Exclusive: UN Agriculture Body Accused of Suppressing Data on Livestock Emissions

Livestock Emissions - Cow in a Field in Uruguay [Credits: Sergio Arteaga]
Livestock Emissions - Cow in a Field in Uruguay [Credits: Sergio Arteaga]

Exclusive: UN Agriculture Body Accused of Suppressing Data on Livestock Emissions

In a revelation that could reshape our understanding of climate change, former officials within the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have alleged that crucial information regarding the substantial impact of methane emissions from livestock on global warming was deliberately withheld.

These insiders, who spoke exclusively to The Guardian, claim that the FAO’s reluctance to confront the influential agricultural lobby led to a decade-long suppression of their findings.

The contentious period, stretching from 2006 to 2019, saw attempts to downplay the connection between cattle and climate change within the FAO.

This came after the publication of the seminal report ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow‘ (LLS), which, for the first time, brought farm emissions to the forefront of the climate discussion.

The LLS report attributed a staggering 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions to livestock, particularly cattle. This revelation unsettled an industry that had long viewed the FAO as a reliable ally.

An ex-official revealed, “The lobbyists obviously managed to influence things… There was a lot of censorship.”

The allegations suggest that influential farming-friendly nations exerted pressure on the FAO, permeating its Rome headquarters. Simultaneously, the FAO leadership allegedly sought to stifle the dissemination of these findings.

Between 2006 and 2019, it is claimed that senior management within the FAO made concerted efforts to obstruct investigations into the link between cattle and climate change.

This included revising and diluting key sections of subsequent reports on the subject, suppressing critical papers, and excluding key officials from relevant discussions.

While the FAO’s estimate of livestock emissions‘ contribution to overall emissions has consistently decreased—from 18% in 2006 to around 11.2% according to the latest “Gleam 3.0” model—some scientists dispute this trajectory.

Recent studies suggest that animal products may constitute up to 20% of global emissions, while others propose a range between 16.5% and 28.1%.

According to a recent study by Matthew Hayek; an assistant professor of environmental sciences at New York University, the FAO may have underestimated methane emissions from cattle in nations like the US by up to 90% since it relied on modeling rather than real monitoring data. . “Models are only estimates that need to be constantly validated,” he said, adding that models are merely estimations that need to be continuously verified.

Livestock Emissions
Grey troender sheep [Credits: Kristin O Karlsen]
Critics also raise concerns about the FAO’s methodology, arguing that it relies heavily on models rather than verifiable data. This could result in a significant underestimation of methane emissions from livestock, particularly in countries like the US.

Anne Mottet, the FAO’s livestock development officer, contends that the changing figures reflect evolving methodologies rather than a reduction in livestock numbers.

She emphasizes the importance of livestock within the FAO’s climate strategy and highlights collaborative efforts with governments and industry stakeholders.

This controversy may have far-reaching implications, especially in the context of the upcoming COP26 conference, where the impact of farming on climate change is set to be a central topic of discussion. The FAO’s credibility as a source of data for international climate assessments may also come under scrutiny.

The FAO’s current focus on fostering scientific innovation for global farmers underscores the organization’s commitment to sustainable agriculture.

Recent initiatives in animal feed, precision farming, and animal genetic resources aim to optimize resource utilization and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As this story unfolds, questions regarding transparency, accountability, and the influence of interest groups in shaping climate discourse within international bodies like the FAO will undoubtedly take center stage.

The FAO, along with various meat and dairy industry lobbyists, declined to comment on these allegations.


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