David Cleary: Deforestation and habitat loss in the Amazon and beyond

David Cleary: Deforestation and habitat loss in the Amazon and beyond

David Cleary, director of global agriculture at The Nature Conservancy, discusses the institution’s three main sustainability goals: to reduce deforestation, increase soil health and promote water conservation. Learn what these three goals mean for climate change, habitat conservation, regenerative agriculture and the recent fires in the Amazon.

The following is an edited transcript of David Butler’s interview with David Cleary. Click below to hear the full audio.

Interviewer:  I’m here with David Cleary, director of global agriculture for the Nature Conservancy. Welcome, David.

David:             It’s a pleasure to be here.

Interviewer:  Thank you very much. Tell us a little bit about what your role entails.

David:             Sure. Basically, three things. We have agriculture programs in about 40 countries around the world, so my first and most important job is to support those programs to help them grow their capacity, help fund-raise for them, and also to have them sort of, more or less, flying information around a shared definition of what sustainability and agriculture means. I represent the organization and voice our opinions on topics relevant to agriculture. That’s the main reason why I’m here at this particular event. I also help to manage some of the global-level relationships relevant to our agriculture work in both the private and the public sector — so large agribusiness companies that operate on a global scale, but also organizations like the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the Gates Foundation, institutions that have an important role to play within the global ag space that we’d like to try and have conversations with and, occasionally, try to influence.

Interviewer:  You said that the Nature Conservancy has agriculture programs in how many countries?

David:             Around about 30.

Interviewer:  Okay, so what goes on at the country level? What do your programs do?

David:             Well, we have three areas of focus. One is trying to reduce and eliminate deforestation and habitat conversion from supply chains. We also have a soil program, trying to avoid soil erosion but also manage soils and increase soil health. The third area of focus is around water, water conservation and water quality, so dealing with agriculture so that it has the least possible impact and the most efficient possible use of water around the world.

Interviewer:  Great! That sounds like very important work, really.

David:             Very important and very challenging, sometimes.

Interviewer:  Yeah. You’ve spent a lot of your career — you’ve been at the Nature Conservancy a pretty long time, right?

David:             It wasn’t deliberate, but that’s how it’s turned out, yeah.

Interviewer:  You’ve spent a lot of your career there focused on Brazil. Is that right?

David:             Mm-hmm, Brazil and Latin America, more broadly.

Interviewer:  Okay, so what are some of the biggest challenges there? I can guess one of them.

David:             Well, Brazil is a big country, so wherever you are, the challenges are slightly different. I think the biggest challenge that I dealt with the time I was living there was around deforestation and commodity supply chains, especially in the soy and the beef industry. We’ve actually been very successful over the last 10 to 15 years in reducing deforestation in the Amazon, way below where it used to be. I’d say you have an increasing problem now in various parts of Brazil with water use. We’ve already been able to see some changes in rainfall patterns probably linked to climate change. We’ve also, I think, in different parts of Brazil, got issues around soil loss and soil health. Brazil is an extremely efficient agricultural producer. It’s a massive supply of agricultural commodities to the global market, but in some ways, that grain complex, an oil seed complex that drives that, have got some vulnerabilities on the soil and the water front.

Interviewer:  And is most of the erosion there related to large quantities of rainfall? Are a lot of the farmers there using no-till?

David:             No-till is really common in Brazil. It’s been taken up by wildfire, actually, over the last 10 or 15 years. Brazil is a tropical climate, so you do have quite violent rain. That’s just part of the natural cycle there, but I think what’s happened is that quite a lot of habitat has been cleared in recent years to be able to expand the agricultural, the planted area there, and quite often, that’s loosened root structures, and it’s made soil erosion a problem in some places.

Interviewer:  Yeah. I’m sure there’s a massive amount of erosion right after the forests are cleared, right?

David:             Yeah, that’s absolutely right. You can see it very obviously on the landscape. It’s important just to flag, though, that, actually, most of the cropland area in Brazil, it’s expanded over grasslands rather than forests. The Amazon is by far the most famous part of Brazil outside Brazil, but the real engine of agricultural growth in Brazil has been, actually, more the Cerrado, which is a mix of savannah and woodland-type biome.

                        It’s rather similar to the U.S., actually. The history of U.S. agriculture is it expanded much more over grasslands than it did in forested areas, and that’s actually true of Brazil, too.

Interviewer:  Okay. Is that actually a bigger environmental problem than the rainforest deforestation?

David:             Well, it depends (on) what lens you want to view it through. If you’re worried about biodiversity, then forests are more of a problem because they have much higher levels of biodiversity. If you’re worried about climate change, probably, you’re going to be more worried about forests as well because, when you burn a forest, it releases more carbon, if you’re burning savannahs — but at the same time, we worry about all ecosystems, not just about forests. The Cerrado and grasslands, generally — the U.S. also — they’re a really important ecosystem. They have historically been incredibly important to human life both in agricultural terms and for ranging and livestock, so it’s really important, around the world, that rangelands and grasslands are kept in a good state. That’s always going to be a focus of our work.

Interviewer:  This episode was recorded in May 2019 at our ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, and it was a great conversation with David Cleary. But shortly after that, things went awry in the Amazon rainforest, and there were thousands and thousands of fires this summer. David was nice enough to get on the phone with us today and give us a little update about where we are, how much damage was done, and what does the future look like for the Amazon.

David:             Thank you, David. Well, yes, you’re right. Things have gone awry. The background to that is that the Brazilian government essentially signaled to the farming and ranching sectors in the Amazon that they weren’t going to spend a huge amount of time or effort chasing down people who didn’t have the requisite deforestation permits to clear land.

                        What we’ve been able to verify so far is an uptick, quite a strong uptick, in fire activity. It’s important you understand what we know and what we don’t know. What we do know is there’s a lot more fire activity in the Amazon. What we don’t know is the size of the land areas that those fires are clearing. We don’t know that because the smoke and the clouds at this time of year make it very difficult for us to get reliable satellite data. But what happened is we’re at the end of the year, and at the end of the year, we’ll know what the deforestation figures are.

                        Now, I know the figures that you’ve seen in the media are quite dramatic. There definitely has been a significant increase in fire activity, but there’s a lot of other factors in the mix as well. I mean, if the rains come early, that dampens it down. It’s not necessarily true that a large increase in fire activity in the Amazon is going to result in that level of increase in deforestation. It could be more; it could be less. We won’t know until the end of the year. What I think we can say is that, even with the quite strong uptick of deforestation in the Amazon, it will be bad in comparison with last year, but it’s still going to be at a level that, historically, is not as bad as it was about ten years ago. It’s bad news, but it’s not devastating yet.

Interviewer:  What do you see for the remainder of President Bolsonaro’s term? Do you expect that this is going to be an ongoing thing year after year? Will it accelerate? I know that conversations or messages from the G7 to him didn’t work very well this summer. How can we engage with Brazil to slow this down?

David:             Well, I think it’s pretty interesting, what happened, because I think the strong international reaction to the fires in the Amazon really put the Brazilian government on the back foot. It was very clear that they weren’t expecting such a strong reaction. It wasn’t just the environmental NGOs and the Greenpeaces of this world that were very critical. A lot of the companies that invest in Brazil and are active in the agricultural sector were also critical.

                        Brazil depends upon those companies, and the agribusiness sector in general is an incredibly important and thriving part of its economy. So, to the extent that Brazil makes life more difficult for its big agribusiness sector, and because it’s an exporting economy, an agricultural commodity-exporting economy, it could do without the sort of damage to its image that the Amazon fires do. I think the government understands that better now. There are actually parts of the Brazilian government that always understood that very well. The Agriculture Ministry, for example, is run by an extremely competent woman who was very active in saying that, “No, no, this is not the way for us to be going.”

                        I think you did point to the sort of diversity of opinion even within the Brazilian government. In fact, there are different power centers within it. I’d be quite optimistic that, next year, perhaps, learning a little bit from this experience, we’ll find the government and the private sector and the farmers making more of an effort to combat the damage that was done. There was clearly damage.

Interviewer:  Well, that sounds good. I hope that we can find a good way to go forward and not lose all the progress that we made over the last decade or more. At this point, we’ll rejoin our previous interview in which you talk about how all that progress was made. Thanks for joining us again today, David. I really appreciate it.

David:             It was a pleasure.

Interviewer:  You mentioned that there’s been a lot of progress in reducing deforestation in the Amazon. What were some of the things that were successful there?

David:             Both private and public initiatives played a role. On the public side, you have, actually, very good regulatory framework for agriculture. Farmers in the Amazon have to keep 80% of the land holding in native vegetation, so that’s already a good thing, a high bar to be able to work from. The government also recognized deforestation is a problem, and it had targeted strategies to crack down on it where in the bits of the Amazon they could see that deforestation was increasing.

                        Technology really improved over the last 20 years to the point that you could really pinpoint where the problem was, and that made it much easier to target policing actions, but it wasn’t just a sort of top-down regulatory approach. There was also, I think, a recognition on many market actors that there’s plenty of land that’s already cleared that you could expand soy over. There was also an understanding, I think, that there was consumer resistance to deforestation because the soy and beef that was being produced, significant amounts of that were exported to Europe. There was also, I think, a feeling among the big global traders that had their presence there that they had a reputation or risk here as well, so it was a kind of perfect storm of coming together of both the public and private initiatives that drove the deforestation levels down. It’s worth saying by how much: Fifteen years ago, it was about 30,000 square kilometers a year. Right now, it bumps along between 5,000 and 8,000 kilometers, so very, very significant reduction.

Interviewer:  That is a big difference, yeah. How is that effort working on the savannah areas?

David:             Well, it’s sort of like a catch-22 because, the way the geography of Brazil is, is you have the forest in the north. In the center of Brazil, you have the grasslands, the Cerrado. From our standpoint as a conservation organization, it’s not a win if we’re successful in reducing deforestation in the Amazon but all that does is displace that pressure for habitat conversion into the grasslands of the Cerrado. That has actually not happened. The dynamics are slightly different in the different regions.

