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The 2050 challenge

Adair County Farm Bureau member Beth Baudler and her dad, Clifton, check on their cow herd.
Adair County Farm Bureau member Beth Baudler and her dad, Clifton, check on their cow herd. Cattle are natural "upcyclers" because of their unique ruminant digestive system. Cattle can eat cornstalks and other plant materials that are inedible to people and, in turn, produce high-quality, protein-rich beef.

U.S. livestock farmers have made tremendous progress in reducing their environmental im­­pact, yet this good news isn’t being shared, clicked or liked enough in today’s social media, said a leading researcher on livestock and climate change.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, an air quality extension specialist at the University of California-Davis, said American consumers don’t realize that modern agriculture practices have helped increase our food supply while decreasing potential greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s time for us to explain what we do in agriculture in a way that the public understands,” Mitloehner said.

Mitloehner visited Iowa recently to receive the prestigious Borlaug Communication Award from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). The award ceremony coincided with the 2019 World Food Prize events in Des Moines.

During his acceptance speech, Mitloehner admitted that he was reluctant at first to join social media. Yet his Twitter feed (@GHGGuru) now reaches an audience of hundreds of thousands of people. He shares science-based information about animal agriculture’s impact on climate change and often challenges media re­­ports that aren’t based on current science.

“It is of utmost importance that we engage with thought leaders and the public at large, not just with people in agriculture, about those challenges and opportunities we face in our sector,” Mitloehner told his fellow agricultural scientists in the audience.

Today, one of the greatest challenges facing agriculture — and the world — is what Mitloehner called the “2050 challenge.” By 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion people, a tripling of the population over the course of our lifetimes, he said.

“And that is the challenge of our lifetimes, mainly how to provide enough food for this growing global human population without depleting our natural resources,” Mitloehner said.

Activists and critics tend to blame agriculture — and in particular, animal agriculture — for contributing to climate change. “And I have a beef with that,” Mitloehner said.

Instead, the use of fossil fuels is the number one human activity that generates greenhouse gases, Mitloehner said.

Transportation, electric production and industry account for 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In comparison, agriculture accounts for 9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. And of that number, animal agriculture contributes only 3.9% of greenhouse gas emissions.

"Some people want us to go back to the 1960s, to the red barn and all animals on pasture. In fact, that would lead us to disaster."
Dr. Frank Mitloehner, air quality specialist at the University of California-Davis.


The good news, which Mitloehner said isn’t shared enough, is that U.S. farmers are producing record levels of food today while using fewer inputs and reducing their environmental impact.

Specifically, livestock herd sizes are shrinking in the United States because of improvements in genetics, feed and animal health. As herd sizes shrink, the environmental footprint of animal agriculture decreases, Mitloehner explained.

For example, the United States has reduced its dairy cow herd from 25 million cows in the 1960s to 9 million cows today. Yet U.S. dairy farmers are producing 60% more milk than they were 50 years ago, Mitloehner said. That has shrunk the carbon footprint of the U.S. dairy herd by two-thirds.

“It is a truly astounding accomplishment, one that I never see reported in the media,” Mitloehner said.

“Some people want us to go back to the 1960s, to the red barn and all animals on pasture,” he continued. “In fact, that would lead us to disaster. If we go back to slow-growing chickens, it will be a nightmare, because we would have to double our flocks. Who could possibly want that, when you understand the potential environmental impacts?”

In order to make the greatest impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture, Mitloehner said we should focus our efforts on developing countries, where ag productivity is low and herd sizes are large to supply their growing populations.

He emphasized that we must embrace new technologies and animal-care practices that help further reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment.

“We must ensure that we have the social license to use those technologies ...,” Mitloehner said. “We are the envy of the world in how we produce food in this country. And we better tell our story ­— and tell it right.”