Agriculture’s on pace to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, and cattle are the “original upcyclers” | The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, Episode 34
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Welcome to Episode 34 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast. This episode, hosted by Delaney Howell, is all about sustainability and agriculture’s shrinking environmental footprint.
Dr. Jean Lonie of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance dissects a 2019 report indicating that U.S. agriculture is on a trajectory to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 50% over the next five years. Here’s that report: https://usfarmersandranchers.org/usfra-2019-report/
Dr. Sara Place of Elanco shares the facts about greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and the essential nutrition we receive from meat.
And Dr. Dan Loy of Iowa State University and the Iowa Beef Center explains how cattle “upcycle” human inedible products into high quality protein for humans.
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Narrator: Since 1934 Iowa's farmers have turned to the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman as their trusted news source. Now, The Spokesman Speaks. Listen in and hear from leading experts on topics important to farmers and agriculture. Now, here's your host.
Delaney Howell: Welcome to the March 9th episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. I'm Delaney Howell and I'm so glad you've tuned in for this episode, which is all about sustainability. If you've been looking for evidence of agriculture's shrinking environmental footprint, you've come to the right place. In this week's episode, we're going to take a deep dive with three industry experts who will share actual proof of agriculture's progress and potential. First off, we'll start with Dr. Jean Lonie, who's the Director of Farmer and Rancher Engagement for the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. As you'll hear with Dr. Lonie, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance released their report in 2019 that shows U.S. Agriculture is on a trajectory to reduce its greenhouse gases by roughly 50% over the next few years. That finding comes from a group of experts representing big name institutions like MIT, Cal Davis, Kansas State, the University of Arkansas, USDA, the Nature Conservancy. The list goes on and on. Dr Lonie recently shared the reports encouraging findings at the American Farm Bureau Annual Convention with our very own Zach Bader.
Zach Bader: Joined by Dr. Jean Lonie of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Dr. Lonie, you just presented recently here a report on U.S. Agriculture's opportunity to enhance its sustainability and reduce its environmental footprint. In fact, one key fact in this report that you shared is with the technology available today, U.S. Ag is on a trajectory to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. And by harnessing further innovation and investment ag's emissions could become net negative up to 147%. So those are some pretty exciting findings. First of all, tell me a little bit about the report, who's involved in it and what kind of data and other information is it using to draw these conclusions?
Dr. Jean Lonie: Absolutely. Zach, thanks so much for the chance to talk about this. The report is something that USFRA put together and presented in 2019. It's called the Power of Resiliency in Agriculture's Ecosystem Services. And there is an advisory council focused on ecosystem services within USFRA and that's the group that oversaw this. And that's folks from USDA, from the Aspen Institute, from the American Farm Bureau Federation, a lot of our different producer groups in universities coming together to really look at what's happening in this area, particularly with greenhouse gases and what's going on with climate smart agriculture and pulling from existing science. So this is not anything that was new or research that we created. This doesn't show a silver bullet. What this does is really takes a scan of what's already out there, where's the credible science that's already been done in this area that we can pull from to get a more robust, more holistic snapshot of how agriculture plays into this. What's exciting is most of this research is actually fairly conservative in the numbers that it gives, but it shows that there's positive, credible science about the opportunities we have to reap the full potential of agriculture's contributions to ecosystem service solutions and how we can get to being net negative as an industry on those greenhouse gas emissions.
Zach Bader: And what are some of the key findings that stand out for you?
Dr. Jean Lonie: What stands out to me is we're on the path already. Our producers are doing pretty incredible things in agriculture to store carbon, to be climate smart, to really look at how they play a role in what's happening in the ecosystem. The biggest takeaway to me is that we're on that path and with some advances we can get to that 50% decrease with some frontier technology and even bigger moves we can get to being negative. Net negative. And so what I think is really from an agricultural perspective, the highlight for me is this is about continuous improvement. This isn't about telling producers they have to do all of these new things. There isn't a one size fits all. It's every farm, every ranch, every operation, every acre, just doing things a little bit differently or a little bit more. So to me that's the big takeaway. I think from there, the other thing that I would highlight is we've got a lot of potential to really partner across the entire food and agriculture system. How do we bring that entire value chain together so that as we're looking at greenhouse gas emissions, as we're looking at being climate smart and weather wise, particularly in production agriculture, we're doing all of that as a holistic system and we're not trying to just dictate to producers what they have to do and this doesn't have to be funded on their backs.