                        Right now, we’re in a situation where, for the last three years, habitat conversion levels in the Cerrado have been very low. Six or seven years before that, they were really booming. A lot of the Cerrado was converted and, right now, we’re in a situation where we have about half of the Cerrado in native vegetation; the other half is under agricultural or pasture. There’s a very large amount of pasture that’s not particularly productive — probably about 20 million hectares in total that you could expand cropland over. So, at least in theory, you can see a future sweet spot where you have cropland expanding over pasture and pasture intensifying. That would make a lot of economic sense. Of course, there’s many a slip between cup and lip, and you can see that in theory, but actually, having that land-use pattern develop is a complicated thing, but that’s what we’re working towards there.

Interviewer:  Some of the areas that have been in agriculture the longest, do they suffer from soil degradation, loss of fertility, possibly partly because of the heavy rainfall?

David:             Well, that’s a hard question to answer because if you pull out globally and just do a quick look around the world, there are places that have had agriculture in place literally for millennia with reasonable soil quality being maintained throughout that period. There are parts of Southeast Asia, for example, that you’ve got these smallholder, peasant farming systems that use a very intensive — they use manure a lot, and they have maintained really excellent soil quality. That’s because, on the whole, there are fairly stable systems, and they’re in fairly stable market context.

                        What’s destabilizing for soil is when you have a sudden expansion of demand and intensification of production that the natural ecosystem of the soil in that particular area can’t support. There are many places around the world where you can point to that kind of dynamic having happened as well. There’s no hard and fast rule, I think. You can certainly generate what the basic principles of good soil management are and apply them pretty much anywhere and it’s going to improve your situation if you’re in one of those stress systems.

Interviewer:  Yeah. Is there a movement to try to use regenerative agriculture techniques like no-till?

David:             Yeah. No-till, cover cropping, there’s a whole range of systems. I think whatever agricultural system you’re in — whether it’s a system that’s typical of, like, the U.S. or the Brazilian corn and soy belt, very high productivity, industrial agriculture, or a smallholder system like you could find in Africa or Southeast Asia — good soil management is a basic principle of success in all of those different agricultural systems. That’s why it’s really strategic for us to focus on it, because it doesn’t really matter what scale of agriculture you’re in; basic soil management is going to be important, too, so it’s an across-the-board strategy for us.

Interviewer:  Okay. Let’s step back up to the global level that you’re focused on. When you look at agriculture as a whole internationally, what do you see with regard to greenhouse gas emissions? That’s a trickier thing to measure at the local level, right?

David:             Yeah. Well, we know a lot about what the patterns of greenhouse gas emissions around agriculture are, and I think we can make some pretty secure assumptions moving forward based around what we know about population growth rates and also consumption, patterns of consumption in developing countries as they transition from developing status to developed. I think China is a really good example of what you can expect; the country, a generation ago, was poor. I have colleagues in China who talk to me about their siblings who — they remember famine conditions when they were children. China today is a totally transformed country: much higher levels of income, much higher levels of protein consumption, protein demand, rather, so we can expect a world where hundreds of millions of people are transitioning into a middle-class lifestyle with all of these demand patterns that are involved.

                        For agriculture, I think the really big question on the climate change standpoint is you’re going to have a big increase in demand for protein. As we know, enteric fermentation is the second-biggest source of greenhouse gasses after land conversion, so if you have the huge increase in protein demand that we expect, that’s got implications. The agriculture could increase overall, in absolute terms, its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a really important problem for the industry to be thinking about, the solutions to it. There’s different range, a very large range of potential solutions to it, but it’s really important that people understand, I think, within the industry, that the development pattern that we’re on, which we have to manage, too — I don’t think it’s possible to do more than bend the curve of development of the margins. It’s very difficult to go to countries like China and Brazil and say, “No, you can’t be achieving the same levels of consumption and development of the U.S. and Western Europe.” That’s not going to happen, but I think, with the combination of wider understanding within the agriculture industry of how critical this is, and also science and ingenuity, which has always been really important in agricultural history as well, I’m reasonably optimistic that we can make progress.

Interviewer:  Can you drill down on a couple of the tools that we might put into place there?

David:             There are a lot of things around soil management that you can do that reduce carbon emissions. There’s a lot of work that you can do around reducing the emissions intensity of livestock production. We’re going to be diving into, I think, some of that work during this conference (ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference). There’s also a lot that you can do around managing fertilizer, which is an important contributor here as well.

                        But most critically of all, I think we can think about ways that we can intensify agriculture without expanding its geographical footprint into a natural habitat because, if you look at the numbers, that’s the single biggest contributor of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions. It’s the expansion of the geographical footprint of agriculture. If food demand increases by 70% or 100% or whatever it is — we know it’s going to be a big number — there is no way that we can do that by expanding 70% or 100% the area that we farm or the area that we graze. We absolutely have to intensify our production systems but do that in a way that doesn’t increase the environmental impact of those systems. It’s hard, but I think there are some places around the world that you can point to where this is happening to a significant extent already.

Interviewer:  What do you sense as the mood in the room, sort of, when you talk to large agribusiness companies and you talk to governments? Do you think they’re excited about digging into this challenge, or are they helpful or optimistic or pessimistic?

David:             That’s a hard question to answer because I think it depends on who you’re talking to. If I could make some very dangerous generalizations, I’d say that I think the CEO level of ag companies in the agribusiness sector, they get how climate change is important. They’re faced with two problems. One is their obligation is to their shareholders, and a lot of the short-term impact of what you need to do to address climate change is not necessarily going to be positive for your bottom line, so there’s that tension between the short-term time horizon that many companies have to manage to and the medium- to long-term nature of the impacts of climate change.

                        The other problem, I think, that the private sector often faces is that you have — the world food system and the agribusiness companies within it are very large and complicated organizations, and it’s like trying to change, the proverbial changing the direction of a supertanker. It’s a difficult thing to do and it takes time and one has to be patient about it, but at the same time, there’s a limit to the patience that we can have here given the urgency of some of the problems that we face.

                        In governments, I think there’s much greater variety compared to market actors and how they look at climate change and the urgency that they feel. I think the European governments, to take one example, feel the urgency of climate change a great deal, and that’s because they’re reflecting, I think, the greater level of concern about that among European electorates. You don’t see that same level of concern in developing countries, for obvious reasons; they have very pressing social and economic issues that they have to address, and they regard those as more politically important in the short term than the longer-term issues that swirl around climate change. I completely get where they’re coming from on that, but that’s basically the picture of where we are.

Interviewer:  Well, let’s talk about a couple of specific governments, maybe. The president in Brazil has just rolled back a lot of environmental regulations there. Are you afraid that that might undermine a lot of the progress that you’ve made?

David:             Well, I broadened it out because I think that Brazil and the United States are a really interesting compare-and-contrast right now. There’s also, in the U.S., been a rollback of a lot of environmental regulations. There are some similarities, I think, with the view of the world that both President Trump and President Bolsonaro have. I think what you’ll find in Brazil, and I think what we’ve seen in the U.S., is that the president can try and do things and set a certain tone, but Brazil and the U.S. both have quite strong institutions.

                        You will, I think, see a lot of the things that President Bolsonaro was attempting to do end up in court in the same way as things in the U.S. are ending up in court. Brazil has a very strong judicial system. It will take a while for things to work themselves out. I know there’s a lot of coverage, all the media coverage about all of the things that could happen and might happen. I suspect that what actually will happen is actually a lot less than some people are thinking, because those institutions are going to come into play and, I think, to a significant extent, moderate what President Bolsonaro is thinking about doing. I think you’re probably going to see the same or have seen the same dynamic in the U.S. as well.

Interviewer:  Tell me a little bit about this online tool that you’ve created for mapping out soybean production in Brazil.

David:             Sure. As I’ve referred to, a critical question for the long-term sustainability of agriculture in the Cerrado is encouraging soy and other grains and oil seeds to expand over land that’s already been cleared instead of directly into native habitat. So, companies and other market actors, they might want to do that, but they’d face the challenge of, “Well, where would it be most economic for me to do that?” That’s partly a question of what your environmental conditions are, what your topography is, what your precipitation ratio is, what your soil conditions are like, but it’s also a question of economics — like, what are your transport costs going to be like, what’s the yield history of this particular area, what yields can I expect, how much fertilizer am I going to need, all those kinds of questions.

                        What Agroideal does — and I should emphasize that Nature Conservancy put the system together, but the parameters of the system and what it’s meant to do was completely designed by the soy traders and the financial institutions in Brazil that have a direct interest in this and can actually really drive what happens. All we did was execute what they said they needed. Agroideal is a geospatial planning tool. It’s web-based. It’s free for anyone who wants to use it. It allows you to zoom in on particular regions within the Cerrado. It covers the whole of the Cerrado. It’s also, by the way, being expanded to Chaco in Argentina and Paraguay. It layers different categories of information — environmental, social, economic — and it allows the user to model different potential scenarios. So, I put a silo here or if I build a road spur over there or a railway in here, how can I do that in a way that minimizes soy expansion into native habitat and maximizes expansion over land that’s already been cleared? It’s a tool that allows market actors to be able to play with different scenarios and have that influence where they site their infrastructure in a way that channels cropland expansion over cleared land, over pasture, usually, rather than into native vegetation.

Interviewer:  That’s fantastic. Well, let’s talk a little bit about resiliency. You mentioned that as one of your global focuses.

David:             Well, the first thing to say about resilience is, it’s kind of difficult to define. Scientists tie themselves up in knots trying to define it and map it, but you can recognize it when you see it. It’s like good art: difficult to define but easy to see when you’re walking around the landscape.

                        I’d say there are two really important points to make. One is that you can make all agricultural systems, whatever scale they are, more resilient. You often hear debates about, “Well, this particular system is more resilient than that particular system.” Well, that might be true, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t increase the resilience of all systems. The other thing, I think, that’s really important to understand is that, in order to increase the resilience of your system, it’s going to make sense for you to be sharing your agricultural landscape at least a little bit with natural habitat, because natural habitat plays a huge role in buffering the environmental impacts of agriculture. That’s true even in a largely converted landscape like the U.S. Corn Belt, for example.

                        Provided you’ve got patches of native vegetation buffering your field edges, provided you’re doing things like cover cropping and trying to do what you can to increase the variety of the agricultural system that you’re using — intercropping, whatever it is — you’re going to be more resilient than you would be if you weren’t doing it.

