Beware of ‘balance’ claims in agri debate
This week the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) is holding an event (1) claiming to give “a balanced approach” to climate action in agriculture. However, judging by the event’s misleading flyer and the highly contested views and meat industry links and funding of the lead speaker, the media and public need to be aware that this event is as likely to further mislead and misinform, rather than offer any scientifically justified “balance”.
The IFA’s chosen presenter is Dr. Frank Mitloehner, of UC Davis, California, a highly controversial figure. Although Dr. Mitloehner is clear about his ties and meat and dairy industry funding, media articles and event organisers, including the IFA, repeatedly seem reluctant to note that “Mitloehner has signiﬁcant ties with the beef, pork, and dairy industries” (2. Almiron and Xifra, 2019; 3. Hickman).
Scientists from Johns Hopkins University took the highly unusual step of issuing a public rebuttal to Dr. Mitloenher’s mis-statements, particularly in noting that cutting total emissions is the only meaningful measure of climate action and that animal agriculture has an enormous environmental impact, therefore focusing on product efficiency as Mitloehner does is a misdirection (4).
Moreover, given its contentious framing and in the context of the current election, this event can be seen as an effort at direct political lobbying. As such, the advertised appearances of Prof. John FitzGerald, Chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) and Dr. Frank O’Mara of Teagasc will become open to public critique given the requirement for their advisory independence.
Furthermore, as Almiron and Xifra point out, Dr. Mitoehner presents himself to the public and the media as a “GHG guru”, as if he is an expert on the climate effects of greenhouse gases, yet he is not a climatologist. Left uncorrected or unclarified, such confusions undermine his credibility, such that media and especially members of publicly funded advisory bodies, like the CCAC and Teagasc, would do best not appear at lobbying events which seem likely to misinform the public, particularly in the run-up to an election.
In the flyer promoting this week’s event, IFA President, Joe Healy, falsely claims that farmers are being “scapegoated when it comes to climate action”. In fact, critics, including An Taisce, are saying that farmers have been misled by the IFA, which has worked hand-in-glove with the food processing industry, into supporting an agri-food strategy since 2010 that benefits processors. This strategy has increased farmers’ input costs, financial risks and exposure to climate change impacts, without offering them any coherent plan for transitioning to less polluting forms of agriculture.
Farmers are being used as political cover by the IFA and the agri-food industry to defend agri-food strategies that safeguard business-as-usual levies and profits rather than the well-being of farmers, citizens or nature. Sadly, this is what we have come to expect from the IFA.
However, what is of particular concern to An Taisce is that in this public relations event, the IFA are also co-opting the Climate Change Advisory Council and Teagasc, as if to confer credibility on Dr. Mitloenher as a genuinely independent expert.
The outgoing IFA president claims that the industry-supported measurement of milk or beef unit carbon footprint counts as climate action, whereas in fact, total agricultural emissions continue to increase, which is the exact opposite of actual climate action. Teagasc state in their 2018 abatement analysis (5) that they spend €4 million annually on research toward reducing emissions, yet they too have utterly failed to enable any actual reduction in total annual emissions.
Unlike Teagasc, NGOs correctly warned (6) that the industry’s agri-food strategies, including the unwise ‘Food Wise 2025’, would increase greenhouse gas emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, and escalate soil, air, and water pollution due to increased damaging inputs of animal feeds and synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.
The recent EPA Water Quality report confirmed agriculture as the leading cause of pollution in our rivers and estuaries (7). The EPA also reports that agricultural methane has increased by 15% since 2011, and nitrous oxide emissions are up by 18%, both driven by greatly increased nitrogen fertiliser and feed use (8).
An Taisce would strongly welcome scientifically robust debate on the climate challenges facing the agriculture sector. However, rather than improving public information on climate change, these IFA-backed PR events appear to be aimed at spreading unbalanced, political lobbying during an election.
The most important fact to emerge from this week’s IFA event should be that their keynote speaker, Dr. Frank Mitloehner has strong and long-standing ties to the livestock industry, that his views are highly contested by scientists and that his comments are noted in published literature as textbook examples of efforts to create policy confusion with a view to further delaying or avoiding vital climate action.
Contact: John Gibbons, PRO, An Taisce Climate Committee (087-2332 689)
IFA event flyer https://www.farmersjournal.ie/ifa-to-host-climate-event-519804
Almiron N, Xifra J 2019 Climate Change Denial and Public Relations: Strategic communication and interest groups in climate inaction. 255 pp. Routledge. https://tinyurl.com/Mitloehner-in-Almiron-2019
Hickman, L (2010) “Do critics of UN meat report have a beef with transparency?” The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2010/mar/24/un-meat-report-climate-change
Fry J, Neff R, Martin B, Ramsing R, FitchC, Kim B, Biehl E, Santo R (2016) A Response to Dr. Frank Mitloehner’s White Paper, “Livestock’s Contributions to Climate Change: Facts and Fiction” https://clf.jhsph.edu/sites/default/files/2019-04/frank-mitloehner-white-paper-letter.pdf
Teagasc (2018) An Analysis of Abatement Potential of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Irish Agriculture 2021-2030. See p. 7. https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/publications/2018/An-Analysis-of-Abatement-Potential-of-Greenhouse-Gas-Emissions-in-Irish-Agriculture-2021-2030.pdf
An Taisce (2015) No mitigation in Irish Agriculture’s Climate Change Emissions – Will the rest of us have to pay? https://tinyurl.com/AT-agri-GHGs-who-pays
Stop Climate Chaos and Environmental Pillar (2016) “Not So Green: DEBUNKING THE MYTHS AROUND IRISH AGRICULTURE” https://www.stopclimatechaos.ie/assets/files/pdf/not_so_green.pdf
An Taisce (2017) Correspondence between Teagasc and An Taisce regarding agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions https://www.antaisce.org/AT-Teagasc-correspondence-2017
An Taisce (2019) “Are Teagasc’s climate mitigation projections credible?” https://www.antaisce.org/TeagascClimateCredibility
EPA (2019) Water Quality in Ireland 2013-2018 https://www.epa.ie/pubs/reports/water/waterqua/Water%20Quality%20in%20Ireland%202013-2018%20(web).pdf
EPA (2019) GHG “1990-2018 Provisional Inventory Report October 2019” https://www.epa.ie/pubs/reports/air/airemissions/ghgprovemissions2018/Report_GHG%201990-2018%20Provisional%20Inventory%20October%202019.pdf