Zach Bader: So regarding the finding that U.S. Ag is on a trajectory to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% -- that's a pretty significant finding. So what would a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture be equivalent to?
Dr. Jean Lonie: So that's a great point. The numbers we have from EPA are that agriculture contributes just 8.4% of total U.S. Greenhouse gas emissions. So I think the first thing is to remember that when we talk about the industry, our contribution is just under 9%. So we think that within one to five years it's practically achievable that we decrease that 46% and we get down to just 3.8% of total U.S. Agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions. What that looks like is a little bit more aggressive adoption of practices already in place. Conservation tillage, no tillage, cover crops, things like that that we can do in acres that we can think a little bit differently about grazing lands and how we manage soils and how we manage what's growing there. With that, with a little bit more aggressive approach with putting that into place on more of our acres, we think we can get to that 50% reduction. And that's pretty incredible because that also grows then the carbon that we're storing in our soil. Soils in the United States, particularly in agriculture, you know, 45.5% of the land in the United States is in agriculture. We can be a carbon sink and that's really exciting. Our current soil stocks, what they're storing in terms of carbon, it's in equivalent to 123.2 billion cars driven in the U.S. For the next 150 years. It's amazing what our soils can do. We have to be aware of that and we have to be intentional in how we handle them. But we think through doing that through just being a little bit more aggressive in what technology is already out there, we can drop it 50% in five years.
Zach Bader: And that 50% that's not even accounting for the progress that's being made by livestock farmers in reducing the environmental footprint or the possible benefits we could see from reducing food waste, right?
Dr. Jean Lonie: Absolutely. And that's the thing again about this report that's wildly exciting is it's conservative. There's more that's happening outside of some of the numbers we have access to that really contributes to agriculture being a very, very big player in addressing some of the issues we see around greenhouse gas emissions and in being climate smart for our producers to also protect them and their livelihoods.
Zach Bader: You mentioned increasing some of those practices can help us incrementally can help us get to that 50% so what kind of scale are we talking about in which practices do you see that are making would make the biggest difference towards that?
Dr. Jean Lonie: So the big practices as you read through the report that are talked about are really ones that sort of protect the soil and keep carbon there. So you're going to see a lot about no till and conservation tillage, you'll see a lot of things happening with cover crops, how to use them, how to be smart about it. You'll also get into precision agriculture. So how do we manage what we're spraying when we're spraying it? Fertilizer use is a big thing and we talk about that in the report. And agriculture has done a wonderful job in decreasing soil erosion. We're also really looking at decreasing fertilizer use. So how do we manage that? How do we make sure we get it to the plant when it needs it exactly where it needs it. So being smart about timing, about weather, about application and things like that. Also looking at how we integrate animals and the land. So we've got this wonderful natural fertilizer that comes from our livestock. How do you make sure that we're using that in a way that's really cost efficient but also nutritionally effective. So all of those pieces come into play and are really important what we look at. So we think that with some of the precision technology that's out there and some of the conservation practices that have already been adopted just growing those is going to make a huge difference for us. What's nice about it is not only does it make a difference in terms of carbon, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it also, what we're seeing is it's got the potential to also help producers with their bottom lines, which is really important because if your operation isn't sustainable, the other practices you know really are hard to justify and don't quite matter if we can't keep you in business.
Zach Bader: So let's talk about that second step. The one that's a little bit further out. The one that says that ag greenhouse gas emissions could become net negative up to 140% with some further innovation investment. First of all, what kind of innovation are we talking about on what kind of scale in that innovation and investment?