                        Now, if you’re in a smallholder system in Africa, say, or Southeast Asia or China, you’re going to be probably more resilient in the sense that you’ve got lots of different crops instead of just one or two, often, in a really small area — but at the same time, you’ve got bigger population and growth. You’ve got urgent demands for production, and that can also undermine the resilience of your system, because you’re over-intensifying, basically. The strategies that you would use in different settings vary depending on the nature of the system, but in general, don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Diversify as much as you can. Make sure you’ve got some native habitat around to be buffering the impacts of what you’re doing.

                        I think it’s easy to talk about it in the abstract. It’s often good to be citing some concrete examples. My favorite example is actually what, on the surface, looks like one of the most vulnerable, politically unstable parts of the world for farmers, and that’s Sahel. That’s the area just south of the Sahara Desert as it transitions into West Africa. In the last 10 to 15 years, specifically in Mali and Niger, countries which had all sorts of political problems, you’ve had this extremely impressive agroforestry movement, where thousands and thousands of small farmers have implemented a system that’s known in the trade as farmer-managed natural regeneration. It involves using a lot of different tree species to intersperse with their cropping. Some of the tree species have direct economic use, some of them don’t, but they all have an important role in helping to shield cropping from the effects of drought and increasing yield. You look at satellite photos of that part of the world, compare them, what they are, compare them today with what that part of the world looked like 20 years ago. It’s much greener today, so there are examples of success stories. It’s not just a story of “what a terrible problem, and it’s really difficult to do anything about it.”

Interviewer:  Yeah. Well, that’s really exciting that they’re seeing increased yield from that practice. Do you know if there are upfront costs that they have before they can switch to a practice like that, and how can we overcome those upfront costs?

David:             There are upfront costs. The upfront costs are quite modest. It’s a fairly low-tech solution compared to what you might be using in other parts of the world. Those costs have been funded by a combination of governments getting behind it, agriculture research institutes and extension agents getting behind it, so a lot of experimentation on what particular species would be good that was done within CGIAR network, which is a UN-funded network of agricultural research institutes. A lot of non-governmental organizations also played a really important role in bankrolling some of the costs, so lots of different people got involved.

                        The critical thing, I think, is that this was a low-tech solution. There were costs, but they weren’t crippling. And even within the context of the fairly poor, hardscrabble farming that most of these villages were in, it was realistic. With appropriate external help, they were able to scale it up to the level that it’s reached today.

Interviewer:  I imagine that Nature Conservancy works to try to spread practices like that.

David:             Yeah. Funnily enough, we can’t claim any credit here because we actually don’t have a program in West Africa. Our programs are in East Africa in Africa. It’s very much the type of thing that we try to encourage, building resiliency, but also when we’re looking at it, not just trying to import expensive external solutions that just aren’t a realistic proposition for the realities on the ground and the places that we’re trying to influence.

Interviewer:  A similar kind of practice, I think, is silvopasture, where you mix forests and livestock pasture. Where do you see that taking off in parts of the world?

David:             Actually, that is one of the areas we work very directly with in Colombia and also in Argentina. You do see it taking off, yeah. It’s really impressive to see some of the transformations it’s been able to cause on the ground. I would introduce one note of caution, which I think is not just with agro-silvopastoral systems, but across the board, is that, sometimes, the impacts are really spectacular, especially in places that have been badly degraded. It’s extraordinary how quickly areas can come back when they’re well-managed, and these systems are really good at doing that.

                        Agriculture is always about context. It’s the most contextual thing that there is, and what works in one valley might not work in the next valley along, so it’s important not to get too evangelical and oversell any individual strategy. I think sometimes that happens with agro-silvopastoral systems. People try and say it’s a silver bullet when, in fact, we’re in a world where it’s silver buckshot. I think it’s really useful. We work with it directly. We find, especially in Colombia and Argentina, it’s really made a huge contribution, but it’s one of lots of solutions that we need to be thinking about and implementing.

Interviewer:  Well, it’s exciting that there are some very low-tech solutions like this that are helping farmers put carbon back into the soil and into the forests.

David:             Yeah, although I would say also, I’m not knocking for the high-tech solutions either, because I think one of the really interesting things about American agriculture right now is that you look at the digital technologies that are coming out and the extraordinary way that they can transform how we manage water, for example, how we’re able to target inputs in a really efficient way so that we can, for example, know exactly when we ought to be applying fertilizer, exactly where, and that kind of input efficiency is also really important in being able to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture while increasing yields.

                        I think one of the really fascinating questions that we’ll be working out over the next 10 or 20 years is the U.S., in particular, it’s always been this engine of technological innovation that’s always led the way in thinking about the appliance of science. It’s really had an extraordinary impact on the productivity of American agriculture. Now, if we could get those, even a fraction of those productivity gains in places like Africa or in Southeast Asia, we’d be well on the way to solving the problems that the world food system faces.

                        One of the great challenges, I think, is how can we translate those technologies and bring the promise that digital agriculture offers to very different settings, where you have farmers who are, on the whole, poor; on the whole, can’t afford the level of investment that American farmers can to access these technologies; and, on the whole, don’t have much of a digital education. These technologies are complicated, and a farmer who doesn’t have much education is going to have trouble applying them. You don’t have, in Kenya or Tanzania, this ecosystem of service providers that you have in the U.S., but when you think about the need to increase the productivity of agriculture while minimizing its environmental impacts, these technologies can be incredibly transformative. How you can get them working at a scale in a smallholder farming context, where you have poor farmers and not so much capital to invest — that, I think, is one of the great unanswered questions of the next generation. If we answer it, I think we’ll be a long way towards cracking the kind of questions that we’ve been discussing today.

Interviewer:  That’s very exciting, and I like your concept of silver buckshot.

David:             It’s not my phrase, by the way. I have to acknowledge Jon Foley, who’s the president of the California Association of Science, who came up with that.

Interviewer:  Well, thank you very much, David. It was great talking to you.

David:             Yeah, it was a great pleasure. Thanks a lot.

Interviewer:  Thanks.

Robynne Anderson: Changing agricultural policy on a global scale

Robynne Anderson: Changing agricultural policy on a global scale

As climate change becomes a larger issue, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and finding ways to sequester carbon in farm and food production is more important than ever. Robynne Anderson discusses her experience providing businesses with sustainable solutions as president of Emerging Ag, the international consulting firm for agriculture.

The following is an edited transcript of David Butler’s interview with Robynne Anderson. Click below to hear the full audio.


David:                Hi, Robynne. How are you today?

Robynne:          Great to see you, David.

David:                Thanks! Tell us a little bit about Emerging Ag and what you do.

Robynne:          Well, it’s a company that’s spread out around the globe. There are 22 of us on the team, and we work on agricultural policy, really, at a global level. So, whether that means working with agricultural trade associations or individual companies or farmer groups or agricultural scientists, we try and make sure the voice of agriculture gets heard in the context of the United Nations and other venues where people are talking about how you set agricultural policy.

David:                Okay. That sounds pretty exciting, and you must be doing a pretty good job, because I know that you are in the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Robynne:          Oh, thank you. Yes, it was a great honor. Yes, my life is very exciting for a girl who grew up in a small town in Dugald, Manitoba, on a farm. I did not expect to get to see so much of the world, and I find that agriculture is just a great unifying part of a lens with which to see the world because, when you get out on to farms, whether it’s in Africa or Asia or any other part of the world, there is something about farming that might be done differently. They might be growing different crops, but there’s something about the reality of being from a farm that’s kind of the same. It’s practical. The weather is still a big factor. It’s hard work, and those communities are very welcoming.

David:                Yeah. You mentioned that weather is a big factor, and of course, that’s always been true for farming. There are all sorts of uncertainties around the weather and lots of different variables, which make it very challenging, and it seems like, more and more, that’s an even bigger problem, with extreme weather events around the globe. What are you seeing that’s a serious challenge for farmers?

Robynne:          Well, weather has undoubtedly, as you said, always been one of the toughest parts of farming, and it always seems that the rain never comes when you need it or comes too much. That’s been the case in our farm a bit lately, but everybody feels this change from the norm. There used to be patterns; it was always variable, but now, even the sense of the way the seasons work, it really does seem to be changing quite a bit.

                             I was in Kenya for much of the month of March, and their rain season would normally have started about mid-March. I left at the end of the month, and it still had not started. The rains have started to come now, but weeks behind schedule. Really, you get that sense — and for us on our farm in Canada, you see more and more flooding pressure, year on year on year. It’s no longer just once every 40 or 50 years that you’re feeling that the Red River is going to swallow you up. It’s a changing world, and I think this is what is giving extra credence to a discussion that scientists started many years ago, saying something is afoot. We are having too big an impact on our environment.

David:                Yeah, and that certainly seems to be true. Because extreme weather and climate change are becoming a bigger and bigger issue, it’s very important to look at what we can do to mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions in every industry, not just agriculture, and you spent some time looking at that. So, what do you see that’s promising? What are some opportunities we have to do that?

Robynne:          Well, here at Alltech, there was an awesome panel, and I was really lucky to be on it with a set of others who were working on all very different aspects of that. Part of what I was talking about specifically is that anything that we do in our businesses, we need to measure. We would never go into a sales program and not know what our target was and what our sales figure was and what our cost of delivering that product would be. We wouldn’t be in business otherwise.

                             The same applies, really, if we want to take climate change seriously. That means looking at how we are measuring inside our individual businesses. One of the gentlemen on the panel was talking about actually pricing in carbon into their business planning and in terms of their internal budgeting, but what I was talking about also is the need for the sector as a whole to be engaged in measurement. I use a particular example of the Global Dairy Platform, which has helped to set up the Dairy Sustainability Framework. Now, about 30% of the milk sector, total volume of milk, is actually reporting in through this framework, so that’s a really big jump forward, and it’s not just about climate change.

                             Climate change is incredibly important, but if we’re only looking at it from an agricultural perspective on greenhouse gas emissions, I think we’re missing the range of things that we need to be involved in, and that includes looking at water and are we drawing down too much or are we polluting it on the way out. These are very concrete, measurable things, and by reporting in together, we can begin to understand what’s happening and actually have a conversation about what needs to be done.

