I'm A Drover: Science Advocate

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Hating on cows is popular, largely because of misperceptions and miscalculations by groups who might take advantage of the general public’s lack of knowledge about science. Often stepping into the fray to set the record straight is Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality expert from University of California, Davis, also known as @GHGGuru on Twitter, where you can find links to many of his challenges to anti-cow propaganda.

But, Mitloehner emphasizes, he’s not your advocate.

“I work for the public,” he says. “As a faculty member at a public university, I work for everyone, and that means I advocate for using science.”

Specifically, Mitloehner is a professor and air quality Extension specialist in the department of animal science at UC Davis. But his path to an American land-grant university was unique. He grew up in West Germany, and when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, he was among the first to go east for his education, to the University of Leipzig, Germany, where he earned a master’s degree in agricultural engineering and animal science in 1996. He followed that with graduate studies in animal science at the University of Goettingen, Germany. Finally, Mitloehner earned his doctorate in animal science at Texas Tech University in 2000.

Soon thereafter he applied for, and was offered, what he calls a job that was a perfect match for his education and interests at UC Davis.

“While at Texas Tech, I conducted research on air quality—dust emission and microbial sampling in feedlot cattle and pigs, and heat stress mitigation in cattle and pigs,” he says. “Now I’m working on air quality research related to livestock production, especially quantification of greenhouse gas, ammonia, dust and odor emissions from dairies, beef feedlots and poultry operations. My main objective is to minimize environmental impacts of livestock systems.”

Such research is critically important for the livestock industries and the public, but it has also given Mitloehner the scientific authority to challenge some of the most egregious claims against livestock production—and quite successfully, too.

When the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations published “Livestock’s Long Shadow” in 2006, a report that was “to assess the full impact of the livestock sector on environmental problems,” Mitloehner challenged one of the key scientific findings. Livestock’s Long Shadow famously claimed livestock production was responsible for “18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than transport.”

That led to calls for a reduction in meat consumption to reduce climate change. But upon review of the data, Mitloehner noted the emission figures were calculated differently for livestock versus transportation. The livestock figures had been reached by adding all GHG emissions associated with meat production, including fertilizer, land clearance, methane emissions and vehicle use on farms, whereas the transportation figure only included tail pipe emissions. The result, Mitloehner says, was an “apples-and-oranges comparison that truly confused the issue.”

Pierre Gerber, a policy officer with the FAO and co-author of the report, acknowledged Mitloehner’s criticism. “I must say honestly that he has a point—we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport,” he said.

More recently, Mitloehner challenged a report called EAT-Lancet that proposed “healthy diets from sustainable food systems.” Many experts called the EAT-Lancet data on the impact of livestock production on the environment flawed. Mitloehner says the report assumed most land used for agriculture could be converted to cropland. In reality, 70% of agricultural land is marginal, meaning it is unsuitable for crops. Grazing animals can still make use of this land.

“If we were to forego meat by reducing our animal-based foods by 90%, we would lose the use of the vast majority of agricultural land for food production. That is taking things in the wrong direction,” he says.

Additionally, Mitloehner added “While EAT-Lancet claims its reference diet would decrease greenhouse gas emissions, the Commission’s fundamentally flawed data fail to account for methane reduction (i.e., oxidation) that occurs naturally, as methane remains in the atmosphere for only 10 years….”

As an advocate of science, Mitloehner believes efforts to reduce meat and milk production globally will only result in “more hunger in poor countries” and that efforts should be focused on “smarter farming, not less farming.”

Related stories:

2019 Resolution: Helping 'Overwhelmed' Vegans

Can Dietary Changes Limit Greenhouse Gas Emissions?


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