Dr. Jean Lonie: So the innovation pieces is really fascinating to me. Looking at what we're terming frontier technology, we think we can get to 147% change from baseline today and that's in about five to 15 years. So it's a longer scale in term of the timeline and it also requires more adoption. So across more acres. I believe in the report it talks about you know, further adoption of available technologies on 26% of the acres. And then we need that frontier technology and about 62% of the acres. So we really need to push a little bit harder. The frontier technologies are a bit fascinating because they really can help us move ahead a little bit more rapidly. So you're talking about things like advanced crop breeding, phenotyping for high carbon input root systems, looking at how we can really manage what we're growing with that lens of carbon emissions and pulling things into the soil and keeping them there. Um rather than just solely going for what I need as an output. Also looking at how I manage that root system. How do I manage what's in the soil and then from there make the soil my friend, because it's a carbon sink. The frontier technologies are coming. What we really recommend in terms of scale is a larger investment. And I don't have the numbers on that immediately at hand, but what we really want to talk about is making it a shared risk and a shared investment. So across that food chain. This isn't something where it should be the producers alone that have to invest in it or make it happen on their operations. We want to talk to the entire value chain to say, look, this is something that's important to all of us. How do we create one vision? How do we adopt these practices? How do we give producers the flexibility, because we know one size does not fit all. What you're doing in Iowa is different than what's here in Texas. We've got to give producers flexibility and resources, but we also can't expect them to have to pay for everything. So how do we share that risk, that investment? How do we make sure that as those frontier technologies are really firming up and becoming reality, how do we get them back out to farmers and ranchers across the country?
Zach Bader: So is there an effort underway to help foster that collaboration, make those partnerships and share that cost? Is there a next step from this report to help make that happen?
Dr. Jean Lonie: Absolutely. Great question. It's a big part of the mission of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. We really want to make sure that farmers and ranchers are at the heart of discussions across the entire value chain on how to create sustainable food systems. To us, a big piece of that is making sure that all of the players in the ag and food value chain are together on that. So for us that's actually part of what we do every day is talk about the importance of that cocreation and that investment and that shared risk. A big way that we do that is through our annual Honor the Harvest Forum, so that'll be in June. This year out in Iowa. We hosted it in June last year in Maryland to talk about these technologies and things that are happening. We also really want to put a big focus on this through the decade of agriculture and really highlight the importance of agriculture in our lives every day, but also the role of producers in the industry in issues like greenhouse gas emissions, where we are, we are positively contributing and in fact can become net negative and just a great player in what we're doing to address some of these challenges.
Zach Bader: Talking about some of these practices that are mentioned in the report cover crops and no till and variable rate fertilizer application, they sound kind of familiar, right? I mean these are things that farmers have been doing for a number of years in some cases, decades to reduce their footprint. Like I said, these practices have been ramping up for years. In fact, the report itself acknowledged some of the progress that's been made by farmers over the decades, including a 44% reduction in erosion on U.S. Cropland over the past two decades. Can you talk a little bit about some of those kinds of things, the progress that that is acknowledged here as well?
Dr. Jean Lonie: When you, when you read this report if you don't walk away pretty fired up about what agriculture has done over the last few decades, then I think you were reading something different than I was. I came in and got to sit down with this and I was so proud to be in agriculture and I think that's a feeling we want to give to producers across the country that pride in what they do. So producers, there are some scary facts in there. There's a reminder of how much farmland we lose every day. Huge challenge. We have fewer farms, fewer farm land, but we're doing more with less. Agriculture is the absolute poster child for doing more with less. If you look from 1948 on farm output has increased 1.48% every year from 1948 until 2015. That's pretty impressive. We've done that with flat water usage and we've done that with only increasing inputs 0.1% every year since 1948. I almost cannot control my excitement when I think about that. When I think about what our producers are doing to meet the demands of a rising global population to do it with fewer inputs, to do it with flat water usage, to do it on less land. It's an incredible success story to think that in 15 years we can also get to be net negative for greenhouse gas emissions. This industry is absolutely the future of our local communities, the future of our people, the future of our planet. We can contribute positively to that and that's not new. We've been doing that. We can continue to do it. This just helps take it to the next level.