                             One thing that we saw that really surprised a lot of people is that the assumption is that greenhouse gas emissions are highest from dairy production in the developed world — an idea that large, intensive farms would be naturally more polluting — but, in fact, the efficiency of those productions shows that OECD countries have been consistently dropping their greenhouse gas emission rates, and they’re really quite low. They’re not down to zero, but they’re really quite low, whereas in developing countries, where animals may go a dry season without being able to be fully productive, all of the emissions-related intensities are actually much higher, because they don’t have that production efficiency.

                             That’s really important to understand, but I think it’s also very true that, if you consider the emission discussion, it’s great that dairy is down 11% in the past ten years in terms of how much carbon we’re releasing for every liter of milk we produce, but if you consider that the world still continues to need a total reduction in carbon, you have to be looking, in agriculture, to make use of agriculture’s great asset, because agriculture can also do carbon sinks. That is what we do, right? We grow stuff. We put carbon into the soil. We take carbon out of the air for those plants. The opportunity really does exist for all of us to be looking at a net-zero emission intensity, or below, because if we do the right things on our farms, we can get to that level so that we can grow the amount of milk we’re producing that’s needed in the world but do it in a way that isn’t actually helping to destroy the world through releasing too much greenhouse gas.

David:                Yeah. That opportunity that agriculture has is very exciting. Can you talk a little bit about some of the practices that can help sequester carbon?

Robynne:          Absolutely. If you’re thinking about a farm as having a land footprint, what kind of things are you growing on that land? Farmers can do concrete things, like plant more trees. A lot of farms actually already have trees around their houses to help protect them from weather, ironically, so what are you doing to put long-term crops? If you’re looking at the livestock sector, pasture is a great carbon sink — you managing that pasture well and protecting it. Also, if you think about the dairy sector, for instance, anaerobic digestion, manure management and sequestering that into a facility where you are actually producing renewable energy is an incredibly powerful part of reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of your farm.

                             Farms actually have a lot of lands, so whether your dairy barns have solar energy panels on the top of them; you’re using, perhaps, manure management; maybe you’re taking local food waste products and putting them in with your manure manager to further that energy production; you can look at a wind turbine on your farm — but farms really can get energy, neutral or renewable energy, sourced. Even some farms are now moving to actually put onto the grid renewable energy, which gives it a double whammy, and that’s how you can get to that negative footprint level. There’s just such an incredible opportunity of managing well, of using conservation tillage, of really thinking about how you are engineering that system.

                             The great thing is, at the promised end of that is actually the potential to earn some money from that energy you’re putting back into the grid, especially if you’re working in collaboration with others. There’s an opportunity for it not only to be the right thing to do, but to be a really good business decision.

David:                Yeah. When you’re talking about earning money, you’re talking about selling carbon credits to other businesses?

Robynne:          That is an opportunity, but I am thinking, actually, about putting electricity back onto a grid. You get paid for the electricity you generate, so that’s a clearer path to a business.

David:                Okay. I suppose electricity and energy use in general is kind of a small percentage of the carbon footprint from the farm, but a farm has the potential to generate much more electricity than that and offset nearby homes or businesses and balance the equation, right?

Robynne:          Exactly. Whether you’re making a compressed natural gas or a conventional electricity product, that is exactly the opportunity that farms have this resource available to them, because they have a land footprint. Now, you need to work collaboratively with your local electricity grid to be part of the renewable sources there. Some farms are working quite well together to achieve that. You see some of the cooperatives, for instance, in the dairy sector working together to get their members having a bulk-buy onto the grid, because getting access onto that grid is the challenge, but energy is actually quite a high input cost in a lot of farms. So, even if you got your electricity cost down in your own operation, that would be a big benefit, and then, to produce a surplus that you could actually use as a revenue stream is just one example of how you can really get to zero, because everybody says that’s impossible, but farms really have this unique opportunity — and especially how they manage their carbon sinks on their farms, as well.

David:                It would be fantastic if many more farms were at zero greenhouse gas emissions, because there’s so much negative publicity about the amount of greenhouse gasses that are produced on farms. You mentioned a little earlier that it’s very important to look at data. You had an example yesterday that shows it’s important to look at the data in multiple ways, when you were talking about the carbon output of New Zealand, Ireland, and the different ways you can look at that.

Robynne:          It is a strangely quirky thing that, when you look at a chart about greenhouse gas outputs, New Zealand and Ireland pop higher than countries like China and some other places that you would expect would have much higher greenhouse gas emission implications.

David:                And you’re saying from the dairy sector specifically, right?

Robynne:          That is the calculation — is because both of them are very effective dairy producers — that this is counting very high in what the proportion of their greenhouse gas emissions are. Does that mean that two countries that have a very moderate climate, perfectly adapted to dairying, that have beautiful grasslands, that are easily maintained through natural rainfall, aren’t the best place to produce milk? Really, what’s counting against them is they are such a good producer that they are exporting milk and serving the rest of the world, but because that production happens in their country, they carry 100% of those emissions, but if you went off and set up a dairy — and I’m going to pick an arbitrary country here — in Amman or in the middle of a desert somewhere, it is not going to be, probably, a more greenhouse gas-efficient or more environmentally sustainable solution because it’s happening in that other country, because you’re going to have to irrigate that land. You’re not going to have the same natural cycles. You might, potentially, have to provide cooling to those dairy cows to be productive, because they’re not used to that kind of heat.

                             The result will be, actually, potentially, a bad outcome if we don’t find ways to recognize where we produce things efficiently. The current discussions about climate change actually really hone in on a country’s responsibility for what they’re producing, and that makes a certain amount of sense, but when you’re talking about global trade — especially in food — it’s really important that we also find a way to make the right decisions globally, that we’re not turning over lands that are inappropriate for some things and making them into lands that are, therefore, being used. Because, as a Canadian farmer, I don’t think we’re going to be growing mangoes in Canada. We will have gone a long way down the climate change path if, suddenly, banana trees and tropical plants or mangoes are growing in the middle of Canada. We grow some other things really, really effectively, and I think you can see that paradigm potentially going in the wrong direction.

                             If I might just add one more thing to that, it’s really important to consider that, as we’re having more extreme weather, that trade becomes even more important. You just don’t know what’s going to hit where, who’s going to have a drought and who’s going to have a cyclone and who’s going to have a flood.

                             One of the things that the FAO produced recently was to talk about just how important global trade is going to be in food. It’s always been important, but it becomes our backup system to food security, and so, it is really important that we think about how to manage this in a way that the trade is actually encouraged and that the best, most ecologically sound producers are being encouraged to use it.

David:                Yeah. I’m sure it’s incredibly difficult to write global agreements or treaties on things like greenhouse gas emissions, and there’s certainly a potential for some inadvertent mistakes. When you’re looking at greenhouse gas emissions on an industry per-capita for a small country that excels in that industry, the number looks horrible, but if you look at it per liter or gallon of milk, it’s a completely different picture, right? So how do we tell that message and make sure that those decisions are being made in a sensible way that makes good policy for everybody?

Robynne:          Well, it is really challenging. I’ve had the opportunity to go to some of the UN climate change meetings or very large meetings. There’s a lot on the agenda. It’s a really complicated process. One thing they deserve a lot of credit for is that the climate change negotiations have really heard from NGOs and businesses and scientists alike, so it’s a space where having a serious conversation is possible. As we’ve moved to getting serious about national emissions, the inequities of this position become more clear, and it is possible to then say, “Okay, now we understand that. In a way, we didn’t understand it before,” and the agricultural sector has to be doing those numbers, has to be doing those measurements, so you can explain that the efficiency level on this is very high.

                             There are some dairy farms in America that are getting to zero, so it’s not impossible; it is actually really happening. You want to make sure that the discussions to advance our goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions don’t create perverse subsidies for the wrong sorts of actions. For instance, strangely, if you were to till under all that pasture and grassland in New Zealand or Ireland, you might argue that once they went back to pastureland, they would get a carbon credit for creating a carbon sink, but they would’ve done something that actually caused more release of carbon so that they could get the credits for doing it. So, we really want to find ways to talk about agricultural production that have the practical voice of farmers there and don’t lead countries to make decisions to hit numbers that actually lead to the wrong outcomes.

                             It is a complex piece of work to navigate that, but we didn’t get to climate change without doing a lot of complex things, so it’s going to take a fair amount of concerted effort to find a path forward.

David:                Yeah, good point. There’s certainly a lot of accounting and measurement that we need to do to make sure that we’re mitigating climate change, but it’s very important to get that right. If we think we’re doing everything we need to and we’re not making the right decisions, we’re in a lot of trouble.

Robynne:          We’ve just discussed the weather lately. I think we’re in some trouble, and now, it is really about the path to get out, but you don’t want to make the path to get out worse. Like anyone finding their way out of a forest, we’ll probably make a few wrong turns, but we want to at least be headed towards the edge of the forest, not going deeper in the other way.

David:                Are there things going on right now in the industry to try to help reduce emissions for low- and middle-income countries that have, traditionally, low productivity?

Robynne:          Some, but not remotely enough. It is a strange thing that agriculture receives very little of the global development budget. Only about 5% a year of all of the money that’s going into development assistance goes into agriculture, even though 80% of the people living in multidimensional poverty — which means that they live below $1.25 a day — they don’t have access to schools. They don’t have access to hospitals. They live in rural areas, so they’re farmers.

                             Eighty percent of the world’s most needy are in a rural context, and yet, only 5% of development money going to agriculture is already wrongheaded, and then, on top of that, if you consider that, of that 5%, only 4% goes to livestock. We’re talking about minute amounts of the development budgets going to important factors where they’re needed, and many communities in these areas actually have a very strong livestock tradition.

