The Daily Churn

August 25, 2020 | by Georgie Smith

The scientist setting the record straight on cows and climate change

Man with cows behind him smiles for the camera

The world needs cows. So says Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D, a UC Davis animal science professor and greenhouse gas expert who has become globally recognized for his tweets about cows and climate change.

Mitloehner’s @GHGGuru (greenhouse gas guru) Twitter handle has garnered 19,000 followers and up to 3 million impressions a month since April 2018. Impressive. But he’s just getting started.

Frustrated by lingering misinformation that paints livestock as the villains in the climate crisis while daily, human-driven fossil fuels emissions go largely ignored, the 51-year-old father of two told The Daily Churn he believes it is his responsibility as a senior scientist to “infuse his expert opinion in the public policy debate.”

“Those persons in urban centers pointing their fingers at farmers? They need to understand that every time they do, three fingers point back at them,” he says, referring to work by a fellow UC Davis professor that found an acre of farmland produces 58 to 70 times fewer emissions than an acre of urban land.

Stock versus flow gas infographic

Why fossil fuel emissions act differently in the atmosphere than methane from ruminant animals. Image via Joseph Proudman | UC Davis.

Cows, climate and feeding the world

Mitloehner explains that ruminant animals like cattle are part of the biogenic carbon cycle, recycling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via plant photosynthesis; cows eat the plants that store the carbon and emit greenhouse gases through their burps.

If science-based solutions — like feed additives or manure management techniques — are employed to reduce cattle emissions and the world’s herd sizes do not increase, says Mitloehner, cows will consume more carbon dioxide than they emit. If all other emissions — including those from fossil fuels — are at zero, he adds, then cows could help to mitigate climate change.

But that’s not all he is concerned about. With temperatures already expected to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by 2052, according to the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), so too will climate-related risks to food security.

Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) predicts the world population will increase by 2 billion more people by 2050. The issue of how to feed that growing population without additional greenhouse emissions has made cows a frequent target in a “ferocious” debate over their role in climate change, says Mitloehner. It’s a debate he engages with every tool in his toolbox.

“No, Four Pounds of Beef Doesn’t Equal the Emissions of a Transatlantic Flight”

Cows have been dominating headlines for their greenhouse gas emissions since 2006 when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released “Livestock’s Long Shadow Report,” which erroneously claimed livestock contributed more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector.

Mitloehner debunked the report, work that eventually earned Mitloehner the 2019 Borlaug Cast Communication Award from the nonprofit Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. He pointed out that the report calculated the total life cycle assessment emissions of livestock but did not do the same for transportation. The authors quickly acknowledged and corrected their mistake.

That controversy kicked-off Mitloenher’s international reputation as a relentless and respected science-based advocate for livestock production systems, but he soon realized the issue was far from over.

“Ever since (the Livestock Long Shadow Report), this key message of livestock versus transportation has been all over the media,” Mitloehner says. “It is so attractive; they will not let go of it.”

And if they couldn’t let it go, well neither could he. “Somebody needed to bring science to the conversation,” he says.

Since then, he has led a barrage of vocal social media campaigns imploring readers to use their head. No, burning the Amazon won’t leave us gasping for air, though it does have serious environmental consequences, he wrote. And “No, Four Pounds of Beef Doesn’t Equal the Emissions of a Transatlantic Flight.”

Most recently he took Burger King to task over a “Cow Fart” ad featuring yodeling kids, misleading statements and unproven science.

The fast food giant subsequently agreed to remove content demeaning to farmers and take down the ad campaign from television a little over a week after going live, and — in typical Mitloehner fashion — he reached out to help the company design better cattle-driven emissions policies going forward.

He also takes his advocacy offline. In May 2019, Mitloehner testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry about “Separating Fact from Fiction” in animal agriculture and climate change.

He argued that the land ruminant livestock use is not suitable for crop production. Which means U.S. policies focused on eliminating cows over misconstrued emissions concerns will not only not help the country’s greenhouse gas problem it could, he continued, result in the U.S. no longer meeting key nutritional requirements.

