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Beef cattle are a critical part of a sustainable food system
Dr. Sara Place
Dr. Sara Place with Elanco Animal Health discusses the role of beef cattle in a sustainable food production system.
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All right, thank you all for joining virtually.
Today I'm gonna talk to you about beef cattle
and how they're a critical part
of a sustainable food system.
So my name is Sarah Place.
I'm the chief Sustainability Officer
with Elanco animal health,
and hopefully I add some understanding
to this issue that can be controversial
and a little bit complex, which is sustainability.
So just to start,
we think about this issue of sustainability.
It is an issue that,
as I just mentioned is quite complicated.
And part of the reason why is because
it's an issue that cuts across multiple domains.
So it's an issue that focuses on the environment,
social issues, and economic issues.
And how all those issues can intersect
and have relationships with one another and also trade offs.
So what's on the screen right now is just kind of a
Venn diagram model of what I like to represent
as just some of the issues
that can relate to the sustainability of food.
Specifically beef, or even
more broader issue cross all foods.
And when we're looking at this list is not exhaustive.
But it gives you an idea of all the different complex issues
that can be a part of sustainability.
So in the environmental domain,
we have environmental footprints.
Things like carbon, water, footprints,
which is something that often
gets talked about with sustainability.
But there are other environmental issues as well.
From a standpoint of ecosystem services
whit the benefits that we get from nature.
Which is incredibly important
with regard to beef and the importance of grazing lands.
To social issues, right?
Like animal welfare,
the culture and traditions
of both eaters and producers of food,
and economic issues from the standpoint of
the viability of the actual farmers
and ranchers that are producing food to the
affability of the food to the consumer.
So as we look at this,
again, it's very complex.
And we're trying to juggle and balance
all these different issues
that it can again at times be in conflict with one another.
And that's why it's such a difficult issue
and seems to be a little bit of a whack a mole game,
if you will, in terms of when one issue is addressed,
there always seems to be another one
that's coming up on the horizon.
The last thing I'll point out to you on this slide
is in the far left hand side of the screen,
that last bullet point there.
Recognizing the role of value judgments and uncertainty,
particularly value judgments
just meaning when we look at some of these issues
with regard to sustainability,
people can have different priority lists, right?
Everyone may agree that all these issues
that are on the screen right now or others are important,
but people may rank them differently.
And that's when the challenges that we have
with when sustainability as well
as we have people with many different perspectives
that are influencing policy discussion.
That are influencing companies
and how individual consumers make their decisions.
And so it can be difficult to balance
all those different areas.
And really just recognizing
there is no single right answer in any of this
when it comes to sustainability.
So that said, a lot of
the conversation around sustainability,
and meat production or beef production specifically,
has been focused around environmental impacts.
And I'll spend a lot of the rest
of this presentation talking about that.
And it's also been focused around the idea
that we are quote, unquote, over consuming meat,
or that we cannot in the future produce enough
in a sustainable manner
to nourish everybody around the world.
So with that in mind, I think it's important
to just kind of take a step back
and really look at where we actually are
with regard to meat consumption globally
and in the United States.
So the global picture is we're looking
at this screen right now.
This is information from the UN FAO
in terms of meat availability
in kilograms per person per year.
So from 1961 to 2013.
And this trend lines just pretty much continued on
the rest of this past decade.
What kinda stands out is it if you look
at our ruminant meats, the bottom part of the graph, right?
Bovine, so we got beef and buffalo meat thrown in there.
And small ruminant meat.
If we look at those trends,
the actual per capita availability
for those different meats has remained quite flat
for the last 50 years.
It's actually increasing below
population growth last decade or so, right?
So we're not on ever increasing path
of increasing amounts of ruminant meat
for each person in the world.
If we look at pork and poultry,
those trends are very different, right?
We have an increasing amount available per person per year.
And so when we talk about increasing
animal source food demand.
In the future, I think it's important just to look at
these trend lines and realize
that it's not the same across all species.
There are certain efficiency advantages
or at least located within certain regions of the world
were more this growth is gonna be happening
that points to the fact that probably poultry and pork
are gonna continue on the trend line that they're on.
And I would argue that probably ruminant meats
are gonna continue on the trend line
they're on as well, right?
So again, this is availability.
It's not necessarily willingness to pay
or (murmurs) in the industry.
But I think it's important to be clear eyed
about what the prevailing trends
have been over the last 50 years.
If we look at the US situation, right?
So we are a more high income country
and we do eat more meat than the world average.
But I think the trends sometimes
may surprise people as well in terms of
from 1970 till today,
if we look at this USDA Economic Research Service data,
the total amount of meat that we're eating today, right?
That's actually available per person per day
is only 4% greater than 1970, okay?
Pretty insignificant, it's pretty much flat, okay?
But a similar trend has happened in the US
as around most of the developed world
in that we're actually eating less red meat,
specifically beef, we've gone from about three ounces
down to 1.8 ounces per person per day in the United States
compared to the 1970s.
So we've dropped the amount of red meat that we're eating,
and we're eating more poultry specifically.
So again, this is a fairly universal trend
that's taken place.
Total amount of meat is the same.
So I think this is always again,
important context when folks say,
"We're eating too much meat."
Or talk about meat, and usually one conflated
only with red meat, right?
We're missing the poultry piece.