                             So, it’s really important that more gets done, but there are some things happening. There’s the International Livestock Research Institute, which is based in Kenya but operates quite globally in the developing country context. I have the good fortune to work with them on a number of things, but there are some really innovative things that they’ve been part of the leadership on. One of them is Indexed Livestock Insurance. If you’re in a situation where there’s a drought, there’s extreme weather, rather than doing what we’ve traditionally done — which is to say, “Here’s livestock insurance. We’re going to wait until that animal dies,” so your herd is wiped out and an entire community that might be based on that herd has had their lifestyle devastated; they’re perhaps nomadic, they’re in a situation that they have completely destabilized the population — instead of taking a look at overall weather trends, seeing that clearly there is a drought. The Indexed Livestock Insurance actually is meant to buy feed for those animals so that they are in a position to make sure that those animals don’t die. So, rather than waiting until a terrible outcome and suggesting that you can just buy back your loved one — if you were to use a hospital analogy right, you don’t treat them at all while they’re starving to death, but afterwards, you give a big payout for their death — you should do the opposite. You should get that assistance in.

                             It’s a really simple, concrete thing that, if you’re in agriculture, of course you should send in feed, but we’ve really struggled to get that kind of practical agricultural lens onto a lot of the interventions.

David:                That’s a really good analogy. It needs to be more like health insurance and less like car insurance, right?

Robynne:          Yes.

David:                All right. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Robynne. It was great talking to you.

Robynne:          Pleasure.

Robynne Anderson spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference. Sign up to hear other presentations from ONE19.


Brian Lowry: Implementing sustainable business practices in agriculture

Brian Lowry: Implementing sustainable business practices in agriculture

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. What are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and how can organizations implement sustainable business practices? Here, Brian Lowry, deputy general counsel at Bayer Crop Science U.S., gives his take on sustainability and the broad impact it can have on people, animals and the environment.

The following is an edited transcript of David Butler’s interview with Brian Lowry. Click below to hear the full audio.


David:            I’m here with Brian Lowry, deputy general counsel at Bayer Crop Science U.S. Welcome, Brian!

Brian:             Thank you. 

David:            In your role at Bayer, a lot of what you do is related to sustainability and making the company more sustainable, so tell me about some of the things that you think are very important in that area.

Brian:             Well, I think, when you look at sustainability, you have to understand that it is not a single deliverable; it is a dimensional deliverable that includes everything from human rights to environment to social responsibility to good governance rule of law. Sustainability cannot be defined in a consistent way for every single person. The Brundtland Report that came out back in 1980s actually gave what became the generally accepted definition, but we’ve moved quite a ways in those 30 years and, over time, we have found sustainability to be a much more dimensional challenge and opportunity.


David:            So, let’s talk a little bit about the UN’s Agenda 2030 that was rolled out in 2015 and what the implications are for that.

Brian:             Certainly. I oftentimes think of Agenda 2030 a little bit differently than some other people. Many folks look at Agenda 2030 as being coextensive with the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), which were, indeed, signed and adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in September of 2015. Agenda 2030 is indeed about the SDGs, but it’s also about other commitments and other activities that also went on in 2015.

                        During 2015, we actually had three other agreements come into place, all of which twist with the SDGs to create a very strong tug for Agenda 2030, which is a sustainability agenda for the world. Those other agreements include the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction; the Paris Accord on climate change, negotiated under the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change; of course, the SDGs; and the last would be the Addis Action Agenda, which is on financing for development, negotiated in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


David:            That’s a lot of stuff.

Brian:             That’s a lot of stuff. It’s a lot of reading, but there is a really interesting piece that weaves through all of those agreements, which is not always picked up when people talk about Agenda 2030. That interesting theme that weaves through all of them and that we see coming to the forefront in many discussions is a rights-based approach to sustainability and to the world. In each of those multilateral agreements — whether it’s an environmental agreement, like Climate; whether it’s a financing agreement, like the Addis Action Agenda — they all have a rights-based approach woven through it, and they all explicitly call out human rights and recognize the importance of a full realization of human rights for all people. These four agreements, when twisted together and create that tug, we will tug people out of poverty. We will tug the world into a better place. We will tug business into being more sustainable and more collaborative and actually earning the public trust that it so desperately needs.


David:            That’s exciting.

Brian:             I get a little bit excited about it, indeed.


David:            So, this is not the first time that the UN has set a big batch of goals like this. I think, maybe, in 1992, they rolled out Agenda —

Brian:             Agenda 21.


David:            Agenda 21, yeah.

Brian:             That was the Rio Conference, very focused on the environment.


David:            And how close did we get to those goals? These, of course, are very aspirational, right?

Brian:             You must have high ambition to make a difference. Doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. That’s not an original quote, I promise, but the fact is, Agenda 21 came out of Rio. The Agenda 2030 actually started many years before 2015, because agreements aren’t negotiated in one meeting, but it truly was Rio+20 where the governments and the civil society and the private sector all came together and said, “This is the world we want. This is where we’re headed.” It was from that negotiation and that document, “The world we want, with no one left behind,” that the Sustainability Development Goals were born.


David:            I guess, if you wanted to criticize those sorts of things, it would be based on maybe a cynicism that, “Oh, that’s crazy. That’s a pipedream,” but that doesn’t make it any less important to strive for something like that and push the needle and try to work for a better world for everyone.

Brian:             Absolutely. I think that cynicism is a real challenge for people in the developed world. When we wake up in the morning and we don’t turn the light off in our bathroom, we don’t really think about how that could impact the generation that we haven’t seen or people we’ll never see.

                        There are generations of people that will suffer or benefit from the actions we take today, and there are people we will never see and don’t see today that will benefit from the actions we take today. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that one person turning off a lightbulb in a bathroom on one day is going to move the needle, but I would suggest that you can aggregate incremental contributions to a substantial impact.

                        The existential crisis that we have in the sustainable development discussion and dialogue — social discourse if you will — is that we are trying to put ourselves in the shoes of a generation not yet born. We’re trying to understand what it means in the streets of a megalopolis in 2030 or 2050, where there’s not enough water for people to drink or bathe or clean, and that’s difficult for us. That’s not our way of thinking. We think about turning off the light as impacting our electric bill, not impacting a child born in 2035.


David:            Yeah, that’s a good point. Why don’t we drill down a little bit on the Sustainable Development Goals? There’s where a lot of the focus is for companies that are diving in on sustainability. There are how many of them?

Brian:             There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals.


David:            That’s a lot, and they each have quite a bit of detail.

Brian:             There are targets and indicators that are articulated to give countries the opportunity to identify if they have achieved contributions, deliverables, KPIs — whatever phrase you want to use, but there are targets and indicators that allow the countries to measure how close they are getting to the outcomes that they have sought.


David:            Now, some of those goals are environmental, but they’re not all environmental. Will you talk us through them broadly?

Brian:             Certainly. SDG 13, SDG 14 and SDG 15 are principally planetary goals. They are planetary goals in that 13 is about climate action. You can imagine that the Paris Accord is linked very closely to that. Then you have Goal 14, which is life and water. This is about oceans. This is about microplastics. This is about overfishing, acidification. There are many targets and indicators about what it takes to maintain a healthy planet. And then Goal 15 is about life on land. This is about biodiversity. This is about environmental responsibility, land clearing, land use conversion, et cetera. The other 14 deal with what makes this planet a better place for everyone. It covers poverty. It covers healthcare. It covers education, gender equality, good governance, sustainable production and consumption. All of these goals are about what we have as people and what we need as people to support the planet we want.


David:            I think the way you described it the other day was you said three of these are about a Planet of Plenty —

Brian:             And the other 14 are about a Planet of Plenty for everyone.


David:            Right, and that’s a really good way to look at it. I haven’t heard anybody say that before.

Brian:             Well, I stole the phrase “Planet of Plenty” from Alltech, of course. I heard it for the first time, quite honestly, on Saturday (at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference), when I was participating in the meetings. Mark Lyons stood up and talked about the vision of a planet of plenty. Having worked for Monsanto Company for 30 years, I’ve been through a couple of different,  probably the best way to put it is campaigns to characterize what it is we’re doing. This idea of creating plenty, this idea of food sufficiency disconnected from the rest of the world, to me, is hollow. It was hollow to me when Monsanto came out and said, “We’re going to feed the world.” We’re not going to feed the world with the technology and the products of Monsanto. What we’re going to do is we’re going to contribute to food security by creating food sufficiency to the best of our ability.

                        I think the Planet of Plenty that Mark spoke of and I think is a long-time theme in the company is really impressive because it is about putting forward food sufficiency, but a Planet of Plenty for everyone is about the collaboration, the partnerships, the engagement, the access that is really needed to ensure that it is for everyone.


David:            Yeah, it’s exciting, and it’s aspirational, definitely, like the SDGs in general. Tell me a little bit about what Bayer and, formerly, your part of it was Monsanto. What are you working to do specifically related to the SDGs?

Brian:             Legacy Monsanto, where I have most of my experience, is really how I must confine my comments, because I have not been in Bayer for even a year at this point, because the transaction just closed last summer. I just want to be sure that everyone understands my comments are limited Legacy Monsanto work.

                        We actually undertook a project to assess our products, our practices, what we sell, how we sell it, what their footprints are, to decide what are the most impactful places for our work. We had a self-designed set of criteria where we went through and we looked at these things, and we came up with a focus on three SDGs that were about what we do specifically: poverty, obviously, good health because of nutrition, and hunger. But then, we also looked at others that we impact. Our focus might be on those three, but the SDGs themselves are an intricately woven, well-balanced approach to the agenda. So, you can’t say, “I’m doing a great job creating a great deal of food, but I’m not paying attention to run-off or nitrogen management. That’s irrelevant. It’s all about food.” No, it’s not, because you might have enough food, but if you don’t have water, or you don’t have healthcare, or you don’t have access to education — it doesn’t matter because you’re just going to have wasted food.

                        So, really, it’s important for Monsanto, when we were doing this, to look at where can we impact — where is our greatest substantial contribution? We looked at that and then we built around it. We have projects on everything from nutrient management, we have projects on precision planting, where do you plant, what’s the compaction of the soil like, what’s the irrigation requirements, et cetera. So, we had a lot of practices that we brought in to actually talk about and look at and consider whether those could make a difference, and then we take those out to our customers and our farmers.

