Ex-officials at the UN food body claim that the organisation hid animal agriculture’s impact on climate change despite overwhelming evidence.
The night before publication, Henning Steinfeld was halfway across the world dealing with panicked politicians and an outbreak of avian flu. His report, and how it would be received, was frankly the last thing on his mind.
With a small group of officials, Steinfield, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s livestock policy branch, had been working for months on a report analysing the link between the six major species of livestock and climate change, which they all knew could be explosive. “I was very frustrated by the fact that the livestock-environment issue hadn’t resonated even though people accepted in private that it was a big issue – for climate change, and also water and biodiversity,” he said. “But no one was interested in getting into it because I think they were afraid of what it could mean.”
Another FAO official, “Michel Criollo” (not his real name), remembered: “No one wanted to go to the next step of saying agriculture is a problem for the planet and we need to mitigate it – including by potentially reducing production levels or changing things in less profitable ways.”
It was 2006. The issue of climate change was climbing the international agenda, although the bitter rows and collapsing dialogue of the Copenhagen summit were still three years in the future.
But although the link between climate change and fossil fuels was accepted and widely discussed, somehow the farming sector had managed to dodge the spotlight. Scientists were aware that the methane produced by grazing cattle – around two-thirds of livestock emissions come from cows – was a significant chunk of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases that were heating the planet’s atmosphere.
Still, there had been no attempt to quantify how large a chunk it might be; the scientific community was largely focused elsewhere, while politicians were finding it hard enough to cope with the political realities of reducing fossil fuel consumption.
The FAO was not the obvious candidate to jump into the breach. Founded in 1945 with the remit of ending hunger and improving nutrition by increasing agricultural – and livestock – production, it was a country-based organisation, which felt that part of its mission was to represent the industry rather than scrutinise it.
The small group of researchers who worked with Steinfeld had been discussing this issue for several years and felt the time was right to dig into it. But they knew that they would face resistance from the organisation and from beyond. “Everyone knows that meat and other livestock products are closely connected to culture and ways of living,” Steinfeld said, “to traditions, beliefs, religion and identity issues that define people, and here we have something that challenges that.”
But none of them were quite prepared for the storm that broke over their heads when Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS) finally came out, cracking through the taboos. Now, for the first time, some of them have spoken to the Guardian about a period and a working culture in which, they say, they were censored, sabotaged, undermined and victimised. It is so unusual for officials working in a UN agency to allow a peek behind the scenes that almost all of them would only speak on condition of anonymity, still, to some extent, marked by the battles they fought while working at the FAO.
Livestock’s Long Shadow was the first elementary lifecycle analysis for livestock and, crucially, the first tally of the meat and dairy sector’s ecological cost. The report estimated that livestock were responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – including nine percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, mostly due to deforestation for (pasture and) feed crops, 37% of anthropogenic methane emissions, largely from cow burps, 65% of anthropogenic nitrous oxides, overwhelmingly from manure and 64% of anthropogenic ammonia emissions.
It was a bombshell. Environmental scientists and campaign groups were rapturous, and a wave of popular documentaries such as Meat the Truth and Cowspiracy followed. But the report had sent shockwaves through the meat industry and the tremors travelled quickly. Steinfeld remembered hearing complaints that “the FAO has fallen into the hands of vegan activists” and personal threats such as “the anti-livestock people are a pest that needs to be eradicated”.
Pressure came from all sides. The big meat-producing countries – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, Australia and the US – all complained to the FAO’s higher echelons, according to Steinfeld, while protests also flooded in from “the private sector, the large-scale meat, feed and dairy producers”.
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.”
Hans R Herren, a World Food Prize winner and co-chair of the UN/World Bank Global Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD), told the Guardian: “It’s clear that there is corridor pressure by the main agri-producers in the FAO. It’s indirect because it comes from outside, but everybody knows how powerful some of those countries are. People think they have to pass on the message to whoever ‘priced’ those reports. There is a chain of pressure because the FAO, like most agencies, depends on external funds, so that’s one way of exerting pressure.”
The pressure was soon to become more intense. LLS had included a line saying that livestock emissions were “an even larger contribution [to global heating] than the transportation sector worldwide”. One of the paper’s authors described the factoid as a “slight methodological error” that had only been inserted because of a request from the FAO press office, which “wanted to add some hype to the report. They suggested this might be included as a statement and we didn’t think about it enough.”
The line was eventually cut from the paper but the error was seized on by the report’s critics. International press such as the BBC and Daily Telegraph jumped on the story with CNN, running it under the headline “Scientist: Don’t blame cows for climate change!”
The leadership at the FAO were taken by surprise by the backlash, according to sources, and the impact would be felt for the next decade, just at the moment that it became ever more important to look honestly at agriculture’s planet-heating role. In a sign of the atmosphere in the FAO at this time, a fourth veteran insider, “Mary Wagyu”, claims to have been admonished after preparing Meatless Monday leaflets for distribution in the cafeteria of an FAO heads of state food security summit in 2008. “Remove and destroy them,” a senior FAO executive said, according to Wagyu. “These will not be put in people’s trays.”