And of course, I'm not even including fish on here.
But I think that that statement that we're eating too much,
it's very interesting, right?
Because what are the criteria for too much, right?
If that's true, then I guess we've been eating too much
for the last 40 years, right?
And some of these arguments
are maybe less based on data
and more based on perspective of meat eating
and other issues that go with it
that are almost ethical in nature
that it kind of drive a lot of this conversation.
So that said, there is a lot of positives
to eating animal source foods
and just what animal source foods provide
to humanity that often gets left off this discussion
'cause we're usually talking about it again,
from a wealthy country perspective, from the US
and other places where there's these arguments
of excess being made.
But in reality, the more pressing issue in the world
or the one that has a direct impact on people
and their quality of life
is really under consumption, right?
Of critical central micronutrients
that can often be found in higher amounts
in animal source foods.
So there's a lot of information happening on the slide here.
This is a great infographic
or even part of an infographic
from the livestock lab at University of Florida.
It's really focused on developing countries
and how can you increase
animal source food availability through science,
through management practices changing, right?
And really the impetus behind this lab
and driving this is that stat
that's at the top of this slide.
It says nearly one in four children under five is stunted.
So nearly one in four children around the world
are not going to meet
their full potential cognitively or physically.
And in part that's due to the fact
that they're not getting the right
and proper amounts of nutrients, right?
It's not only caused by food, but a key part of it is food.
And we know and we've seen repeatedly
in research that adding animal source foods
to children's diets,
especially to vulnerable populations like pregnant mothers,
diets can have big impacts
on the quality of life for people.
So again, while this discussion
is often focused on the wealthy nations
of the world and this discussion of eating too much,
the reality is the more pressing issue in the world
is trying to increase availability,
these populations are more vulnerable
to nutrient deficiencies.
So that said,
when we go through the rest of this presentation
is kinda hit some of those greatest hits
of that whack a mole I mentioned earlier, right?
Where we seem to have these repeat issues
that come up again and again,
as they relate to sustainability.
And hopefully as I go through this kinda separate out
fact from fiction,
and also highlight the complexity
of some of these issues.
But I think they are really key
'cause they're driving a lot of the conversation
And some of these misperceptions
can really have big implications
for the beef industry in the US around the world.
So the first of these issues comes down
to feed food competition
or just overall resource use competition.
So what this means is thinking about
animal feed as a competition with human food, right?
The idea that animals specifically beef cattle
are stealing food from the mouths of babes,
we'd be better off without them,
without the quote, unquote, middleman
taking feed resources or taking land resources,
diverting it towards the quote, unquote,
inefficient use of food production.
Which is what some people view beef as.
So what's key here is thinking about
the bigger picture and the role
that ruminant animals, right?
We're talking about beef cattle here,
but really it's across all ruminants.
What role are they really playing in our food system?
And really, why the heck did we domesticate
these animals in the first place?
And I would say one of the real key reasons
is because these animals act as upcyclers, right?
So we've all heard of recycling,
taking something and making something of equivalent value.
Upcycling is this idea of taking something
that's a little to no value
and making the higher value product.
And really, this is where rune nets shine, right?
They're taking human inedible feed resources
and creating higher quality products for human use, right?
So if we think about this simplified diagram
that's in the middle of the side.
Really what beef is,
is a capture in a transformation of solar energy
into much more valuable products, right?
Ultimately, that's what agriculture is, right?
It is as a solar energy driven carbon capture industry.
And we don't think about beef as a photosynthetic product,
but really that's what it is.
So when cattle are consuming these plants,
they're really concentrating nutrients
in the result in product, right?
In the agricultural system.
They are gonna lose energy.
That's the basics of ecology
when you go from one trophic level to another.
But again, much of that energy
is not available to us humans anyways,
'cause it's in the form of cellulose.
So just to further illustrate this point,
this donut charts in the bottom
left hand part of the screen.
This is the US wide average
for research that we did
at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association
funded by the Beef Checkoff,
looking at our regional feed use
from all the segments of the beef industry
from cow calf, to stocker, to feedlot.
And what we see is that on average
for the whole lifecycle of grain-finished beef,
82% of what cattle eat is not grain, it's forage.
Mostly grazed forage,
but also any of the harvested forages
from hay to psychologists that we feed cattle.
Another 7% are all the mostly human in animal byproducts
that we use within the beef cattle industry.
Whether it's wet corn gluten feed,
it could be cottonseed meal, could be anything, right?
All those byproducts that come
from the processing and plants for fiber,
or for fuel, biofuels, right?
For human food, that are leftovers
and would be waste without being able
to be upcycled through a ruminant.
And then only about 11% of the feed resources
required by beef cattle are actually grain.
Of course, in the United States
most of that is corn, right?
But that's really the feed that is directly
in competition with human foods.
So about 90% of what cattle are eating
is not directly in competition with human food production.
So we can expand upon this a little further.
And think about how we can express
feed conversion efficiency a few different ways.
And really, when we see feed conversion efficiency cited
in sustainability papers,
that's what that issues or the metric is trying to get at
is this idea of resource competition
and efficiency of resource use, right?
So this slide here is just no illustration
of a couple of things.
One of talking about feed conversion efficiency
in different ways, but also highlighting
that in the sustainability space
you can express data multiple ways all being correct,
and get kind of different answers
about which system is quote, unquote, better, right?