                        We similarly looked at things like, how does a cellphone enable a smallholder farmer in India to understand the market, to understand insect pressure? We built a program now called FarmRice where, on FarmRice, they could connect to a 24-hour call center, and they would get automatic information daily about weather, about prices, about insect pressure — but if they also saw a leaf crawler that they hadn’t seen before, if they found insects they couldn’t identify, they could take a picture on their mobile phone, send it in to the call center, and one of our experts would respond and tell them what they were looking at, what they thought the concern was. It was about empowering local people to make their own decisions. This was a service that we started in the corn space, and we are actively working to expand it.

                        So, when you can actually help people who are making day-to-day decisions, as I said earlier, about those small, incremental contributions, if you have 10,000 to 100,000 farmers in India all suddenly having access to information about how to manage drought, how to manage insect pressure, et cetera, you suddenly have created a substantial impact. That’s really what this is about, when we think about the SDGs; it’s about the impact on the planet, how we minimize it, live within planetary boundaries and maximize the personal position of each individual.


David:            I think a lot of companies that are maybe smaller than Bayer and, formerly, Monsanto for the activities you’re describing that are just kind of starting out on this journey, they’re trying to figure out, “How are we going to pay for all this? What are we going to do?” Talk a little bit about the evolution of your sustainability-related projects in the company and the discussion that went on.

Brian:             Well, I don’t think it’s much different than what the discussion was in many other companies. I think, in the 1980s, when I joined the company, the Brundtland Report had just been issued and people thought, “Wow! That’s pretty interesting, but that’s for governments. We are a good corporate citizen through our philanthropy.” Sustainability and philanthropy became equivalents in many conversations. Even in the investment space, when the Carbon Disclosure Project came up — and now, of course, there’s Water Disclosure and lots of disclosures — when those projects came up, people thought, “That’s pretty interesting. That’s for the environmentally friendly and the environmentally-sound.” And Name the Polluter, all these kinds of campaigns that went on.

And there were many companies, when they would get the survey, that would look at it and say, “We’re institutionally traded. Our investors don’t care about this. It doesn’t matter. So, if few people in public affairs want to fill it out, or a few people over here in environmental science want to fill it out, that’s fine, but this isn’t really mainstream investment.” Candidly, they were probably right; it probably wasn’t mainstream investment. They were socially responsible investors, many of them smaller funds, many of them European, and so the conversation was, “This belongs to someone else. This isn’t really core to us. This isn’t about how we are as a company. This is about what people want to know.”

                        I think the conversation has evolved to the conversation about how we are as a company, not what we do or what we sell, but how we are — how do we sell it, how do we develop it, how do we bring it to market, how do we steward it, how do we assess the life cycle of that product and its impact on the world and the byproducts that are resulting from its production or use? So, when you look over your shoulder, you see this almost disconnected approach to sustainability from companies — but, again, the Brundtland Report only came out in the 1980s, and that’s where I’m saying the conversation really began.

                        It was, as it went forward, now that you see BlackRock, you see Norges Bank, you see major retirement funds coming into the conversation and having questions during proxy season with publicly traded companies or on one-on-one dialogues or engagements, asking you about what you’re doing on human rights, what you’re doing about child labor, how many women are on your board, what is your program to advance and empower minorities, and this has become a mainstream conversation. It’s no longer limited. Internally, we, as a major corporation, had to get in time with that march from philanthropy to how you are as a sustainable company. The conversations over the years were not always easy, because when you go to your board of directors and you say, “It’s going to cost us an extra $14 million to do X, but it’s the right thing to do,” and you don’t have the bottom line for it, there’s a question.

                        Now, there are very enlightened companies and very enlightened people who could see the business-case and could move forward, and those are the leaders. The laggards are those who didn’t see the business-case, required far more evidence, et cetera. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but they just lag behind. They wanted to know the business-case more digitally, more fundamentally, and understand the total fiscal impact. Now that they can see it, and now that investors are valuing it, I think we’ve brought a lot more companies to the forefront.


David:            That’s exciting, and I’m sure it’s probably such a long process. Some days, it was very frustrating and felt like an uphill battle for all the various people that we’re working on in the company, and then you’d get a little wind and go forward like that. Were there any partners that Monsanto had along the way, nonprofit environmental organizations?

Brian:             We’ve had many partners over the years. It has oftentimes depended on the issue or the space, because we’re expert in what we do. We’re not the expert in what we don’t do, and we needed people to step in and help us, so we would reach out to them. When you’ve worked for a company as controversial as Monsanto, with some of the reputational challenges that we faced, it wasn’t always easy to find those partners, but I will tell you, it is far more beneficial and rewarding to come off of the mountaintops from which you’ve been screaming at each other, down to where they overlap, and find that common ground, and to make some progress.

                        That was really the approach I’ve used in my work in this space, which is, “I hear you, but I’m not sure you hear me,” or “I’m not sure I understand you. Maybe you understand me, so let’s go to a place where we can actually talk and respect the views we each have and see if there’s a space to go forward.” We have partnered with a number of civil society organizations, environmental organizations, human rights groups, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, faith-based investors. The doors are open, quite honestly, because we know we don’t have all the answers. We know that we need experts in those spaces, because that’s not what we do. It’s what they’re experts at, so help us move forward and we will help you as we contribute to the overall effort that they’re advancing themselves.


David:            Do you have a favorite story about one particular partnership like that, maybe, with an organization that was a detractor, and then you built a bond with them to work on a project?

Brian:             I’m not sure that I do have a favorite story from a detractor, although there is one that is pretty interesting. A number of years ago, I worked with a group called The Crucible Group to write a series of books on the patentability of genetic resources. It’s a big question. There are lots of things going on up in the world of intellectual property organization on this. There’s something going on through the United Nations’ Environmental Program on this, but this was an effort to write a treatise, if you would, for government officials as a backgrounder, because this is a tough topic, and the patentability and the rights of ownership on genetic resources is something most people do not walk around thinking about on a daily basis.


David:            Sure.

Brian:             There was a gentleman who I won’t name who was on this book with me. I was one of the only people from the private sector; everyone else came from civil society, indigenous people’s groups, and this gentleman was truly a detractor. He was not fond of the company, our products — had lots of questions about what we were doing — but he and I got along quite well because we were both there for the same reason: we were there to advance the understanding of the use of genetic resources and why it’s important, but how you balance the equities. Indigenous peoples have a lot of interest in the genetic resources that they’ve used for thousands of years, perhaps, and yet, companies come in, create a product using that genetic resource. What’s the benefit-sharing supposed to look like? Do you do something for that group of people from whom you’ve taken this resource?

                        He and I had differences of opinion, but at the end of it, he walked up to me and he said, “I’ll drink milk with you from a cow that’s been injected with recombinant bovine somatotropin because, after meeting you, I actually think it’s probably safe.”


David:            Wow. That’s pretty good development, one communicating one-on-one, one person at a time. How do we take that to the next level? You talked in the panel on Sunday about how the narrative around ag-tech is often scripted by the consumer. How do we tell our industry’s own story?

Brian:             Well, it’s great for industry to tell its story, but it’s very difficult to get consumers to listen to it. Industry often comes from a mercantile perspective. We are for-profit companies. That is what we do; that is our sustainability. Some would define sustainability for a farmer by having enough money in the bank at the end of the year to farm next year. When you’re coming at it from a mercantile perspective and that’s how you tell your story and that’s what you want to bring forward, you are inherently suspect. You’re doing this for your own good. There must be something else.

                        I would say that telling the story is important, but what’s more important is earning the public trust. You aren’t going to earn the public trust just by telling a good story. You’re going to earn the public trust by what you do and how you do it. I think being transparent, being collaborative, being communicative is really probably the foundation for getting the public to build their trust in the ag space, because agriculture is a group of practices and products, et cetera, that take management, that take work, that take people committed to it, and the whole food and ag chain requires it from start to finish, so it’s a huge undertaking with a huge impact, but it’s not a single story. So, if you can’t tell a single story because there are 17 steps, it gets quite difficult to keep consumers interested, to keep others interested, quite honestly, even if we work in the chain, because we’re at this end, you’re at that end. We don’t need to worry about this together — but we do need to worry about it together because I do think that the public trust is far more important than the public ag campaign.


David:            Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Brian. That was a great conversation, and I appreciate you spending some time with us.

Brian:             Sure. It was fun.

Agriculture has the power to solve some of our most challenging environmental problems. We can put carbon back in the soil and forests. We can recycle nutrients and keep them out of our rivers, lakes and oceans. We can generate renewable energy. And, together, we can build a more sustainable world. Learn more about Working Together for a Planet of PlentyTM.

Cows keep the lights on: Using methane digesters to turn waste into watts

Cows keep the lights on: Using methane digesters to turn waste into watts

sunrise at Fiscalini Farms

When the sun rises each morning and we turn on the lights to start our day, many of us are unaware of exactly where the electricity lighting our homes originates or how it is created. For many homes in California’s San Joaquin Valley, that electricity is being powered by an unexpected source: cow manure.

At Fiscalini Farms outside Modesto, California, Brian Fiscalini and his family are practicing sustainable dairy farming by using a dairy methane digester. The methane digester converts the manure created by their dairy cows into electricity by combining the manure with high levels of heat.

“We have two tanks that store cow manure,” said Brian. “We heat those tanks up. If you think about heat and cow poop together, you’re going to make a lot of methane gas. The unique thing that we do is we capture that gas and we pipe it to an engine. That engine converts methane gas into electricity.”

The electricity created via the methane digesters powers the entire Fiscalini dairy farm operation, and beyond.

“The power that we produce is enough electricity to run our cheese plant, our dairy farm, and then we also have excess power that powers about 300 homes in the community,” said Brian. “We also take some of that excess heat and heat our water to wash our milk barn, to wash our equipment in our cheese plant.”

In addition to these impressive benefits, in the 10 years since they were first installed, the methane digesters have allowed the Fiscalini operation to reduce its propane usage by around 70%.

Despite these remarkable statistics, Brian believes that the people living in the suburban homes of the San Joaquin Valley may not know the interesting source of their electricity.

“I would guess that most people that live in our surrounding areas, in the suburban areas, would be very surprised to know that their electricity actually came from a renewable source and was cow manure at one point — powered by poop,” he said.

