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Ex-officials break silence on censorship of damning report by UN Food and Agriculture Organization: 'It's no coincidence'

"It's a story as old as time."

“It’s a story as old as time."

Photo Credit: iStock

Cowbells can be heard ringing on farms across America, but another bell rung in the agriculture industry nearly two decades ago was abruptly silenced. 

What happened?

According to reporting by The Guardian, in 2006 — a time in which the effects of Earth's rising temperatures were reaching the national agenda — Henning Steinfeld, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)'s livestock policy branch, along with a small group of officials, released a report analyzing the link between the six major species of livestock and global rising temperatures. 

"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," Steinfeld said. "But no one was interested in getting into it because I think they were afraid of what it could mean."

The shocking report from Livestock's Long Shadow (LLS) was the first elementary lifecycle analysis for livestock and the first tally of the meat and dairy sector's ecological cost, The Guardian reports. It got environmentalists and campaign groups fired up, but it also threatened the agriculture industry. 

The report estimated that livestock were responsible for 18% of global heat-trapping gases, 37% of methane pollution related to human activities, mainly from cow burps, 65% of our nitrous oxides, overwhelmingly from manure, and 64% of ammonia pollution.

The authors, speaking to The Guardian for the first time, some under fake names, said they were censored, sabotaged, undermined, and victimized by the FAO. 

"The report was basically buried at the FAO," Hans R. Herren, a World Food Prize winner and co-chair of the UN/World Bank Global Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology, told The Guardian. 

Herren said there was enormous pressure from funding countries not to publish the report because it recommended a food system transformation that was not aligned with what some major FAO-supporting countries wanted. 

Why is it concerning?

Agriculture is a major contributor to Earth's overheating. UC Davis reports that cattle are the top agricultural source of global planet-warming pollution, with a single cow belching nearly 220 pounds of methane — a gas at least 28 times more powerful at warming Earth than carbon dioxide — a year. 

Despite the link between polluting gases and Earth's overheating, burying and discrediting reports like LLS allow the farming sector to continue to wreak havoc on the environment. 

"It's a story as old as time, that the meat and dairy industry has enormous influence over the policy-making apparatus," Jennifer Jacquet, professor of environmental science at the University of Miami, told The Guardian. "It's no coincidence that industry's involvement has led to lower overall relative estimates of emissions for livestock."

How can you help minimize agriculture's impact?

Voting for legislation prioritizing the environment over agriculture and other industries can help. Perhaps the easiest change you can make that has the biggest impact is giving up meat even just one day a week, and eventually, you may be able to purchase lab-grown meat that doesn't carry the same impact as cattle. 

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