And that's always a caution point
is that a lot of this comes down to
the determinations that you make
or again, back to your own value judgments
about what you view as the right way to express data.
So if we're looking at this slide,
we're comparing grain-finished beef as a lifecycle, right?
Again, we're including cow calf and stocker here.
Dairy cattle, and these are just some generic numbers
coming out of the UK.
Broiler, chickens, and pork.
And this first column that's in black
is looking at dry matter feed conversion
across all four of those species and systems.
So again, this is a full lifecycle number for beef.
But most folks would stop here and say,
look at the ruminant meat production, right?
If we were to swap out lamb for the beef,
similar ratio there.
So most folks would say,
"Wow, that is really inefficient
as compared to pigs and chickens
or other meat animals on the side."
So maybe if we were gonna eat meat,
we should only eat pork and chicken.
So that is an argument that's made often
and usually these type of numbers
are used to justify set arguments, right?
That doesn't take into account
what I just showed you on the prior slide, right?
Most of those feed resources
are not in direct competition with human food use.
So this middle column is saying,
what is the potentially human animal feed
being consumed by these animals
per unit of library gain or
per kilogram or per pound of fresh milk
that's being produced.
So when we look at that a lot of those differences
when we zoom in on the meat animal species,
a lot of these differences across species really go away.
Which is kind of interesting, right?
Essentially, that human edible feed inputs
are pretty similar per unit of gain
across all three species.
And again, that's because most of the feed resources,
mostly animals life save that last 150, 160 days.
not gonna be in a feedlot,
not gonna be consuming much grain resources
when you think about beef.
So this third column,
this is kind of taking this feed conversion efficiency
and flipping it on its head a little bit
and saying, what are the value the value of the proteins
being generated from beef, from milk, from pork,
from chicken to people.
And by value, I mean what is the
amino acid composition, right?
The actual building blocks of protein that we need.
And how bioavailable are those amino acids in that protein.
So that really cuts to the chase
in terms of what we need
from these animal source foods and from foods in general.
We don't need crude protein, we need those amino acids.
So what does that protein value of beef milk,
pork, and chicken versus
that same measure of protein quality and amount
of the feed resources going into those animals?
So hopefully that made sense.
In this case we're flipping it on its head,
so a higher numbers better.
And a number above one actually means
generating more high quality protein
within the system that we're using.
And as you look on the slide
the ruminant species in this case are well above one,
engendering a lot more high quality protein
that's being used within the system,
whereas the monogastric animals are not.
And this is really a reflection
of the biology and the different species, right?
Monogastric animals are like us, pigs, and chickens.
They're omnivores, they need to consume
their dietary essential amino acids, right?
And so that means you're gonna be consuming
more high quality protein,
usually in the form of soybean meal here in the US.
And that is more high quality,
potentially human animal protein
going into those species as compared to dairy cattle,
and beef cattle, right?
So again, as you look from left to right,
the answer of which is quote, unquote, best
totally changes, right?
So transparently my bias is that third column, right?
I would say that is what we really care about
in terms of actually producing
the nutrients that we all need.
But again, others would say,
"No, we had to look at that first column."
So again, sustainability is complex.
It really depends on how you're presenting
this data in terms of which system
you're gonna say is better.
Now, I've been talking about direct feed food competition.
Meaning is the actual material going into the animal
potentially human edible?
And usually in in those type of conversations
you'd have with people about that.
They would say, "Well, what about the land?"
"Couldn't we have used the land
that was growing the corn to grow something else."
Or whatever the whatever the system may be.
So it's important to kind of take a step back
and think about what are the different
land resources used by beef in the US,
and how much arable land really
does get used for beef production.
So to kind of give ourselves
a graphical representation of this,
this is information from the American farmland trust.
There are a group that's very interested
in all the red splotches all over this map,
which is where we have urban areas
and the PERI urban areas around there
that are often high quality farmland,
they get lost to development, right?
So that's a serious issue in the United States.
And actually, one of the land use changes
is a lot more relevant talks
as compared to things like before station, right?
That's said, the other colors on the map,
this kind of brown color on the right hand side
in the eastern US, right?
That's our forested lands,
the dark green are our cropland,
so in the US Corn Belt, Mississippi River Valley,
Central Valley, California really stands out.
And then the lighter greens would show up
in eastern Oklahoma, Eastern Texas.
And then all the yellow colors on the map
are our pasture and range land resources
in the United States.
So I highlight this to say that
yes, beef does have a larger land footprint
than most other foods
because it's using land that cannot be used
for anything else, right?
So when we think about land use, is a very complex issue.
And just saying how many square meters
or whatever unit of areas required
per unit of land, ignores suitability of land.
It ignores the multi-functionality of land use.
It ignores the quality of land use, right?
So it's a lot more complex
than a simple footprint can make it out to be.
The other thing is if we think about
that number I gave you earlier, about 11%
of the total feed resources
that cattle consumed in the United States is corn.
What that translates into in terms of land area
is about the size of that black box on the screen, right?
So it's not nothing.
However, the area of corn
that goes directly to cattle
in the US is about a fifth of the size of Iowa.
It's about 2% of us cropland acres.