Photo of cows eating out of trough

For Fiscalini Farms, sustainability is personal

Milking parlor at Fiscalini Farms

Brian and his coworkers milk 1,500 cows three times a day. A portion of that milk is used to create their own Fiscalini-branded cheese and dairy products, while another portion is sold to Nestlé to create evaporated and condensed milk.

The land on which this dairy operates has been farmed by the Fiscalini family for more than a century. Although much has changed over the years, some critical ideas have stayed the same.

“My great-grandfather bought some land back in 1914 and started milking cows, and we’ve been fortunate enough to continue to farm on the same piece of ground that he purchased,” said Brian. “Sustainability is kind of a newer buzzword, but when you think about it, we’ve been sustainable for over 100 years. My grandfather had a very thorough intention of keeping this land around for further generations.”

Brian is adamant about continuing this legacy, and he is helping ensure the farm’s existence by turning methane into something useful.

“If we were to just have this pile of cow manure out there and we weren’t able to apply it to the land, it would give off greenhouse gases,” said Brian. “What we’re doing is we’re trying to reduce them as much as we can and use the manure for another process.”

This transformation of carbon dioxide into a positive source of electricity might contradict a common misconception that many consumers have about the farming and agriculture industry: that it is the source of a great amount of pollution. As a farmer, Brian has a heightened awareness of this disconnect between farmers and non-farmers, and he is actively working to close that gap by dispelling some long-standing myths about who farmers are and what they do.

“One of the most challenging things about what we do is, how do we tell our story?” asked Brian. “So, how can I connect with my neighbors and let them know that, ‘Hey, when you woke up this morning and flipped that light switch, we helped do that. We were a part of that process’?

“As people move further and further away from the farm, physically and emotionally, what we as farmers need to do is to bridge that gap again,” Brian continued. “We need to include consumers in what we’re doing. We need to let them know what we’re doing. And I think that, if the average consumer knew that there was this 100-year-old dairy farm that was converting methane gas into electricity, they would probably look at farmers in a little different way.”

Harnessing agricultural innovation for a more sustainable future

photo of Brian Fiscalini with dairy cows in pen

Farming may have been passed on to Brian as a family business, but he is extremely passionate about farming both as a vocation and how it can impact the world.

“I take farming very seriously, and I think that most farmers do, because we know someone has to do this work,” he said. “We all know that we have a pretty important task of producing food in a safe manner for the world to consume. Someone has to feed the planet, and if we don’t do it, who is going to?

“I think we have a nice challenge ahead of us,” Brian continued. “We need to figure out how we’re going to feed a growing world. We’ll figure out how to do it, and we’re going to provide some of the safest and healthiest foods people have ever had. If we’re not committed to that, then we shouldn’t be farming.”

Just as his own operation evolved by using methane digesters to turn waste into energy, Brian believes that the agriculture industry can — and will — continue to grow, change and become more sustainable, just as he thinks every industry must in order to stay relevant.

“We need to continue to innovate. We need to continue to tell our story and use the right platforms to connect with consumers,” said Brian. “Consumers are going to end up telling us what they want. And if we don’t listen, then we’re going to be in big trouble. So, if the environment is really important to consumers, then we need to make sure that’s what we’re focusing on. If the way that we care for our cows is important to consumers, then we need to make sure that we’re letting them know that it’s been taught to us from a very young age that taking care of our cows and our land and the environment is important.”

Equally significant for Brian is the legacy of sustainability that he will leave for his children.

“I think, when they get a little bit older, my kids are just going to have a huge appreciation that, ‘Dad’s not just a farmer. Dad is caring about the environment, he’s caring about his cows,’” said Brian. “I have every intention of making this farm better, more sustainable, more friendly to the environment.”

As the Fiscalini family continues their dairying tradition of more than 100 years, they are committed to finding new ways to improve, not only for their farm, but for the good of the planet.

“Our family — maybe it’s just our genetic makeup — we’ve always wanted to try new things,” said Brian. “We haven’t succeeded every single time. We’ve learned a lot of lessons, but I think that’s what keeps farming fun.

“We wake up, we have new ideas, we want to try things, and the intention of trying those things is to make the farm better every day,” he continued. “Better for the next generation. Better next week. Better tomorrow. Whatever we can do to keep improving and making things better for our people, for our cows and for our land. We take it very seriously. And that’s how all farmers are. We’re committed to this. That’s why we get out of bed.”

photo of the Fiscalini family


Frank Mitloehner: Cattle, climate change and the methane myth

Frank Mitloehner: Cattle, climate change and the methane myth

Dr. Frank Mitloehner has done the math on the livestock industry’s contribution to climate change. He is a professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, specializing in measurement and mitigation of airborne pollutants from livestock production, including greenhouse gases, VOCs, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and particulate matter. Dr. Mitloehner joins us for a closer look at the claims against agriculture and what he says is the truth behind cattle production and climate change.


The following is an edited transcript of David Butler’s interview with Dr. Frank Mitloehner. Click below to hear the full audio:

David:            I’m here with Dr. Frank Mitloehner. We’re going to talk a little bit about the greenhouse gas impact of cattle production — specifically, beef.

                        Dr. Mitloehner, this is a very big topic for you. A lot of your research has gone into this, right?

Frank:             Yes.

David:            Let’s say that you’re an average person in America. You’ve probably heard that beef production contributes to global warming. The story is that cows produce methane, and everybody knows that’s true. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, and everybody knows that’s true. So, the natural conclusion is that cows are a big problem for climate change. It’s not quite that simple, right?

Frank:             That’s correct. In order to really understand the topic better, I think one has to go a little bit into the chemistry of it, but just a little bit. Methane is really very different from the other greenhouse gases. The three main greenhouse gases we’re dealing with are methane, CO2 and nitrous oxide.

                        So, how are they different? The last two — the carbon dioxide, or CO2, and the nitrous oxide — they have a very long lifespan. Once they are in the air, they stay there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Any kind of CO2 that you have ever put into the air by driving a car is still in the air. The only way that gas goes is upward. The more we emit, the more accumulates in the air. These gases are called stock gases because they always add up; they don’t go down.

                        Methane is very different. It does not have a lifespan of 1,000 years; it has a lifespan of 10 years. So, after a decade, it’s gone. There’s a process — and that really makes methane very different from the other gases — there’s a process that destroys methane, and that’s called hydroxy-oxidation. What that really means is that, if you were to be the owner of a dairy or a beef operation, and let’s say you’ve been in the business for 50 years with 1,000 animals, then, 50 years ago, your thousand animals put out methane. For the first ten years, that methane was new because you just started that business.

                        After that, you did not add any new methane to the atmosphere, because anything that’s emitted is also being destroyed. After ten years, that gas is gone. All the emission inventories and all the media output that you hear assumes that all the methane that’s generated by, let’s say, cattle, adds up, but it doesn’t. At the rate it’s emitted, it’s being destroyed. That makes methane very, very different from the other gases. This is critical to know.

                        What this means is, if a country like Ireland, New Zealand or the United States keeps their livestock herds steady, then they keep their methane steady. If they keep their methane steady, then they are not increasing global warming. So, do we increase global warming with our livestock herds? The answer to that is no, as long as we don’t increase herd sizes.

David:            That makes sense. What about the rest of the world, where maybe beef and dairy production is not quite as efficient?

Frank:             Well, that’s really where the majority of the problem resides. According to the IPCC — the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change — developing countries such as India emit about 70 to 80% of global greenhouse gases associated with livestock. For example, in India, there are three times more cattle than in the United States, and they don’t even eat them.

David:            Wow.

Frank:             India alone has more cattle than the United States, the European Union and China combined, but they don’t even eat those animals. Those bovines in India that are dairy animals produce an amount of dairy, of milk, that’s nominal. It takes about 15 to 20 cows in India to produce the same amount of milk as one cow in the United States. That’s why these herds are so enormous.

David:            What can we do to make those dairy cattle more efficient?

Frank:             Well, what we have to do is pretty straightforward: We have to do the same thing that we have done in countries like the United States or Denmark. For example, in the United States, we used to have 25 million dairy cows back in 1950 — 25 million dairy cows. Today, we only have 9 million dairy cows. We have shrunk the herd drastically. But with this much smaller herd today — with the 9 million — we are producing 60% more milk. That means we have shrunk the carbon footprint of the dairy industry by two-thirds in the United States between 1950 and today.

                        The same can be achieved around the world through the installation of a veterinary system, better feeding, better genetics, better reproduction rates. We can do this throughout the world. That doesn’t mean that we’re exporting the U.S. CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) model throughout the world, but what it does mean is that even basic vaccination and treatment against parasites, improvements in feeding and so on will have a drastic improvement effect on national production rates.

David:            While we’re talking about different kinds of production systems, let’s touch a little bit on the controversy between grain-fed and grass-fed beef and the environmental impact of those two systems.

Frank:             Well, what most people don’t know is that, for example, here in the United States, all cattle are raised on pasture. Regardless of how they are finished, whether they are grass-finished or corn-finished, they all start out on pasture. When I say “start out,” I mean they live the majority of their lives on pasture. Those animals that are corn-finished are finished in a feedlot and fed corn for the last four months of their life. Prior to that, they were on pasture. Most people, first of all, don’t know that.

                        Then the controversy erupts over people saying, “Well, the feedlot system must be much more environmentally detrimental.” Actually, it is more complex than that. For example, when it comes to methane, we as scientists were surprised to see that beef animals in a feedlot hardly ruminate. You hardly see any belching going on. The reason why there is no rumination, or very little, going on is because their diet doesn’t lend itself to methane production. In feedlots, like it or not, the majority of feed is concentrated, meaning it is a feed base other than roughage that does not lend itself for methane production.

                        The methanogens — those methane-forming microbes in the rumen, in the stomach of a beef animal — those methanogens need roughage to produce methane. The more roughage or fiber in the diet, the more methane they will produce. In the feedlot, the amount of roughage in the diet is much lower than it is on grass. As a result, there’s much less methane production going on. That is one of the reasons — the substrate in the feed that doesn’t lend itself for methane production that is to be blamed for a lower methane output of grain- versus grass-finished animals.

