"....The staff is sick and tired of the impunity extended by the office of the Secretary-General to senior managers for their failings especially in situations where it has led to death and disability....."
- UN Staff Union
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Do critics of UN meat report have a beef with transparency?
The 2006 UN report said global meat production was responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. Photograph: Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images
There's been lots of excitement in the blogosphere and beyond over the news that, following the recent furore over the IPCC reports, the United Nations has been forced into yet another embarrassing reinvestigation of its data.
This time it's the turn of the highly influential report called Livestock's Long Shadow, which was published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2006. Its headline conclusion was that global meat production was responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, which was slightly more than all of the world's cars, trains, and planes combined. This astonishing fact has been cited ever since by environmentalists and, in particular, vegetarian advocacy groups as a good reason in itself to reduce meat consumption. I myself have mentioned the report when writing about this subject.
This is how the latest revelation has been reported over the past couple of days:
The paper, called Clearing the Air: Livestock's Contributions to Climate Change, was first published last October in the journal Advances in Agronomy. In it, Mitloehner argued that while full lifecycle analysis was used to calculate the emissions for the meat sector, this wasn't the case for the transport sector, where only the fossil fuels burned by the vehicles was included, not the emissions resulting from manufacturing the vehicles.
"This lopsided 'analysis' is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue," Mitloehner told the meeting.
The BBC's Richard Black has since contacted the FAO's livestock policy officer, Pierre Gerber, and asked him for his reaction.
"I must say honestly that he [Mitloehner] has a point - we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn't do the same thing with transport," he told Black. "But on the rest of the report, I don't think it was really challenged."
Fair enough. On this evidence, it certainly seems worth examining this apparent mismatch between the methodologies used to calculate the emissions of each sector. I have no problem with that at all.
What does seem odd, though, is that none of the reports that I have seen so far have thought to mention who funded the original report. Just a cursory check online is all it takes to reveal the source of the funding. After all, it was mentioned in the original press release put out by the university last December:
Clearing the Air is a synthesis of research by the UC Davis authors and many other institutions, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, US Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Agriculture, California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. Writing the synthesis was supported by a $26,000 research grant from the Beef Checkoff Program, which funds research and other activities, including promotion and consumer education, through fees on beef producers in the US. Since 2002, Mitloehner has received $5m in research funding, with 5% of the total from agricultural commodities groups, such as beef producers.
Well, that's a rather interesting paragraph, isn't it? It's funny how none of this information made it into those gleeful reports. First, let's learn some more about the Beef Checkoff Program. It appears to be an initiative of the Cattlemen's Beef Board, which, according to its website, "consists of 106 members, including domestic beef, dairy and veal producers, as well as importers of beef and beef products".
The checkoff is a producer-funded marketing and research program designed to increase domestic and/or international demand for beef. This can be done through promotion, research and new product development, and a variety of other marketing tools. The Cattlemen's Beef Board and USDA [US Department of Agriculture] oversee the collection and spending of checkoff funds.
And what about the "$5m in research funding" that Mitloehner has received since 2002? As is right and proper, Mitloehner freely publishes all the details on his website as a pdf document. Here we learn that, over this period, he has received $40,000 from the National Pork Board, as well as sizeable grants from the US Department of Agriculture and something called the Agriculture Air Research Council (AARC), which, according to the Pork Checkoff website, is "an independent, non-profit organisation … formed to oversee and manage the air emissions research. The AARC board of directors has two representatives from each participating livestock sector, including one member from the National Pork Board and one from the National Pork Producers Council."
In other words, Mitloehner's research over the past eight years has been significantly funded by representatives of the US livestock industry and the government department charged with overseeing this multi-billion dollar industry.
Let me make this perfectly clear: I'm not saying that Mitloehner is a bought-off scientist in the pocket of Big Beef. As I said earlier, I actually think his claims are worthy of further investigation and I'm pleased this now appears to be taking place. It's not like he's trying to hide this information – it's just a click away on his website. My beef is that this funding information has not been deemed worthy of inclusion in the reports and blogs that have been so quick to leap on Mitloehner's findings as, in their eyes, further proof that environmentalists are just a bunch of unscientific cranks.
Spin it on its head for one moment: remember how climate sceptics were punching the air over the revelation that the so-called"HimalayaGate" error in the IPPC's fourth assessment report had resulted from a WWF document? For some sceptics, this fact alone immediately invalidated the whole report.
I think everyone agrees that transparency is a worthy goal so maybe in the future all sides of this debate can aim to include information such as this as a basic principle? Just a thought.
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Share now information about illegal dealings at United Nations
If you are in possession of UNDP or any other United Nations Agency' contracts, correspondence, financial records or databases, which you believe detail wrongdoing such as fraud, mismanagement and abuse of authority, and you have failed to have UN's internal control, oversight and justice systems respond and/or react to your claims, you can send them to UNDP-WATCH and we will make them public keeping your identity anonymous and confidential.
Send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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UNDP Watch is a grouping of United Nations Staff committed to openness. We believe that everyone has the right to access information held by United Nations.
Despite a stated commitment to openness, UNDP remain a highly secretive agency.
Although a wealth of information is available on some UNDP websites, its Executive Board operate behind closed doors, much important programme and administrative information is never made available and, as a rule, information that is disclosed is provided only after relevant decisions have effectively been taken.
While UNDP has adopted “internal policies” on information disclosure, they in fact operate on precisely the opposite presumption. For the most part, they list which documents will be disclosed and when, and there is a presumption against the disclosure of all the other information they hold. They do not establish right of access, the lists of documents subject to disclosure is limited, they do not set out clear and narrow grounds for refusing access and they do not provide for independent oversight mechanisms to ensure proper implementation of the policy.
The UNDP WATCH is calling for the complete overhaul of these policies.
"...We believe that without accountability, there is impunity. We ask that you (Secretary General) not be complicit in cover-up of what happened prior to 11 Dec attack. The staff is sick and tired of the impunity extended by the office of the Secretary-General to senior managers for their failings especially in situations where it has led to death and disability."