So we can improve the quality of that land use
as we get more new till
and other conservation type tillage
and other conservation practices
that improve the quality of that land use.
But it's just not a massive amount of land
in terms of the total land area required for beef,
but it's actually in direct competition
with other potential cropland uses
and plants that we would want to eat directly, right?
And as I told you, of course,
we generate more protein for the human food supply,
high quality protein by taking the corn
in that equivalent area, that black box
and running it through cattle,
than if we were to eat the corn directly.
The other thing is, of course,
as I referenced about quality of land use,
none of these things are static, right?
And one example there is just
how things have changed over time.
If we just look at USDA data from 1975 to now.
And the total amount of corn
that goes to animal feed actually has increased.
It's increased 52% over time, okay?
But corn yields have gone up 104%.
So what that translates into
is that even though we are producing
more corn and we're feeding more corn
to all the livestock species in the United States,
the total land area required
to actually produce that corn has dropped 26%.
It's dropped by over 10 million acres, right?
So that's pretty incredible.
And that's really what we would call
a decoupling of total production,
from the inputs that are going
into that system, right?
In terms of land area input.
And at the bottom you can see
that we've increased the total
amount of animal source food production
over this equivalent timeframe by 95%, right?
So shrunk the land area, increase the total output,
producing more with less.
More with less alone is not sustainability
but it is a key part of this whole discussion
because we do have an increasing population, right?
So we do have to pay attention
about the land area required,
particularly arable land inputs required
per unit of production,
because we do have a finite amount of land in the world.
The other thing I would say on this whole
resource use competition piece is that it is complex.
And one of the things
that gets thrown out there is trying to say
we're gonna substitute one thing for another.
And that misses some of the complexities,
and I'll expand on that a little bit later.
But also the fact that we think about
just livestock in general of course,
beef cattle, they're providing more than just food, right?
They're providing more than just beef.
They're providing leather.
They're providing all sorts
of other pharmaceutical byproducts
that are really important to society, right?
They're providing fertilizer and nutrient cycling services.
They're upcycling all those byproducts.
They're providing fuel and a lot of cases
when we think about cattle manure,
and we think about this more globally, cow dung
is actually quite an important source of fuel.
It's an important building material in some cases, right?
Cattle are still important for their draft power
in many places in the world.
They're central to livelihoods
here in the United States and around the world,
central to culture, right?
So all these things are tangible
and intangible of how livestock and cattle
specifically are important to human beings
can't be ignored in these discussions either, right?
Everything can't be about greenhouse
gas emissions or land footprints, right?
We do have to take that broader picture.
So speaking of greenhouse gas emissions,
a little bit of context on this issue
'cause it is quite complex
in terms of all the ins and outs,
what is the right statistic
or not the right statistic to use
when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions?
So just to orient ourselves
on the situation of United States,
if we were to look at the official government
data from the EPA, every April the EPA puts out
an emission inventory looking at
all the different sectors of the economy,
and looking at what emissions come
from which activities, right?
And so if we look at that emission inventory
for the latest year, that's 2018.
About 2.1% greenhouse gas emissions
come from these cattle directly.
So this is all the methane
that cattle so called belch up
and any methane and nitrous oxide
that comes from animal manure, managed manure.
So there's another 7% or so emissions
that come from agriculture.
Seattle together, it's about 9% of us emissions
come from producing food and fiber in the United States.
And actually, if we add in forestry
and all their land uses, it's actually in that carbon sink.
We added together all the carbon
that gets sequestered by trees,
grasslands, cropland, etc, with the emissions.
So that's a key thing to keep in mind
as we talk about all this.
The other thing is even waste disposal like landfills.
And it's almost as much as beef cattle do, right?
So this is methane that comes from landfills.
And some of the material
that's generating this methane is actually food waste,
which is another key issue
when we think about the sustainability of food.
And there's a lot of resources
that go into producing edible food
that then get thrown away.
And if they get thrown away to actual landfills,
it's kind of a double whammy
of we had the resources used
to produce the food that was edible that wasn't consumed,
and then it also produced greenhouse gas emissions
at the end of its lifecycle.
But when we think about the greenhouse gas emissions,
the US what really dominates the picture
is fossil fuel emissions, right?
We're a post industrial society, if you will.
We have a lot of vehicles.
We burn a lot of fossil fuels for electricity use
to do things like record remote webinars, right?
All the plastic that we have in our society.
All these different things
come from fossil fuel burning fossil fuel use.
And so that makes up the majority
of our emissions in the United States.
And really a majority of the emissions in the world
come from CO2 emissions burning fossil fuels.
So just to dig into this a little deeper,
because one of the other key issues
that happen with using statistics
regarding greenhouse gas emissions
and beef cattle is there's a lot of conflation that happens.
So global estimates used to be less
and all livestock species get conflated with beef cattle.
This happens again and again, okay?
So what we're looking at on the screen here
is just the global greenhouse gas emissions
as they were in 2010.
And these different bars are kind of breaking out
the different contributions of different segments
to kind of clarify this picture.
So in 2010, if we start over
on the left hand side of the screen,
this big blue bar, we emitted 49 gigatonnes
of greenhouse gas emissions in 2010.
So this is from all human activities.
And of that, that purple bar
that's the next one over to the right,
is what came from livestock from a life cycle perspective.