Zach Bader: Any final thoughts for the Iowa farmers listening to this podcast who are as excited about this as you are?
Dr. Jean Lonie: Yeah, absolutely. So I've actually had the chance over the last few years to spend a fair bit of time out in Iowa working with some of the producers and industry members there and some of the universities. The work that's being done there is absolutely incredible. You're just such a progressive state in how you're looking at all of this, how you're looking at investment. Just please know how proud we are of what you're doing and keep it going. You know this is a conversation and effort and a moment where every farm, every acre and every voice matters. So please keep having the conversation. Please keep pushing the envelope a bit in what you're doing. But know you are doing great things. And as an industry there's a wonderful story to tell and to be proud of.
Delaney Howell: Dr. Lonie says that ag is actually the poster child for doing more with less. And you'd have to agree with her after hearing those kinds of numbers. Right? Of course we know that agriculture isn't just making environmental improvements on the crop and land use side of things, which is the perspective that's covered by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers report. We also know that livestock farmers are reducing their environmental footprints as well. Now directing our attention to livestock, return to industry expert, Dr. Sara Place who's the Chief Sustainability Officer with Elanco. Spokesman writer Corey Munson visited with Dr. Place at the Driftless Region Beef Conference in Dubuque earlier this year. What's the truth when it comes to cattle and their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions? Dr. Sara Place has the answer.
Corey Munson: Can you tell us a little bit about the latest research as far as cattle's production of greenhouse gas as it relates to the total U.S. Production of greenhouse gas?
Dr. Sara Place: Yeah, so a key statistic to remember is according to the U.S. EPA, 2% of U.S. Greenhouse gas emissions come from beef cattle. And so that is all the methane that cattle naturally produce in their, in their stomach, right, in the rumen and belch out. And any methane and nitrous oxide, which is another potent greenhouse gas that comes from the animals manure. And it gets a little complicated. The methane piece we talked about during the presentation, but there's some research out there that would say the way we account for methane actually that 2% maybe perhaps is a little bit lower in terms of its total impact that it has on warming emissions. All of agriculture in the United States is about eight and a half, 9% of greenhouse gas emissions. So that's key is that, it's not nothing, you know, we can work to reduce it, but it's also not the major source. Right? So 25, 26% of emissions come from transportation in the United States. Another 29%, 30% come from electricity use. Right? So in the United States, we're a modern society, a post-industrial society in a lot of ways. And we burn a lot of fossil fuels and that's where most of our greenhouse gas emissions come from. So again, 2% for beef cattle production.
Corey Munson: One of the things I found very interesting about your talk is you'd noted that people who argue that land use is being gobbled up by cattle production are just wrong. Because this is a lot of the range land that's used is not really suitable for a lot of other uses, either residential for other crops. So can you just talk a little bit about the value of producing something from this otherwise unusable land?
Dr. Sara Place: Yes. So when we think about beef cattle production, especially in the United States, right? This, this what we're talking about, the scenario, most of the land that's used for beef cattle production is land that can't be used for anything else, right? So, especially range land are lands in most of the Western U.S. Are too arid, too rocky, too steep for us to cultivate and grow crops, grow plants that we would eat directly, right? Or even our pasture lands resources, right? As we sit here in this part of Iowa, a lot of the places that we have cattle pasture, they're that way for a reason, because they're highly erodible. And I think that that basic fact has been glossed over of, you know, it's not that cattle are taking up land that could be otherwise used for other purposes. A lot of times, again, it's how those cattle fit in a cropping system or fit in the landscape where they're at. And those grazing lands often support a lot of biodiversity, right? A lot of you know, whether it's mammals or birds or insects, right? It's really, really important to keep those grazing lands intact in a lot of cases. And that's why we see a lot of conservation organizations realizing that and wanting to work with ranchers because they see the nature value of grazing lands. Yes cattle can use a lot of grazing lands, but we think about crop lands. We think about corn production in the corn that's produced that cattle actually consume, beef cattle consume. It's about 2% of cropland acres. So two, 2% figures to remember, but 2% of cropland acres. And the like a visual of that as we sit here in Iowa, it's about a fifth of the size of Iowa, right? That's how big that land areas, that is corn production that goes to cattle. And one of the things that we talked about was, you know, when we corn to cattle it's not the main part of their diet, right? If we look at the life cycle diet of cattle, 90% of what they consume is stuff that we can't eat. It's human inedible feed. And about 10%, 11% is that actual grain. And so the protein value that cattle provide people in the form of beef is two and a half times greater than the human edible inputs that cattle consume. Right? So from a sustainability standpoint, you're making something from nothing in a lot of cases with livestock, right, with ruminant livestock. And that's, that's a key advantage for them.
