Livestock is so important. It’s the best way to alleviate poverty for farmers in poor countries.’ You can’t imagine how controversial the subject of climate change in agriculture was at that time.”
According to Hans R Herren, a recipient of the World Food Prize and co-chair of the IAASTD, there is evident influence from major agricultural producers within the FAO. This pressure may be indirect, but it is well-known that certain countries hold significant power. It is believed that this pressure is passed down through the chain of command in order to influence the reports produced. This is due to the FAO’s reliance on external funding, making it susceptible to outside pressure.
The pressure was about to increase. LLS had stated that livestock emissions were a bigger factor in global warming than the transportation industry. One of the authors of the paper admitted that this information was a minor mistake that was added at the request of the FAO press office, who wanted to make the report more sensational. The authors did not give it enough thought before including it.
The sentence was ultimately removed from the article, but those who disagreed with the report quickly latched onto the mistake. Major news outlets like the BBC and Daily Telegraph picked up the story, and CNN even ran it with the title “Scientist: Cows not to blame for climate change!”
Sources say that the leadership at the FAO was caught off guard by the backlash and the consequences would be long-lasting, coinciding with a critical time to address agriculture’s contribution to climate change. As evidence of the tense atmosphere within the FAO during this period, a fourth experienced insider, known as “Mary Wagyu”, alleges that she received reprimand for creating Meatless Monday flyers to distribute at a 2008 food security summit attended by heads of state. According to Wagyu, a high-ranking FAO executive ordered for the flyers to be removed and destroyed, stating that they would not be placed in people’s trays.
In 2009, the release of the second FAO report, Livestock in the Balance, was delayed for several months as the organization’s leaders attempted to minimize mentions of the negative impact of the meat industry. They argued that this had already been addressed in the previous report, Livestock’s Long Shadow. The research team resisted this pressure, but management intervened and took control, manually altering important sections without consulting the team. This caused what Steinfeld described as “a mini-revolution.” In response, approximately twelve staff members who had worked on the report chose to remove their names from it in protest.
Steinfeld stated that we collectively stood up to protect the professional integrity of this report, according to our beliefs. This was the first instance where there was noticeable disagreement on the topic of livestock. Steinfeld recounted a conversation with a high-ranking official in the director general’s office, who told him, “Even if livestock is responsible for 18% of climate change, the FAO should not disclose this information. It is not in the best interest of the FAO to highlight environmental consequences.”
A former official named “David Holstein” stated that the report was deemed “very problematic” and the Director General’s office aimed to downplay its messages. According to Holstein, the problem was that the report presented statements suggesting that the state of livestock was not ideal, leading to censorship as a response.
Ultimately, the second report was released with its mentions of environmental consequences remaining unchanged.
In the same year, a study conducted by IAASTD and co-sponsored by FAO was released. Titled “Agriculture at the Crossroads” and authored by Herren, the paper highlighted the negative impact of livestock on the environment. It identified it as a leading cause of global warming and a major source of water pollution.
According to Herren, the report was essentially hidden at the FAO. He stated that there was significant pressure to not make the paper public from countries that provided funding, such as the US and Australia. These countries expressed concerns about the report as an annex. When Herren was asked to speak at the FAO plenary, the organizer informed him that he could give a presentation but was not allowed to mention the IAASTD report. The reason for this was not disclosed, but Herren believes it was because the report recommended a transformation of the food system that did not align with the goals of some major FAO-supporting countries.
According to Steinfeld, the consequences for the rebellious researchers’ personal and professional lives were significant. They were perceived as a troublesome group and individuals who did not conform to the party’s beliefs.
Some former FAO employees interviewed by the Guardian did not believe that their colleagues who spoke out about livestock issues faced negative effects on their careers. However, another FAO researcher at the time, “Jean Charolais”, recalls a tense atmosphere. He stated that there was significant internal pressure and consequences for permanent staff who worked on these issues, which created an unhealthy work environment.
Former employees have likened the influence of the agribusiness lobby on FAO policy to that of major players in the oil and gas industry on energy policy. According to Green, the driving force behind both is money.
According to Holstein, lobbyists were successful in exerting influence from 2012 to 2019. They significantly shaped the practices at the FAO and censorship was prevalent. Obtaining approval for documents from the corporate communications office was difficult and there was a need to defend against edits that distorted the intended message. Progress towards changing the perception of livestock was slow and incremental.
Steinfeld stated that lobbyists and diplomats from the meat industry would be meeting with high-level managers at FAO to dissuade them from funding projects related to environmental effects.
The team established a collective body known as the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (GASL) to unite NGOs, scientists, industry, and governments and address the matter. However, GASL was hindered by the FAO’s leadership, who lacked competence and knowledge and at higher levels, did not comprehend the various greenhouse gases and their origins, as stated by Steinfeld.
According to the speaker, the FAO leadership actively worked to hinder and undermine our efforts. In 2017, when a minister from a Latin American country came to Rome to meet with the group and had offered to host a GASL meeting, Steinfeld alleged that the minister was convinced to change his mind by a high-ranking FAO official who picked him up from the airport and took him to the organisation’s headquarters.
In the meantime, proponents of the livestock industry established a competing group called the Livestock Global Alliance (LGA), with their main focus being to promote the positive impact of livestock on a global scale. They also aimed to enhance the reputation of the livestock sector, specifically in light of the FAO’s report on the significant effects of livestock production.
