This week, global leaders descend on New York City for the opening of the UN General Assembly. Climate change is top of mind, given the floods in Germany, fires in the Western U.S. and near record high temperatures over the summer.
Animal Agriculture has been identified as a major greenhouse gas contributor. Beef and dairy cattle are the biggest sources within animal ag. Production of animal feed is about half of the total, with the other half coming from enteric emissions (burps) and manure.
The UN Food Systems Summit is being held today and tomorrow. A pre-summit held in Rome this summer highlighted three concerning themes. First, to transition the world away from livestock. Second, to move toward organic and pastoral production of food. Third, to increase the cost of food. Here’s the problem: Industry is not at the table. The program will be governments and NGOs.
I attended a virtual summit of livestock producers (dairy, poultry, pork, beef) last week. It aimed to unite the industry around a big idea: Animals can be part of the answer to climate change. Several of the large companies, such as JBS and Tyson, have made significant commitments including attainment of net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain by 2040-2050. This can be achieved even with dramatic market growth to a forecasted 89 million metric tons by 2030, a 50 percent increase over the last decade, prompted by a growing global middle class and rising GDP.
The key opportunity for livestock producers is methane and capturing carbon in the soil. There are three ways to impact methane production and capture carbon:
- The Land—Through no till production and use of cover crops such as oats
- In the Animal—With methane reducing feed ingredients, enteric health and better nutrition. Animals can be raised more efficiently, generating more protein from fewer cattle
- Animal Waste Product—Digesters can be used to convert manure to energy or fertilizer
The industry believes that it can do well by doing good. Mike McCloskey, co-founder and CEO of Select Milk Producers and chairman of the board for Fair Oaks Farms, said, “Agriculture has the potential in this decade to create more bottom-line value from environmental and biodiversity benefits than from direct meat or milk production.” On his own farm, through repurposing manure and methane capture, he generates 2.5 times more profit from environmental benefits than from milk production.
This is a classic communications challenge as well. It will take time for beef and dairy producers in the U.S. to achieve climate neutrality. Beef and dairy producers can reach climate neutrality before 2050 if farmers and ranchers reduce their emissions by just a third. In that instance, peak emissions will actually occur in just the next few years, but it will take a decade to see the dramatic reduction — the reason being the 12-year life span for methane in the atmosphere.
Jeffrey Simmons, CEO of Elanco, which supplies the livestock industry, told his colleagues last week, “We have nine years to be a bridge to the future. We have to educate the public and our producers. We need to commit to the public and be transparent about our progress. And we have to make this a profitable initiative for the farmer.”
Edelman is already working with important companies and organizations in the sector to share their progress on ambitious sustainable goals. It is time for the NGOs and governments to partner instead of mandate, for the media to explain instead of harangue. We need to do this together.
Richard Edelman is CEO.