Corey Munson: From a human health perspective, the value of these animals, especially for the developing world, I would imagine is pretty high from a health standpoint. So if you don't mind, just take a moment and kind of discuss that aspect and what the value of animal agriculture is to folks who don't have the options that we do here in America.
Dr. Sara Place: Yes. So when we think about animal source foods, so I think that's always a distinction. Sometimes we talk about it like animal protein which is fine, but I think we miss some of those micronutrients that are in animal source foods that are really unique and really essential for human health like vitamin B12. So you don't need a lot of vitamin B12, but you absolutely need vitamin B12 and that is a micronutrient that is only found in animal source foods. So whether it's dairy products, eggs meats, you know, it's all, all of those are really good sources of B12 and specifically when we think about, especially in the developing world, to your point, to your question, right in the U.S. We are so lucky that we have a food supply that can meet a lot of our needs. That said, we still have issues in the United States, of course with different populations of folks that aren't getting enough to eat or just getting enough of the right kinds of foods, right micronutrients to still here in the United States. But that issue is more pronounced globally in terms of all deficiencies of some still just calories. But a lot of these micronutrients it's over a billion people, almost 2 billion people that have some sort of deficiency in the world. So that's where animal agriculture is so important. It's not that animal products have to make up the majority of the calories in your diet. In fact, they don't anywhere in the world maybe some very specific locations where they do. But even the United States, 70% of our calories come from plant source foods of some kind, but it's getting adequate amount of animal source foods that really kind of protects from a lot of these nutrient deficiencies. And that's very apparent with global populations where animal source foods consumption are low. We see more micronutrient efficiencies. Right? There are other things at play there, but a big part of it is what people are consuming. And one of the stats that I shared in the presentation is one in four children under five globally has an issue with stunting, right? So an issue with lack of development both cognitively and physically, that's a major problem that just hopefully collectively as humanity, right, that we say that's just not acceptable, right? We need to be allowing everybody to actually meet their full potential.
Corey Munson: You have the opportunity to kind of educate beef producers and help them be their own advocates when it comes to these issues. So what is the value of people hearing these messages from farmers as opposed to, you know coming out in a news release or something like that in your opinion?
Dr. Sara Place: We have seen that in recent years of farmers agriculturalists in general, getting, getting a bit more involved in the conversation. I think that's a good thing. Sometimes we have this whole idea now that, you know, with people asking more questions about where their food comes from and more label claims, you know, we almost have this more negative view of it, like, why are people so, you know, asking all these questions. But I think it's great because people are interested in where their food comes from, right? They're asking questions and so when people are actually interested, your opportunity to have a meaningful conversation is gonna increase quite a bit. So there are definitely ways to get involved as a producer in that conversation. Whether it is, you know, on more of the electronic forms of social media or sometimes these conversations are just, they're better when you have them face to face, right. In all of our local communities, whether it's your Lions Club or whatever it may be, actually getting out in front of people and just letting people know what you do, right. Because at the end of the day, I think agriculture is just, it's such a neat industry in terms of some of the mundane things that you do day to day to you may sound like, Oh, well, whatever, you know, it's not that big of a deal. If your process of how you decide to feed cows or any of the science that goes into your daily decisions, but when you share that with people that are uninitiated, they can find it incredibly fascinating. Right, so I think it's just having that two way conversation, learning from people. Same way, just like you may have a conversation to learn about a totally different industry or line of work from that person you're having a conversation with.