So life cycle, meaning all the feed
required for these animals,
including any sort of deforestation activities, right?
For example, if we were in South America
and we had forest that was cleared,
that would be counted towards livestock in this case.
So 14 1/2% of global emissions
came from global livestock production.
Often this number gets used
when people are talking about cattle,
but in reality cattle are subset
of that 14 half percent, right?
So beef cattle specifically globally
emit about 6% of emissions.
Dairy cattle emit about 3% of emissions,
so 9% total for cattle.
If we were to zoom in even more to the North American
beef and dairy systems, right?
US and Canada specifically,
we emit about 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions,
beef and dairy together.
So hopefully that makes sense
as you go from right to left is we break that all out.
The absolute contribution really does matter
in terms of how much us agriculture emits globally,
because when we're trying to affect
our global emissions and global average concentrations
of different gases in the atmosphere, right?
So that 1% number is important.
Doesn't mean that we should work on reducing emissions.
But hopefully, it's pretty intuitive
that the absolute impacts
that the beef and dairy industries can have
on the global greenhouse
gas emission budget is pretty minor.
None of these things are static around the world.
And just illustrate that,
this is the greenhouse gas emissions per unit or protein
for beef production systems across the globe.
This is information from a publication in 2013.
But the differences still kind of remain
in terms of what's driving the different colors
on this map are differences
in productivity of the system, right?
So the darker greens on the map are we have
lower carbon footprints, the US, Western Europe,
Western Europe's beef production system
looks particularly good
because a lot of it actually comes from dairy.
And a lot of the emissions
get allocated to dairy cattle, right?
So there's more of an even split there.
The lighter green like we see in South America,
parts of Southeast Asia are kinda
intermediate carbon footprints
and the purple colors on the map
can have carbon footprints that are 50 times greater
than they are in the United States, right?
So that's a big variation.
A lot of it comes down to how many live animals
are required to produce beef.
We think about ruminant animal production.
Things like the reproductive efficiency
of the animal, right?
How quick they're growing.
How long does it take the animal to get to slaughter
really drives how much total feed resources,
how much total greenhouse gas emissions
are gonna be produced per unit of beef, right?
So all those things that come back to again, efficiency,
efficiency alone is not sustainability
but it is a really key driver of a lot of
these metrics that we care about.
So that said, I'm gonna go a little bit more deep
into some of these issues with regard to methane, right?
So this is something that seems to always be news.
And recently we add a whole commercial episode,
if you will, from Burger King about gassy cows.
And one clarification, right?
Most of the mentions,
they actually come out the animal's mouth, right?
Not the other end.
But ruminant animals they're naturally produce methane.
There're these actually the subset of microbes
within the rumen called methanogens
take the waste products and fermentation,
take carbon dioxide and take hydrogen gas
and produce methane, right?
So it again, is a normal part of human functioning.
And really, those advantages
are actually quite key
in the whole ecosystem in the rumen, right?
If they're that hydrogen gas isn't
given an outlet besides the methanogens,
they can potentially slow
the rate of rumen fermentation, right?
So again, they're not just there by accident,
if that makes sense in terms of this rumen ecosystem.
So about once a minute cattle,
they produce all this gas.
Most of it is CO2, some of it's methane.
They're removed from their mouth
and process tells you rotation.
Now what's important is that most folks
especially probably lay public they think
that when we feed cattle corn,
we feed cattle more concentrate grains,
that will actually increase methane emissions.
It's actually the opposite, right?
The more fermentable carbohydrates,
higher present starch that we have in an animal's diet
or ruminant animals diet,
the lower methane emissions will be.
Really this comes down to the efficiency
of energy capture of the animals diet, right?
Methane is a loss of energy.
So the practical consideration here,
if you're thinking about reducing methane
is that you're hopefully increasing
the caloric efficiency of the animal, right?
Capturing morphine energy,
losing less of it to the atmosphere.
And that's what's really key
is one of the things that we do
that we do not advertise
as a methane emission reducing strategy
is finishing cattle in feedlots
and feeding them a corn based diet, right?
A lot of folks have a negative perception
of that practice from a sustainability perspective.
However, it quite clearly reduces
the greenhouse gas emissions of methane specifically
from us cattle production.
Is one of the reasons why we have
such a low carbon footprint compared
to other parts of the world.
So the reason there's so much attention drawn to methane
is it is a bulk of the total
greenhouse gas emissions from beef production
from ruminant production in general.
So if we look from all the feed inputs,
and tractors, and fertilizer, all the way
to the farm gate from cattle leaving the feedlot
to get to the packing plant,
about 56% of the total emissions are from nothing.
So that's why this is such an issue
that gets a lot of attention, right?
It's one of the reasons why
beef has a higher carbon footprint
is 'cause these animals naturally produce methane gas.
What's key is that methane
when we think about it from a perspective
of how it's being accounted for
in most discussions of warming,
is a little bit disjointed between
how we've been accounting for methane
and what his impact is on warming.
And walking through this infographic
that's on the screen hopefully
will drive some that home
about why there may be different ways
to account for methane emissions
and the impact on warming
that will clarify some of these things in the future.
So if we look at this graphic
on the left hand side of the screen,
we have what we all know, right?
Solar energy plus CO2,
and photosynthesis and plants equals carbon capture, right?