In 2009 a second FAO report called Livestock in the Balance was delayed for several months while the FAO’s leadership tried to dilute references to harm caused by the meat industry, arguing that this had already been covered by Livestock’s Long Shadow. When the research team resisted the pressure, management stepped in and manually rewrote key passages over their heads, sparking what Steinfeld called “a mini-revolution”. About a dozen staff members involved in preparing the report withdrew their names from the paper in protest.
“We took a collective stand to defend – in our view – the professional integrity of this report,” Steinfeld said. “This was the first time there was visible opposition [on the livestock question].” Steinfeld recalled being told by a senior official in the director general’s office: “Even if livestock contributes 18% to climate change, the FAO shall not say that. It’s not in the interest of the FAO to highlight environmental impacts.”
The report was seen as “very problematic and the DG’s office wanted to dampen its messages,” according to “David Holstein”, another former official. “The issue was [the report] presenting statements that livestock was not hunky dory. The response was, therefore, censorship.”
In the end, the second report was published with its references to environmental impacts intact.
That same year an IAASTD study called Agriculture at the crossroads by Herren was co-sponsored with the FAO. The paper outlined the environmental problems caused by livestock, singling it out as a “major contributor” to global heating and “probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution”.
“The report was basically buried at the FAO,” Herren said. He described “huge pressure” not to publicise the paper from funding countries such as the US and Australia – which entered “reservations” about the report as an annex. “When I was invited to give a talk to the FAO plenary, the organiser told me: ‘You’re welcome to talk but you cannot mention the IAASTD report.’ He didn’t say why but I believe it was because the report recommended a food system transformation that was not in line with what some of the major FAO-supporting countries had in mind.”
And meanwhile the impact on the lives and careers of the rebellious researchers had been profound, according to Steinfeld. “We were considered a difficult group and difficult individuals, and this is how others described us. We were not [with] the party line.”
Not all ex-FAO officials the Guardian spoke to agreed that the careers of colleagues who spoke out on livestock issues suffered as a result. But another FAO researcher at the time, “Jean Charolais”, remembers the atmosphere. “There was substantial pressure internally and there were consequences for permanent staff who worked on this, in terms of their careers. It wasn’t really a healthy environment to work in,” he said.
Several former staff members compared the power of the agribusiness lobby over FAO policy to that of the oil and gas giants on energy policy. As Green put it: “It is all about money, similar to the fossil fuel industry.”
Between 2012 and 2019, “the lobbyists obviously managed to influence things”, Holstein said. “They had a strong impact on the way things were done at the FAO and there was a lot of censorship. It was always an uphill struggle getting the documents you produced past the office for corporate communications and one had to fend off a good deal of editorial vandalism. You had to accept relatively small steps forward in changing the narrative on livestock.” Steinfeld added that meat lobby representatives and diplomats would talk to senior FAO managers and encourage them not to invest in work that dealt with environmental impacts.
The group set up an umbrella organisation – the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (GASL) – to bring together NGOs, scientists, industry and governments and focus on the issue. But GASL was undermined by the FAO leadership, which suffered from “a lot of incompetence and ignorance” and at senior levels “actually did not understand different greenhouse gases and sources of emissions”, according to Steinfeld.
The FAO leadership did all they could to “obstruct and torpedo our effort”, he continued. When one minister from a Latin-American country flew to Rome in 2017 to meet the group – after offering to host a GASL meeting – Steinfeld claimed that he was picked up at the airport by a senior FAO official and, by the time he reached the organisation’s headquarters, had changed his mind, and no longer wanted the meeting.
Meanwhile, livestock industry supporters had set up a rival organisation – the Livestock Global Alliance (LGA), whose declared first priority was “to advocate for the global public good dimension of livestock”. It also reportedly sought to “improve the image of the livestock sector, particularly in response to the FAO report on Livestock’s Long Shadow”.
LGA meetings were attended by at least one FAO executive and, according to Wagyu, the group’s objective was to obtain financing for industry-friendly research that could be fed back into the FAO policy-making process to influence the developing scientific consensus.
“Private companies wanted to finance the science to achieve more outcomes that were biased in the direction they wanted, and this happened,” said Wagyu. “All of a sudden the trickle of scientific studies going in the livestock industry’s direction exploded.”
Criollo described some of the LGA proposals as “spin-off mechanisms from industry that tried to push for certain positions”, but he said that these had not affected FAO models or data outputs.
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.”
As well as advocacy, the counter-group’s modus operandi was messaging to change the narrative on livestock. “It was a lot about counteracting the so-called damage done by the Long Shadow, and the idea, of course, to write proposals that would be attractive to donors was also there,” he added. The LGA has since folded.
