Remember going around the room in grade school to do a game of “word association”? The instructor would start with a word like “bird.” Then each person would take a turn saying what came to mind: nest, feather, egg…  

What if I said the word “sustainability”? What would that room sound like today? Conservation, trees, recycling, composting, climate…

Would you think to say nutrition? Agriculture? How about economics or opportunity?

The United Nations describes sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” I see no other perfect example of this than within animal agriculture.  

First, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. There are very few things that don’t impact the climate. Even electric vehicles contribute to carbon emissions due to where their energy is sourced from. So, yes, agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, but did you know its impact may be smaller than you think?

In the United States, agriculture makes up 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions, 4% of which come from livestock production. While some would have you believe the road to a better climate is a world void of livestock, to put it simply, this is a dangerous and elitist idea.  

The needs of the present

Research shows most countries need one-third of their caloric intake from animal-based proteins for nutritional adequacy. In some cases, animal-based foods are the only way for children and women across the globe to get high-quality sources of protein, calcium and essential vitamins such as B12 to promote brain development. A lack of access to high-quality proteins from animal-based sources has also been associated with the stunting of 160 million pre-school aged children around the world.

Livestock also has an integral role in building women’s empowerment. While a large share of women in the U.S. are responsible for day-to-day operations on the family farm, including the management of livestock, these roles are even more critical for women in other parts of the world. Two-thirds of the estimated 600 million poor who raise livestock are women. By caring for animals, women often located in low- and middle-income countries can provide income and food security for their families while also exercising their decision-making skills.

The needs of the future

The critical demand for nutrient-dense foods and livestock ownership as a means of financial independency are intertwined with our need to protect the environment, now and for future generations.

In the United States, climate-smart agriculture is paving the way for a better planet—one that includes livestock. Farmers and agriculturalists recognize the quality of crops and food they help raise is dependent on climate and the innovations that can help literally weather a storm.

We’re seeing more paths forward to carbon neutrality through technology and research than ever before. By using drones, precision agriculture and enhanced crop genetics, family farms can grow more on the same amount of land while using less chemicals and better manage plant and pest diseases. That’s why since the 1990s, U.S. farms are producing 43% more food, feed, fiber and renewable fuels without using additional resources.

More and more Iowa farmers are adopting conservation tillage, cover crops and rotational grazing of cattle. These practices help sequester carbon in the soil while also helping protect water quality. In fact, U.S. soils store as much carbon as 123.2 billion cars per year, or the number of cars that will be driven in America for the next 150 years. And research on animal genetics, feed, veterinary care and manure management will continue to help put livestock on the land that have a smaller carbon footprint.

Through the adoption of these practices and those yet to come, U.S. agriculture has the potential to reduce its carbon footprint to -4% over the next 15 years. This means an agricultural system that: provides foods important for human health across all ages, supports economic growth and women empowerment in low-income areas and paves the way for an agriculture that provides and replenishes the earth.

So, maybe next time you consider sustainability, a whole new set of words will come to mind—some your peers may never have even thought of.