Capturing energy from the sun
in the chemical form of carbohydrates,
mostly cellulose, right?
In the world.
And again, that's where ruminants really shine.
Cellulose is the most abundant
organic compound in the world.
And we ruminants are able to unlock that energy
for the rest of us since
we can actually break it down ourselves
in our own digestive system.
So what happens when cattle eat those plants,
they're consuming carbon
that was very recently in the atmosphere.
And that carbon enters the animal,
some of it goes right back out
the other end of the animal, right?
So our ingestible feed, that's a carbon flow.
Some of it gets retained in the animal
in the form of meat, or milk, right?
A lot of it gets respired from the animal,
just as we're respiring right now that CO2,
and then a small fraction
of the total carbon of the animal
just actually gets admitted as methane, right?
So that methane again, one carbon, four hydrogens.
To be clear, methane does have
a more potent effect of trapping heat in years.
(murmurs) very well documented
and as a higher radiative forcing potential, as we call it.
But methane is also different than CO2
in terms of doesn't stick around too long
in the atmosphere, right?
So after about 10 or 12 years,
most of the methane emitted from any source,
whether we're talking about a wetland or a ruminant,
whatever it may be,
is gonna get oxidized to carbon dioxide.
So one thing to take away from this,
as you're looking at that left hand side of the screen
is that what ruminants are doing
is essentially recycling biogenic carbon, right?
They're temporarily transforming it
to a higher potency gas,
and then it gets oxidized and the cycle repeats.
Or that carbon atom can cycle around
several times throughout the ecosystem,
many times as it goes through its life, right?
What is key here is the arrow going
from the animal to the methane
and the breakdown of methane, right?
The question is, are those two rates
in sync with one another or are they mismatched?
And this actually matters for all of climate change
'cause ultimately, what we care about
is how human activity is increasing
the concentrations of gases in the atmosphere, right?
Not just per se the emissions
but how increasing emissions
are affecting concentrations atmosphere.
So with methane, what's really key here
is that if the emissions per year are constant,
and pretty much imbalance
with how much is being broken down
then the emissions themselves
are not gonna be increasing
the concentrations in the atmosphere.
It can be a little bit confusing.
One analogy you can kind of think of in your
in your mind is what we really care about
is an analogy of like, say water level in a bathtub,
is the level of the water on the bathtub, right?
So as we all know, if we have a bathtub
with a set water level and we have water
flowing into the bathtub and draining out of the bathtub
at the same rate, right?
The water level itself will not change, right?
So there's a parallel here between
the emissions and the breakdown
of methane in the atmosphere, right?
If those emissions for the input
going into the system is equivalent was being removed,
the level where the concentration of methane
will not change in the atmosphere.
So both things can affect it, right?
We can plug up the drain
or we can increase the amount of emissions.
And this is true for all the different gases
that we're talking about in the atmosphere,
very simplified model.
And the reason I mentioned this with regard to cattle
in the US, and have some more information
in the next couple slides is that
we know the cattle populations
in US have been pretty stagnant
for the last 30, 40 years actually declined, right?
Each individual animal is probably larger,
more productive than eating more, which means more methane.
But overall the populations
have declined pretty considerably, right?
So we're not in the situation the United States
where we're dramatically increasing
methane emissions from enteric fermentation
year, over year, over year, right?
Globally, the situation is a little bit different,
but that is a situation in the US.
Last thing I'll say on this slide
is if we look at the right hand side of the screen,
this is fossil fuel combustion.
And in this case what we're doing
is we're adding a lot more carbon to the system.
Fossil fuel are old photosynthetic carbon
that was locked in the earth's crust
for 100, 200 million years, right?
So a lot of that carbon,
it's gone in the atmosphere.
It's gotta go somewhere.
Some of its been absorbed by the app by the oceans.
Some of its been absorbed by more plants.
But if we go back to our bats of analogy, right?
What we're doing is we're turning up the faucet,
we're putting a lot more into the system.
Our drains increase a little bit, but not enough.
And so the water level
where the concentrations
in the atmosphere keeps increasing, right?
And that's why we see a very strong correlation
between how much fossil fuels are burned
and the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
So this idea of accounting for methane
a little bit differently
because of its short lived nature,
and the fact that it's gases
flowing through the system pretty quickly, right?
Is not something that just
animal science is putting out there.
But it's something that climate scientists are saying,
"Hey, you know, we need to account
for this a little bit differently."
Because we have been using
100 year global warming potentials.
And methane of course, is long gone.
And most of its effects are long gone after 100 years.
So this group in Oxford specifically
has really been leading the way
in terms of trying to better link
emissions of methane with warming.
And the reason I keep coming back to this warming concept
is this is what most of our climate agreements are globally,
Paris Climate accords, and others.
They're all based on temperature change, right?
Trying to keep temperature within a certain range.
And so if that's the case, and that's the end goal,
but we need good metrics that link emissions to warming.
It does make a big difference
in terms of how we account for this,
both positive and negative, right?
But if you have increasing emissions
this new metric doesn't make things better,
it makes it look worse.
But if you have declining emissions,
it better represents the fact
that you're not increasing warming.
So just to drive this home,
if we were to look in the US,
this is EPA data for us beef cattle in 1997.
They emitted 131.5 million metric tonnes of CO2 equivalence.
