For the past 50 years, Earth Day in April has shone a brighter spotlight on the importance of working together to create a more sustainable planet for future generations. Earth Day began at the culmination of several environmental disasters and the first visuals of the planet taken from space. The global population became aware of the fragility of our planet and realized that geopolitical boundaries are of less concern when issues are viewed through a planetary lens. Then, and now, opinions vary on the best way to care for our fragile, global home.
This year, Earth Day 2020 is focused on climate action – an enormous challenge, but one that presents vast opportunities. When it comes to creating a sustainable future, animal agriculture is often seen as a challenge. But the good news is that animals are actually part of the sustainability solution.
Animals can reduce the loss of natural resources while providing more than they consume and innovations in agriculture can help reduce our resource use and our collective environmental impact. How? Here are a few ways that healthier animals can give us a healthier planet.
Animals: the original recyclers
Animals play a key role in the sustainability of our ecosystem. We actually can’t create a sustainable environment without them. From the way they use and recycle natural resources to the resources that they provide, animals have proven themselves optimal upcyclers.
Cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo – also known as “ruminants” – have the unique ability to upcycle by eating plants that humans can’t consume directly. Ninety-five percent of ruminant livestock feed consists of what would otherwise be wasted – such as human-inedible plants, by-products and leftover foodstuffs.1 The flexibility of livestock to consume leftovers from processing crops that we consume – for example wheat middlings from the wheat milling process or beet pulp that is leftover from producing sugar from sugar beets – adds resiliency to our food system.
As the current COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting, resiliency or the ability for a system to deal with unexpected shocks is critical. Many improvements can be made to our food system to improve its resiliency, but its clear livestock add in a layer of flexibility with their ability to upcycle what would be waste, into food and fiber items of worth to humanity.
Alternative protein: a drop in the bucket
While many people have switched to plant-based diets, at least in part to try and reduce climate impact, the truth is that we can’t eat our way out of climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, all livestock make up 14.5% of global gas emissions2. During this current time of less travel in the midst of COVID-19, we’ve witnessed a noticeable decrease in global greenhouse gas emissions. While our human footprint has changed, food animal operations have remained relatively the same. This fits with what we already know – that if U.S. animal agriculture was eliminated, we would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6% in the U.S. and 0.36% globally.3
Removing animals from the equation isn’t the solution, and it would also result in more deficiencies of essential nutrients and cause an imbalance in our food ecosystem. To make a meaningful impact, our opportunity as an industry is not to cease operation but to improve how we operate
At the end of the day, switching to alternative protein is not like switching from fossil fuel to renewable energy (e.g., from a gas-run car to an electric vehicle). Not only would it have a negligible impact on emissions reduction, it could cause harm to our long-term health.
So, what role does agriculture play in solving sustainability issues? It boils down to this: if we take care of our animals, they will take care of us.
Improving animal health is better for animals, people and the planet. Advances in better animal health in the developed world are some of the key drivers of improved efficiency in animal agriculture, which means more human food produced with fewer natural resources required. For example, compared to 1975, we can produce the same amount of beef today in the U.S. with 36% fewer cattle.5
Editor’s note: Dr. Sara Place is the Chief Sustainability Officer at Elanco. Prior to Elanco, she was the senior director for sustainable beef production research at the National (U.S.) Cattlemen’s Beef Association and an assistant professor in sustainable beef cattle systems at Oklahoma State University. She received her PhD in Animal Biology from the University of California, Davis, a BS in Animal Science from Cornell University, and an AAS in Agriculture Business from Morrisville State College (U.S).