If food waste was a country, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says it would be the third largest global greenhouse gas emitter.

Allow that fact to marinate in your brain for a few minutes (just don’t let it spoil)…

Last week, Des Moines hosted the World Food Prize celebration – an opportunity to discuss ways of feeding our growing world (which is projected to reach 10 billion people by the year 2050) more sustainably. As usual, there was plenty of discussion about the technology needed to grow more food using the same, or fewer, resources.

It’s something U.S. farmers have been working on for decades. Over the last 70 years, farmers have boosted their output by 270%, while the use of resources like land, fertilizers, chemicals and energy has remained mostly unchanged.

Farmers have increased their production by 270% without increasing inputs

Based on that progress, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that U.S. agriculture only accounts for 9 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions, including 4% from livestock (compared to the 29% that comes from transportation and 28% that comes from electricity).

Some experts estimate that (with technology available today) we’re on a trajectory to reduce agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. And by harnessing further innovation and investment ag’s emissions could become net-negative, up to 147%!

But what about those cows and the burgers we’re supposed to stop eating to mitigate climate change?

“Our work suggests that eliminating livestock from U.S. agriculture would decrease national greenhouse gas emissions by 2.9%,” says Virginia Tech professor Dr. Robin White, one of the researchers who presented the 2019 Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report at the World Food Prize.

So what are people missing (or omitting) when they advocate for simply eating less meat as an environmental solution?

“I like to think of this as just a by-product of human nature,” says Dr. White. “We like one-size-fits-all solutions, and we like absolutes because we’re very comfortable with understanding them…. In reality, animals exist as part of an agricultural food web, and eliminating any portion of that web is going to have collateral impacts.”

Such as?

“[Meat, milk and eggs] provide really important sources of micronutrients, like quality amino acids, vitamin B12, omega fatty acids, calcium, etc. And those are all nutrients that humans absolutely require.” says White.

Then there’s the fact that 500 million-plus people around the world depend upon livestock for their livelihoods (two-thirds of livestock producers are women), according to the GAP Report.

Dr. White also noted that ruminant animals (like cows) actually recycle human inedible products into human food. If we eliminate cows, not only do we eliminate their direct benefit, but we also eliminate that opportunity to leverage that recycling function, which is important for sustainability.

It turns out that cleaning your plate is an exponentially better way to reduce your environmental footprint than removing meat from your plate. And while farmers will need to continue taking on the challenge of growing more food with the same, or fewer, resources to feed 10 billion in the year 2050, they can’t do it alone.

“We can’t really grow our way to 10 billion. The food waste and the post-harvest losses in the world are just very extreme, and we’ve got to deal with that,” says Ann Steensland, the author of the GAP Report. “Not only are we throwing away food, which is an environmental cost. Not only are we throwing away nutrients, which means somebody isn’t eating that food. But all of the resources that went into producing that food – the land, the water, the fertilizer – all of that also goes to waste, and that gets right to the heart of our sustainability questions.”

Hungry for more? You can listen to my entire interviews with Dr. White and Ms. Steensland in the latest edition of The Spokesman Speaks podcast (below) and read the GAP report at GlobalAgriculturalProductivity.org.

By Zach Bader. Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Digital Marketing Manager.