This is using the old school 100 year
global warming potential.
And in 2017, it dropped slightly.
Right down to 126, okay?
So the difference this makes
if we look at the global warming potential
where say, "Yeah, it's declined slightly."
But it's still 126 million metric tonnes
of CO2 equivalent emissions.
If we use this 20 year timescale
and look at how that's actually affected warming,
or CO2 warming equivalence, it drops down to 13.5, okay?
This is using this new metric from Oxford University.
So the takeaway here is in that purple outline box, right?
Essentially it reduces what cow burps
from beef cattle in the United States,
what they emit, and it affects warming by 89%.
So it goes from the cow burps,
emitting about 2% of emissions to 0.2%
of the US greenhouse gas emission budget.
So all I would say with this, is this
is not some sort of creative accounting scheme.
All it is really a more of incentive
to reduce methane emissions, right?
'Cause you get more bang for your buck.
So highlighting again that we do things
in the United States to reduce methane
with different feeding strategies,
Animal Health improvements,
productivity improvements, animal genetics,
all those things that we do
to become more and more efficient
and reduce methane emissions per unit of beef
is actually super key to the climate solution.
So if that makes sense.
This whole thing is not a get out of jail free card.
It's more about saying,
"Hey, if we do our part,
the beef cattle industry can really contribute
to essentially becoming net zero
in terms of warming effects really quickly."
And maybe even help in creating space
in the carbon budget in the future.
So that's that's a really positive thing
for this metric of better representing
the impact that beef cattle have on climate.
So I'll just wrap this up
by talking a little bit about dietary change.
Because I think this is an issue
that comes up again and again,
especially in the last few years.
And we've seen that a lot through
some of these alternative proteins that are out there.
And I just wanna point out to people
that whether it's impossible
or beyond or any other protein imitation type products,
what a lot of these folks are doing,
or these companies are doing is really marketing products
on sustainability, right?
So even if you still think
that this issue is a little silly,
hopefully it makes sense in that
because we have this perception gap,
that beef isn't sustainable.
It gives an opportunity for products to say,
"Well, we are the sustainability solution."
So I think most folks know about these products.
They're not cheaper than beef, right?
They're actually more expensive than beef
in all cases that I've seen,
whether in retail or in food service situations.
And they're not necessarily marketing themselves
as better tasting, right?
What they're marketing themselves on
is really sustainability issues, as I've just said.
And if we look at the upper
right hand quadrant of this slide,
This is some of the materials from beyond meat.
And I think it tells a story, right?
So they say we're improving human health.
It's questionable if you look at
the the nutrition facts label, right?
But that's one of their claims.
They say that they're positively impacting climate change.
And they use CO2 superscript,
which of course, is not a chemical formula.
Which is kind of a little bit emblematic
of other marketing materials.
They say we're addressing global resource constraints.
So think about all that stuff,
I told you about feed food competition, right?
They're directly talking about that issue.
And they say we're improving animal welfare,
because of course they're not killing an animal.
So they must be in animal welfare, right?
So again, the reason I put this up here
is just to be crystal clear is that
whether it's plant based milks or plant based meats,
in a lot of cases what these products
are positioning themselves as as a guilt free,
more quote, unquote, sustainable way to eat
what you really wanna eat.
Which is animal source foods.
Most people want to consume those products
and that's where these companies
have seen an opportunity as to
market themselves as such, right?
A lot of this is predicated by the media,
of course if (murmurs),
agriculture cannot improve enough.
And so therefore there must be a substitute effect, right?
So I think a lot of us have seen
these type of pictures during this pandemic.
This is this is one from Michigan
back in March or April.
And that initial run on stores that people had,
and then we had a actual supply chain squeeze, right?
With all the packing plant issues
that were happening later in spring and into early summer.
But this picture kind of tells a story, right?
In terms of when push comes to shove
and everybody had to make a run on the grocery store,
at least the early adopters of panic buying, right?
Went to the meat case and about all the meetup, right?
And we see that in the actual data.
I mean, again, a picture's an anecdote.
But we see that in the data.
Is that meat sales are up.
So are plant based meat sales quite frankly, they're up too.
But if you look at plant based imitation products
as a percent of actual meat
in terms of how much they represent,
it's still the same as it was
in the beginning of the pandemic.
It's about 0.7%.
So it has not changed.
And I think that's really key takeaway
is that there's a lot of there's a lot of hype
around these products,
there's a lot of arguments made
about substitution, etc, etc.
We just don't see a lot of evidence
in any of that as mounting anything right now, right?
So the reality is in the future,
it looks like humans are gonna remain omnivores, right?
So it's more the telling the story
or using data and verifying
how are we how are we documenting progress over time?
Whether it's plant agriculture or animal agriculture.
I think that's what's gonna be really key.
I think some of these kind of quick fix ideas
that we can just eat our way out of things,
probably not reflective of reality.
Just to drive that home,
this is a study that shows that eating red,
a climate change really isn't gonna be a solution, okay?
So this is a study that got published
a few years ago on the proceedings
of National Academies of Sciences
by a couple of animal scientists.
It looks at a scenario that
to be frank is unrealistic, right?
Especially as we've just gone through this pandemic.
It highlights how unrealistic it is.
But this is showing what would happen
if all Americans became vegans, okay?
