Exploring the polarizing public perception of sustainability. Article by Laura Handke.
Lincoln, Nebraska – Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Ph.D., director of AgNext and professor in the department of animal science at Colorado State University, kicked off the Cattlemen’s Profit Roundup symposium at the American Gelbvieh Association national convention with a presentation around the emotional and scientific struggle that has become the platform for sustainability.
“First and foremost, we have to acknowledge that the space of sustainability is highly political; it’s polarizing,” Stackhouse-Lawson says. “It’s also difficult to get your arms around, and some of that is because emotion and science are parallel in sustainability, and if you ever have
a question of whether it’s science or emotion that wins, unfortunately, it’s always emotion,” she says.
Another challenging element of sustainability: everyone defines it differently. The most common way to define the group of principles is through a balanced approach of the measures of social, economic and environmental aspects, however, most impose their own parameters when arriving at a definition.
“In the last four or five years, we’ve really seen sustainability evolve into a science that works on eliminating risk from a business or supply chain – a corporate risk mitigation strategy,” she says, adding that to understand sustainability from this perspective, the conversation has to shift to climate change.
“I want to demonstrate what risk looks like through the lens of climate,” Stackhouse-Lawson says. “Risk exists in two forms in this conversation: reputation and access to capital.”
Showing a slide of protestors demonstrating outside of a European OSI Group beef patty plant, Stackhouse-Lawson admonished the room, “It’s getting closer. The caption of this slide reads: ‘Protestors blocked four McDonald’s sites across England on Saturday, demanding the fast food chain to switch to plant-based products by 2025.’ OSI is one-step removed from McDonalds. These attacks are coming closer and closer to the supply chain,” she said.
If public reputation smears aren’t enough, the next slide presented an article clipping from prominent finance magazine, “The Guardian,” warning that European-based banks were confronting regulation to not invest in high greenhouse emitting industries, especially targeting animal agriculture.
“These regulations aren’t going to go away. Many of you may have read about COP26 and the Biden administration’s commitment to reduce net emissions by 30 percent by 2030,” she says. “Approximately 30 percent of methane emissions that we produce in the U.S. come from enteric emissions. We own a relatively large piece of this methane pie.”
The Sixth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that we can expect to see near one and a half to two degrees Celsius warming, with many scientists and climate experts reporting that our climate impacts are irreversible. Additionally, the International Panel on Climate Change stated that if we are going to curb temperature, we have to stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere…zero emissions.
“This is one of those head shaking moments,” Stackhouse-Lawson says. “It doesn’t seem very feasible or practical, but that is where the climate scientists are at.”
There are three greenhouse gas emissions that are important in animal agriculture: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, and each one of those molecules has a different ability to trap heat. CO2 has the least ability. Methane is 28 times more potent than CO2, and nitrous oxide is 298 times more potent than CO2 in trapping atmospheric heat.
Of the man-made greenhouse gases in the United States, carbon dioxide is responsible for approximately 80 percent of our emissions, methane is responsible for approximately 10 and nitrous oxide is responsible for approximately seven. Of those percentages, agriculture contributes 10 percent, and as a sector, animal agriculture contributes 3.8 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Both livestock and crop cultivation have increased in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990, 8.5 and 21 percent, respectively—numbers that make sense given the increased number of livestock animals and increased crop production.
Footprint is Different than Absolute Emissions
“Six months ago, I could have come up here and only talked about footprint, but because we’ve seen an increased focus on greenhouse gas emissions, we need to talk about total emissions and footprints,” Stackhouse-Lawson says.
Footprint is the entire system pulled together, divided by the output.
“The most efficient beef producing countries have the lowest carbon footprint, even though the total amount of greenhouse gases those systems produce are the highest,” she says, “We are producing more food with less of an impact. We have an important story to tell.”
Stackhouse-Lawson says that even though the beef industry has done an exceptional job of reducing the overall footprint, the industry needs to stay vigilant with total emissions.
“The cow-calf sector is responsible for 70 percent of the greenhouse gas footprint of the entire beef sector,” she says. “Why? Because of the enteric methane that cows produce. The longer the carbohydrate chains are that a cow eats, the more enteric methane she will produce. She’s also producing a calf every year. That complicates things pretty quickly. How do we reach all 750,000 cow-calf producers in the U.S. and figure out what we can do on each of those very, very different ranches to reduce those emissions?”
GWP* (star), a result of 2017 research from Oxford University, is a new way to measure the impact of a molecule of methane based on the fact that methane is a short-lived climate gluten; it breaks down the CO2 and water, leaving the CO2 to be consumed by plants. This new measurement method will reward an efficient beef system.
“This is good for the U.S. beef herd as long as our emissions stay the same. As an industry, we’re expecting our impact on temperature to decrease once the EPA accepts this new scoring model,” she says.
Adding that one thing that is never included in the emission models, however, is the fact that not only do our livestock graze marginal land, those rangelands also store 20 percent of soil organic carbon.
“The best thing that we can do right now is keep our grass right-side up,” Stackhouse-Lawson says. “Cattle can become an even greater part of the (climate change) solution by increasing soil carbon sequestration.”
The American Gelbvieh Association is a progressive beef cattle breed association representing 1,100 members and approximately 40,000 cows assessed annually in a performance-oriented total herd reporting system.