At least one FAO executive attended LGA meetings where the group’s goal, according to Wagyu, was to secure funding for research that supported industry interests. This research would then be used in the FAO’s policy-making process to influence the emerging scientific consensus.
According to Wagyu, private companies sought to fund scientific research in order to achieve results that aligned with their own interests. This led to a sudden surge of studies favoring the livestock industry.
Criollo stated that a few LGA proposals were attempting to manipulate FAO models and data by leveraging their connections in the industry, but he reassured that these attempts were not successful.
Steinfeld, who attended some LGA meetings, said simply: “They discussed world domination. They discussed how everything could be brought into their fold and establish the World Bank and World Organisation for Animal Health as the true world guardians of livestock and everything else should disappear.”
In addition to promoting a cause, the opposing group’s method of operation included altering the messaging surrounding livestock. “A major focus was addressing the supposed negative effects of the Long Shadow report, and there was also a goal to create proposals that would appeal to potential donors,” he explained. The LGA has now disbanded.
How is it possible for methane emissions to decrease while meat consumption is increasing?
Environmental scientists have expressed significant worry over the decreasing estimate from the FAO regarding the impact of livestock on greenhouse gas emissions. The initial estimate of 18% in 2006 was later revised to 14.5% in a subsequent paper titled “Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock” in 2013. The current revision, based on the new “Gleam 3.0” model, suggests a further decrease to approximately 11.2%.
The topic is of great importance as the FAO will propose a plan to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5C at the upcoming Cop meeting in November. According to the latest analysis, there is a projected 13% decrease in the estimated emissions from livestock, from 8.1 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2017 (based on 2010 data) to 6.19 billion tonnes in 2022 (based on 2015 data). This may seem contradictory, considering that there has been a 39% increase in global meat production during the same time period according to the FAO’s records.
Many of the more than twenty current and former officials and consultants from FAO who were interviewed for this study denied that their estimates of livestock emissions were influenced by pressure from agribusiness or governments. However, they still maintained that their preferred figures were 18% or 14.5%.
A recent study found that animal products contribute to about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, contradicting the trajectory set by many scientists. Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor at New York University, stated that the FAO’s use of modeling instead of verifiable data may lead to a significant underestimate of methane emissions from livestock, particularly in countries like the US. He also expressed concern about the lack of validation for the FAO’s research over the past few decades.
According to Anne Mottet, an officer for livestock development at the FAO, the shifting numbers indicate improved techniques and changing approaches, rather than a presumed decrease in the amount of livestock.
According to her, the FAO’s approach to climate change includes livestock and involves collaborating with governments, farmers, and industry. However, she admits that the sector’s key players have not exerted much pressure on the issue.
As the sole governing body of worldwide agriculture, the FAO is treading carefully when it comes to addressing livestock emissions. There are strong opposing forces from both sides that are prepared to strongly criticize any politician who gets involved.
Despite the growing recognition of how excessive meat and dairy intake contributes to the carbon footprint of certain nations, politicians are largely hesitant to address this issue, especially in the current era of cultural conflict. While scientific evidence supports the idea that even a slight decrease in meat and dairy consumption can effectively reduce emissions, very few governments are willing to incorporate this into their environmental agenda. The Netherlands, which has been one of the few countries to boldly announce a plan to reduce livestock (although officially for nitrogen emissions rather than methane), has faced significant opposition from the conservative Farmer’s Party.
The United Nations has faced difficulties in including the agriculture industry in its climate conferences. During Cop27 in Egypt, a food pavilion was introduced and food was mentioned for the first time in the final statement. However, as George Monbiot, a vocal critic on this matter, has pointed out, there has never been a mention of “livestock reduction” in any of the UN’s documents.
According to Monbiot, there has been a 58% increase in global meat consumption from 1998 to 2018. Our World in Data’s analysis reveals that even if all other sources of greenhouse gas pollution were eliminated immediately, food production is projected to exceed the global carbon budget two or three times by 2100. This is mainly due to the impact of animal farming, which contributes to 57% of greenhouse gas emissions from the food industry, despite providing only 18% of the world’s calories.
The Guardian’s numerous inquiries to the FAO went unanswered.
However, Hayek stated that the Guardian’s investigation brought to light a shift in the FAO’s perspective on livestock emissions in 2006. It was viewed as an “opportunity” for the industry rather than a concern for the environment.
He expressed concern about the potential biasing effect of inserting officials and donors into data-oriented research. He also worried that individuals with differing opinions may no longer be part of the organization due to conflicts caused by lobbyists, countries, and contributing parties.
Jennifer Jacquet, a professor of environmental science at the University of Miami, stated that it is a well-known fact that the meat and dairy industry holds significant power over policy-making. This is evident in the fact that their involvement has resulted in lower estimates of emissions from livestock. The industry was surprised by the findings in Livestock’s Long Shadow and had to strategize and regain control of the narrative and scientific research.
In her own investigation of agribusiness’ response to Livestock’s Long Shadow, Jacquet discovered strong indications that the industry viewed it as a threat and sought to manage it. They referred to it as a “significant public relations issue.” This sparked a lobbying coalition similar to the efforts of the oil and gas industry against the Kyoto Protocol, with a significant amount of coordination aimed at influencing and manipulating climate science and our understanding of the issue.
People often compare policymaking to making sausage – the end product may be tasty, but the process of making it is not pleasant to see. However, as the FAO prepares to release its upcoming emissions report, the process this time seems to offer more interesting insights for the scientific community.