On Monday afternoon, Prof. Frank Mitloehner, animal science and Air Quality Extension Specialist at the University of California, Davis, discussed the latest research surrounding animal agriculture and its “surprisingly modest” contribution to global greenhouse emissions. Mitloehner pointed at food waste as the largest contributor to environmental damage.
Prior to the talk, Stephanie McBath ’19, President of Cornell’s Dairy Science Club, told The Sun she hoped that the talk would debunk some of the myths surrounding animal agriculture and replace them with “real scientific facts.”
“I hope that [Cornellians] become more familiar with what the realities of animal agriculture are and how that impacts you as a person,” McBath said. “Everybody has to eat, so this is relevant for every person.”
In his talk, Mitloehner explained that in the United States, livestock emissions constitute a mere four percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, in contrast to countries such as Paraguay where livestock emissions constitute around 50 percent.
This statistic, which he said demonstrates that many countries are not efficient in their approach to animal agriculture, is why Mitloehner believes livestock emissions should not be problematized as a major player in the United States’ contribution to climate change.
He said that, although the United States has a far greater number of cows, it is much more efficient than nations such as India and China, which use their cows so “inefficiently” that they generate a larger carbon footprint than the U.S.
“The global average is not a number you can use to characterize emissions in the United States,” Mitloehner said. “This nuance is so important in this discussion, but most people in the media do not get that nuance, and that is why they keep getting it wrong.”
Mitloehner said that unlike the agriculture industry, other carbon-emitting sectors such as the fossil fuel and electricity sectors are unable to quantify the specific amount of carbon produced by their industry.
“Many people are out there blaming agriculture for being a gross polluter — the worst of all — and that we should all change what we eat in order to save our planet, ” Mitloehner said. “I can tell you that no other industry I know of has made greater reductions of emissions, but they have quantified where they are today and have pledged for further reductions.”
He said that the factor causing the most considerable environmental damage is not the agricultural production itself, but food waste.
Food waste, Mitloehner said, was the biggest culprit. “If you think about the entire food supply chain, from cradle to grave, and what within that food supply chain has the greatest environmental footprint, then it might surprise some of you that the greatest detriment is food waste,” Mitloehner said. “We are wasting 40 percent of all food produced in this country.”
He referenced Trump’s recent executive order, designed to cut back on food waste, as an example of one potential solution to the issue of waste.
“Today, President Trump has signed an executive order instructing all major agencies — including the USDA, EPA and the Department of Energy — to devise a plan to minimize food losses and waste,” Mitloehner said. “Think about all of the inputs that go into producing all of that food, and then we are throwing almost half of that away.”
Mitloehner stated it does not matter what makes up a person’s diet; everyone should agree that food waste is “just not acceptable for a society like ours.”
Mitnolher stated that removing animal agriculture altogether would lead to extreme waste, partly due to the fact that two-thirds of all agricultural land is not suitable for solely crop production.
“If you grow organic crops, you need to have animal manure to fertilize them,” Mitloehner said. “The idea of animal agriculture and crop agriculture being synergistic is not new; our ancestors have known that for a long time.”
The talk was part of the Cornell Dairy Center of Excellence Seminar Series, which continues on April 22.