How can methane emissions be falling if people are eating more meat?
One of the greatest concerns for environmental scientists has been the progressively falling FAO estimate of livestock’s overall contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The 18% number in 2006 was revised downwards to 14.5% in a follow-up paper, Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock, in 2013. It is now being revised downwards again to about 11.2% based on a new “Gleam 3.0” model.
The issue is acutely important as the FAO will present a blueprint for pegging global temperature rises to 1.5C at the next Cop in November. The latest analysis assumes a 13% reduction in its estimate of livestock emissions – from 8.1bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2017 (using data from 2010) to 6.19bn tonnes in 2022 (using data from 2015). This seems counter-intuitive, given that during the same period, the FAO recorded a 39% increase in global meat production.
Most of the 20 plus former and serving FAO officials and consultants spoken to in the research of this story denied that pressure from agribusiness or states had affected their estimates of livestock emissions. But nevertheless, they continued to cite 18% or 14.5% as their preferred figure.
Many scientists plot farm emissions on a very different trajectory, with one recent study concluding that greenhouse gas emissions from animal products made up 20% of the global total. One recent paper by Matthew Hayek, the assistant professor in environmental sciences at New York University, said that the FAO’s use of modelling – rather than verifiable monitoring data – could underestimate methane emissions from livestock by up to 90% in countries such as the US. “Models are only estimates that need to be constantly validated – and there’s been an alarming lack of validation over the now decades that this [FAO] research has been produced,” he said.
Anne Mottet, the FAO’s livestock development officer, stressed that the changing figures reflected best practices and evolving methodologies, rather than an assumed cut in livestock numbers.
“Livestock is part of the FAO’s strategy on climate change and we work with governments and farmers and industry on this programme as well,” she said. “We can’t ignore the main actors of the sector but there has been no particular pressure from them.”
As the only body overseeing global agriculture, the FAO is walking a thin line on livestock emissions, with gale force headwinds from both sides ready to batter any politician that joins in.
Although there is growing awareness of the impact that high meat and dairy consumption has on certain countries’ carbon footprints, politicians are, in the main, profoundly reluctant to tackle the issue, particularly in this era of culture wars. Reducing meat and dairy consumption – even by a small amount – is scientifically proven as an effective way to reduce emissions, but almost no government will include that as part of their environmental messaging. The Netherlands, one of the few countries to have bravely announced a livestock reduction plan (although officially to reduce nitrogen – rather than methane – emissions) has seen a huge political challenge from the rightwing Farmer’s Party as a result.
The UN has struggled to incorporate the farming sector in its climate summits as well. Cop27 in Egypt saw the first ever food pavilion, and the first ever mention of food in the final statement, but, as George Monbiot, an outspoken critic on this issue, has pointed out, there has never been reference to “livestock reduction” in any of its texts.
Monbiot noted: “In the 20 years to 2018, global meat consumption rose by 58% … An analysis by Our World in Data shows that even if greenhouse gas pollution from every other sector were eliminated today, by 2100 food production will, on its current trajectory, bust the global carbon budget two or three times over. This is largely because of animal farming, which accounts for 57% of greenhouse gases from the food system, though it provides just 18% of the calories.”
The FAO did not respond to more than a dozen questions sent to it by the Guardian.
But Hayek said that the Guardian’s investigation shed new light on a change in the FAO’s framing of livestock emissions after 2006 – into an “opportunity” for industry rather than a problem for the planet.
He said: “The insertion of officials and donors into rigorous data-oriented research has a potentially biasing effect. My overriding concern is that people with contrary views might not be at this organisation any more, thanks to conflicts instigated by lobbies, countries and contributing parties.”
Jennifer Jacquet, professor of environmental science at the University of Miami, added: “It’s a story as old as time, that the meat and dairy industry has enormous influence over the policy-making apparatus. It’s no coincidence that industry’s involvement has led to lower overall relative estimates of emissions for livestock. Industry was taken aback by Livestock’s Long Shadow. It caught them on the backfoot and they had to regroup, double down and figure out how to get control of the narrative – and over the science to some degree.”
In her own research into how agribusiness reacted to Livestock’s Long Shadow, Jacquet found “clear evidence that the industry saw it as a threat and something that they needed to control. They call it ‘a major PR problem’. It set off an industry lobbying coalition somewhat comparable to the oil and gas industry’s efforts against the Kyoto Protocol, with an enormous amount of coordination aimed at infiltrating and controlling climate science and, moreover, our understanding of the problem.”
It is often said that policymaking is like sausage production in that, however delicious the results, you wouldn’t want to see how they are made. But as the sacred cow of agribusiness prepares to belch again in the FAO’s forthcoming emissions report, its assemblage this time around looks set to provide the scientific community with more food for thought than usual.
Original source: https://www.theguardian.com