“Where the environment is concerned,” he told the senate committee, foregoing animal-source food is “not the panacea many would have us believe.”

A life-changing mistake

His rapidly rising sphere of influence as an animal science professor started with “no roots in agriculture whatsoever.” A west German native, Mitloehner would have studied psychiatry at the University of Leipzig medical school if not for a clerical error.

Despairing after his application was rejected, he traveled to South Africa, visiting farms and ranches along the way — his first close encounter with agriculture. Inspired, he signed up for a degree in tropical and subtropical agricultural engineering.

As he prepared for his new college career back in Germany, he found a letter from the medical school admissions committee. The rejection had been a mistake and they looked forward to welcoming him as a medical student.

“I took that acceptance letter and I ripped it into pieces and I studied agriculture instead,” Mitloehner told us over the phone. “That was the single best decision I ever made.”

With that stroke of fate Mitloehner embarked on an academic career that took him all over the world.

“You name a continent and I was there,” he says, nostalgic. Paraguay, however — where he spent nine months finishing his master’s research on the environmental management of extensively raised beef cattle — was terrible, he adds. “Huge spiders and snakes everywhere.”

After that, Mitloehner completed his post-doctoral fellowship in Animal Science at Texas Tech University in 2001. The following year he moved to UC Davis, as an assistant cooperative air quality extension agent in the animal science department. A decade later, Mitloehner was appointed animal science professor and extension specialist, where he is shovel-deep (often literally) in emerging emissions science.

A dairy cow breathes into a chamber

Plastic chambers at UC Davis help researchers measure how much gas cows release from their stomachs. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

The science behind the tweets

In his UC Davis lab, Mitloehner teaches classes and oversees two postdoctoral research fellows, several post-graduates and up to 20 undergraduate students — with a research focus on air-quality and climate pollutants, animal welfare and worker exposures.

One night, after struggling to measure livestock emissions more accurately, he woke up with the idea to put the cows in a bubble. At first, his colleagues thought the idea was a little crazy.

“But that’s normal for me,” he admits.

His eight “Bovine Bubbles,” established in 2004, were a first-of-their-kind attempt to understand the effects of emissions in herd situations, like livestock feeding operations. The Quonset-hut type facilities resemble a greenhouse letting in the sun without heat. He uses them to enclose 14 cows at a time in air-tight conditions.

He also has “head chambers” that safely enclose a cow’s head in plastic, capturing emissions while they eat. And mobile trailers stocked with equipment measure emissions in the “real world” of commercial farms and ranches.

It’s all part of the job as far as Mitloehner is concerned — but those who work with him say it’s tough to keep up.

Separating fact from fiction

Joe Proudman, associate director for communications at the UC Davis Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research (CLEAR) Center Mitloehner runs, admires his boundless energy and enthusiasm.

“I’m not entirely sure when he sleeps,” says Proudman. “He’s singularly focused.”

He also sets the bar for other scientists to follow, according to Sara Place, Ph.D, a former UC Davis animal science doctoral student under Mitloehner’s tutelage.

It’s past time scientists “stick their necks out,” says the sustainability consultant who has nearly 10,000 of her own Twitter followers. “That is what Frank has realized. Sometimes you get smacked around, but you’ve got to be in the arena if you want to make sure science is driving the conversation.”

Mitloehner, meanwhile, sees himself as a coach — though he does admit to enjoying his Twitter engagement.

“People are concerned (about climate change) and rightly so,” he says. “I do my best to help them understand what’s real and what’s not. What’s fact and what’s fiction.”

What’s next for the animal science social media influencer — TikTok? No, no Mitloehner says, “I’m too old for that.”

:: All images courtesy UC Davis CLEAR Center

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3 years ago

Thank you for speaking out. It’s always seemed ridiculous to me that people believe that ruminants could do so much damage when historically there were vast herds of ruminants. I suspect the aim is to have most farm land turned into corporate owned cropping. We need to fight the often repeated slogan “the single best thing a person can do to fight climate change is go vegan”