What would that actually do to emissions, right?
And so you couldn't look at all the ripple effects,
but trying to look at what are the implications
of our agricultural system
if we want to eat animal free Ag environment,
and animal free food supply.
So these researchers found that
we would actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions
by 2.6 percentage points
and I put in parentheses there,
it's less than one half of 1%
of global greenhouse gas emissions, okay?
In terms of whatever you produce.
We would produce more total pounds
and more total calories of food in our agricultural system.
But I would argue we probably
don't need more calories in the American food system.
We already have enough energy to go around.
What we wouldn't have enough essential micronutrients,
specifically things like vitamin B 12,
to actually nourish everyone.
And that's pretty self evident
if you know and understand that vitamin B 12,
in terms of how it's found in any sort of foods
is only found in animal source foods.
So of course, if we get rid of animal source foods
we now have no vitamin B 12 in our food supply.
That has big ripple effects and consequences, right?
In terms of meeting everybody's essential nutrient needs.
The other thing that's on this slide
are these bar charts over
on the right hand side of the screen.
This shows the consequences and again,
not all of them but just some of the consequences
of changing our food system.
So plus animals are the greenhouse gas emissions
in agriculture as they are in omnivorous system.
For the blue chunk there,
the emissions that come from animals
and all the other colors are comes from plant agriculture.
So if we get rid of animals,
we don't just get rid of that blue chunk, right?
If we get rid of animals,
we get rid of animal manure.
We get rid of that source of nitrogen, fertilizer.
And so minus animal scenario
where you see these different colors on there.
That's why there's an increase in synthetic fertilizer.
'Cause we've now gotten rid of our manure resource
we're gonna have to supplement
and increase the amount of synthetic fertilizer
that has nitrous oxide implications,
which is a very potent greenhouse gas.
In the right hand side bar,
we also had to grow a lot more legumes.
One, because we had to eat a lot more legumes
to meet our protein requirements,
but also for the nitrogen credits and soil, right?
So again, from a nutrient standpoint.
The takeaway from this is that
there is no free lunch, right?
You don't just get rid of animals
and get rid of all their emissions.
There are ripple effects
because the food system is all intertwined.
So you pull the string in one place
and you move everything, right?
And again, this study didn't even look
at all those things that get moved.
But just some of them and just shows
the magnitude of how important
thinking about this more systemically is.
And the last thing I'll say on this
is this is assuming that all the livestock
in the United States disappear, right?
Which is completely unrealistic,
but it does highlight this complexity too.
Is that this is all livestock going away poof, right?
In a Thanos snap, if you will.
Just one day, right?
We have one final barbecue and then that's it.
So that is what's key is that
we can't have any more bison
or any other ruminant take the place
of these livestock, right?
Because that's just gonna add back admissions.
It just highlights how complex things are, right?
So people may wanna change their diet
for other personal reasons,
but just one person changing their diet
or even a handful people change their diet
to meatless Mondays or vegetarian or veganism.
Everybody's important but you just can't change
the whole food system through
what you eat in a significant way.
More the opportunities lie
on improving production where there's (murmurs).
And just to tie this all together
a little tongue-in-cheek.
And we think about plant based meats and dietary change.
I think partially the challenge
is just explaining to people
what beef cattle production is, right?
In maybe a little bit different way.
And we can say that we already have plant based meats.
And we already use really cool technology
that makes me from plants in the beef community, right?
It's a technology that is powered by solar energy.
It's able to harvest solar energy and in edible plants.
And it's mobile in terms of harvesting this energy, right?
Completely solar powered, no fossil fuels required.
And while it's doing this harvesting,
it actually produces high quality organic fertilizer
that feeds the soil, so it's pretty cool.
And the technology itself can self replicate, right?
Pretty amazing package
if we put it all together
and tried to market it to Silicon Valley
or other places, right?
Of course, this is tongue-in-cheek.
What is this technology?
So moving animals are particularly amazing
in their ability to take human inedible material
and produce something of higher quality, right?
The consequence of that is methane,
we can manage that issue.
It's not a dramatic challenge
as some make it out to be.
I think we can make a lot of progress
and document our progress to a lot of people's concerns
with this bigger picture
that agriculture is solar powered,
running off of carbon out of the atmosphere,
I think needs to be re oriented to people
and reiterated to them many times.
So just to wrap this up.
Again, sustainability is about balancing
all these different domains.
It's not gonna be the same answer everywhere.
It's gonna change over time.
But core and fundamental to it
is improving over time, right?
In many different ways or maintaining
when we have good production practices, right?
So continuous improvement is key.
Livestock, beef cattle, livestock in general,
they produce nutrient rich food.
They produce food that provides a lot of micronutrients
and protein per calorie.
That is their advantage.
They concentrate these nutrients
from plants and foods for us.
But they also produce a lot more than just food
in terms of societal benefits.
They often gets missed in this conversation.
And if you want a number just to take home again,
according to the EPA.
about 2% of greenhouse gas emissions come from beef cattle,
and that's before all this stuff
that I told you about methane
in terms of how we account for it.
And if we can slightly reduce methane
even further in the future,
Hopefully, you can take that 2%
to essentially zero percent in terms
of its effect on global warming.
So with all that said,
thank you very much for your attention,
and I appreciate you all for joining me today.
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