Delaney Howell: Those are some wise words from Dr. Place that she helps us cut through the noise around the livestock industry. Not only are cattle, a minor contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. They're also the original upcycler, which is a term used to describe turning products that are inedible for humans into high quality protein. To take a closer look at those livestock upcyclers, Dr. Dan Loy, a professor of animal science at Iowa State University and the Director of the Iowa Beef Center is going to give us the scoop. In case you're thinking it, yes, Dr. Loy is also the star of the recent Iowa Minute TV spot you've probably been seeing on your local stations. Dr. Loy has a lot to say about the role cattle play in this upcycling process, which he'll share his thoughts on, such as this.
Dr. Dan Loy: Cattle and ruminant livestock, especially beef cattle have the ability to use and they do use lot of resources, feed resources that are just unfit for human consumption. That fermentation vat that's a rumen is really a remarkable feature for rumen and animals. And it gives them the opportunity to utilize a lot of resources forages, byproducts, and other feeds that just are not able for humans to consume. The ones that we have in great supply in the state like corn, corn stock residue, food byproducts, the byproducts from the ethanol industry, byproducts from food production soy hulls, oat byproducts, even food processors that have whole candy bars, gummy worms. You know, there's anything that humans can't consume, there's a place for you so as long as you know, food safety is adhered to for ruminant animals. If it weren't for cattle, those co-products would either be used as fertilizer or they would end up in landfills somewhere so the cattle really do a service in addition to utilizing it for producing high quality human food and protein they do a service for finding a place for those byproducts. A lot of people like to look at the efficiency of food conversion in ruminant animals and it may be less than non-ruminants. But if you look at the efficiency of human edible protein, there's some really good recent data that says that they actually add value. So where they actually produce more human edible protein than they consume. So it's more than a hundred percent feed conversion. That's a process that people call upcycling. And so that's really what they're doing, taking resources that really would be a waste and turning them into a valuable high quality protein that everyone likes to consume.
Delaney Howell: But the environmental benefits of cattle go way beyond reducing waste. Dr. Loy goes on to mention that cattle really compliment the practices Iowa's farmers are using to protect water quality.
Dr. Dan Loy: In Iowa one of the major environmental concerns that we have and we have a nutrient reduction strategy that has some goals for this state is a water quality and some of the most effective practices for water quality are things like permanent pasture, forage production and cover crops. And those do have benefits agronomically in terms of soil health and so forth. But to really get the economic value of those, it really takes cattle and ruminant livestock because they can take those crops and also produce those into high quality protein.
Delaney Howell: Now we know that environmental progress in the cattle industry hasn't happened by accident. It's something that farmers have been driving for years.
Dr. Dan Loy: There have been tremendous strides in efficiency. We produce about the same beef that we did 20 years ago with about half as many cattle. So technologies, genetics, improvements in feed conversion, all of those have gone together to really make cattle more sustainable from a resource use standpoint and from an economic standpoint.
Delaney Howell: At the end of the day, your diet is your choice, but you've got to feel pretty good about beef after hearing information like that, right? I think I feel pretty good so I might have to celebrate the strides made in the cattle industry by enjoying a nice juicy steak thanks to each of the three experts who contributed to this week's episode of The Spokesman Speaks. Sustainability is a hot topic in agriculture today and it's good to hear what the research says about our progress. Well, that's it for this episode of The Spokesman Speaks. I'm Delaney Howell and if you've enjoyed this episode, I hope you'll hit the subscribe button and join us for our next episode dropping on March 23rd. Until then, I hope that each day gives you an opportunity to learn something new and improve your farm, not only for your generation but for those to come. Thanks for reading The Spokesman and thanks for listening to The Spokesman Speaks.
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