                        But the other reason is simply the lifespan. If you have a grain-finished animal, which will go to slaughter around 14 to 16 months of age — let’s call that one-and-a-half years — and then they go to slaughter. If you finish an animal on pasture, that animal will be 26 to 30 months of age, so almost twice as old as its grain-finished peer.

                        What does that mean? Well, that means that, if an animal lives almost twice as long, then it will have much more time to produce environmental impacts. Let’s say it has more time to consume water, it has more time to excrete manure, it has more time to belch and so forth. That cumulatively leads to a situation where a grass-finished animal will have about 25 to 30% more carbon emissions associated with it than a corn-finished peer. That is taking into consideration the fact that a corn-finished animal, of course, eats corn, and that corn was produced someplace and also had environmental impacts. But, all of that taken into consideration, using the life cycle assessment approach, will lead to the result that the corn-finished animal will not have a higher but a lower overall environmental impact.

David:            Wow, that’s interesting. The deeper that you dive into this topic, the more things, like that, you find out were just more complicated than you would expect based on what you’ve seen on social media. One of those messages that I can think of that’s repeated over and over is that we’re using land to feed animals, and we should be using that same land to feed humans; that would be more efficient. But that’s another one of those areas that’s a little more complicated than that, right?

Frank:             Absolutely. This is another issue that people are really confused about. Just imagine all agricultural land in the world. Let’s look at what this agricultural land looks like. About two-thirds of all agricultural land in the world is called “marginal land.” Marginal means that either the soil quality is not good enough or there’s not enough water to grow crops.

                        What do we do with that land? We use it for livestock. To be precise, we use it for ruminant livestock because ruminants are able — like sheep and goats — to use non-human-edible feedstuff, such as grasses and certain legumes, and convert those cellulose-containing feedstuffs into animal source foods, such as meat and milk and so on. Ruminant animals are the ones making use of two-thirds of all agricultural land. Why? Because we cannot use that land for any other purpose, period.

                        The remainder — one-third of all agricultural land — is what we refer to as “arable land.” That’s the land where you can grow crops — crops for animals and for people. Now, the criticism sometimes is, “Well, why do we use any of that arable land for feed production for animals?” Well, the simple answer is because people like animal-source foods, and animal-source foods are highly nutritious, are very nutrient-dense, and people simply demand it. It’s not an “ivory tower” discussion of, “What’s the most efficient use of land, and should only the most efficient food items to grow there?” That’s not how humans operate.

                        I can tell you, there are different things, for example, that we can drink. We can drink water, but we can also drink wine, or we can drink tea, or we can drink coffee. But there’s no reason we drink tea or coffee other than that we like it. There’s no nutritional reason behind it. It takes 700 liters [of water] to produce one liter of wine. Isn’t that wasteful?

David:            Sure.

Frank:             I could just as well say, “Let’s quench our thirst with water and save a heck of a lot of water to produce wine or coffee or tea.” But guess what? We humans are not just rational and “ivory tower” type of people. We say, “What’s the most efficient way of producing what we eat or drink?” But we also do it because of cultural reasons or simply because of pleasure reasons. There’s not a reason why you and I would eat chocolate ever other than because we like it.

David:            Yeah, that’s a very good point. Certainly, when you have a huge problem like climate change — which is a crisis that’s already here — and people are discussing how to deal with it, I think there is a lot of wasted time talking about the silver-bullet solution when we need lots of solutions, and we need to make sure that the things that we are doing are things that will work. But ideas like just telling everybody they shouldn’t eat meat — that’s not very practical. I don’t think that it will happen. As you mentioned, you could do the same thing with tea and coffee and wine. It’s really no different than saying, “Okay, we just need to have half as many people on the planet.” Just pushing that message is not going to make that happen.

                        So, since people that don’t want us to engage in animal agriculture have done a fantastic job at spreading the message that meat and dairy are largely responsible for global warming, what can we do to get the message out there that that’s not the case, it’s more complicated than that, and that we really need to look at the data?

Frank:             So that your listeners really get a feel for how significant this issue is — or how insignificant it is, I should say — the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) of the United States looks at all sources of greenhouse gases. According to the EPA, all those sources consuming fossil fuels — such as transportation, power production and use, the cement industry and so on — combined are responsible for 80% of all greenhouse gases in this country. All of livestock and feed production in the United States combined are responsible for 3.9%.

                        One of the big issues is that people in animal agriculture try to appease that 1 or 2% of the fringe that make all this noise, and they completely forget the 98% that actually like animal-source foods and that have high confidence in that food being produced in a humane and a responsible fashion. We need to stop doing that; we will never appease the fringe. You will never appease those people shouting for meat tax and propositions and so forth. We need to make sure that we open up to a public that, increasingly often now, wants to know where their food comes from and that we open ourselves up and talk to them about how it’s produced and why.

                        That has not happened in the past. That is a big black eye animal agriculture has, and rightfully so, because you cannot sell something that people have an emotional relationship with, which is food. When people ask, “How is this food produced?” you cannot say, “No comment.” There’s no reason for us to say that, but there’s every reason in the world to explain why we do what we do, because we do it exceptionally well.

                        Now, you just mentioned the comparison of food versus other activities. I’ll just give you one example so that your listeners understand how overblown a lot of the frenzy is that they’re listening to right now. Assuming that you were an omnivore right now, let’s assume you were to go vegan for the next year, not eat any animal-based foods. Then that would save 0.8 tons of greenhouse gases — 0.8 tons. If you were to fly from here from the United States to Europe and back, per passenger, that equates to 1.6 tons. So, to change your diet from omnivore to vegan for one year is half the impact as one transatlantic flight. That tells you what you should think about the hype that’s coming your way as a citizen by those people who tried to work through the anti-animal agriculture agenda.

David:            Wow, that’s amazing. When you watch some of the documentaries on this topic, the message is very much that the only thing that you can do that will make an impact is to stop eating meat and dairy. When you look at the data, that’s just not really the case.

Frank:             Well, the same people who are saying that today said ten years ago that we should stop eating meat because of ethical reasons, because they don’t agree that animals should be in bonds, and then they looked at other means to get people to stop eating meat and consume dairy and eggs. None of that stuck — but the carbon footprint discussion does stick. Many people in animal agriculture just haven’t really spent enough attention on that very topic, and now they see, this is more serious than we originally thought. It is high time now to really take this seriously, to take consumers’ perceptions around this seriously, and to make sure that producers understand that, in order to keep their social license to produce animal-source foods, they need to engage in this topic. They have a great story to tell, but they need to start telling it.

David:            I have to confess that, even though I work in agriculture, I’m very concerned about climate change. I’m our sustainability manager here at Alltech. For a long time, I thought this was a valid message, that meat and dairy were worse for climate change than other foods. So, I felt a little guilty every time I ate meat or dairy. I didn’t think about it every day, but I thought it was a legitimate thing. So, I was very happy, as I was researching you and preparing for this podcast and learning more about the topics that you talk about — I was excited to find that it was a more complicated story than that. I think it’s just very important that we get that message out there to people. So, where can people find out more about what you’ve written and maybe find you on social media?

Frank:             About a year ago, I started on social media. Before then, I thought it was silly, but now I know I was silly thinking that. I’m on Twitter. My Twitter handle is GHG — that stands for greenhouse gas — @GHGGuru. That’s where you find me for sure. If you are interested in publications that I’ve published, you will find me on ResearchGate. All you need to do is put in my name, Frank Mitloehner, and you will find the publications that I’m putting out — not all of them in peer-reviewed scientific papers, some of them in other outlets, such as The Conversation or Medium. These are web-based platforms. But the reason why I go onto these platforms, too, is because you reach a lot of listeners or readers that way. In general, when you Google my name or names of people you’re interested in, you’ll find everything now on the internet.

David:            All right. Well, thank you very much, Dr. Mitloehner. It was fantastic talking to you.

Frank:             Well, thanks for having me.

David:            A pleasure.

Is agriculture feeding the world — or destroying it? Discussing climate change, greenhouse gases and livestock emissions with Dr. Frank Mitloehner

Is agriculture feeding the world — or destroying it? Discussing climate change, greenhouse gases and livestock emissions with Dr. Frank Mitloehner

Farming is often a thankless job; the hours are long, the paycheck is not very impressive, and vacation and family time are frequently sacrificed. With the population expected to triple by 2050, farmers must now face the daunting task of feeding a rapidly growing world. But misinformation is spreading like wildfire, including false data claiming that agriculture — specifically livestock — is the biggest cause of climate change. So, how are farmers expected to feed the masses when some of the food they provide is under attack?

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist at the University of California–Davis, presented on this topic at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE19), and his message was clear: agriculture and farmers are the solution, not the problem, and it is our duty to educate the masses with the truth about agricultural emissions.

What about fossil fuels?

“First and foremost,” said Dr. Mitloehner, “I do believe that climate change is happening.”

Dr. Mitloehner explained that companies producing and selling plant-based meats benefit from spreading the lie that agriculture has the highest global warming potential (GWP). Unfortunately, the real threat to climate change — fossil fuels — is overshadowed by the media’s war on livestock.

“Fossil fuels are the main contribution to man-made climate change,” said Dr. Mitloehner, noting that fossil fuels in the United States produce 11 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Animal and plant agriculture in the United States, on the other hand, produce only 1.1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This stream of misinformation has spiraled so out of control, noted Dr. Mitloehner, that people are directing their frustrations toward the wrong culprit. How can we not only support the agricultural sector but also help clear its name?

Three truths about agricultural emissions

1)     The methane produced by livestock is vastly different from the greenhouse gases created by fossil fuels. Dr. Mitloehner broke down the creation of these emissions by livestock:

  1. Plants take CO2 from the atmosphere
  2. Cows eat these plants
  3. Cows belch methane
  4. Methane is in the atmosphere for 10 years before turning into CO2
  5. The cycle repeats

This continuous cycle helps keep the balance between the atmosphere, plants and cows. Alternatively, fossil fuels like oil and coal are taken from the ground, burned and subsequently released into the atmosphere without any sustainable contribution to the planet.

2)    Herd size has decreased over the past 200 years, said Dr. Mitloehner. Additionally, since 1975, the number of beef and dairy herds has decreased, which means that our methane emissions are also decreasing. In 1940, there were 140 million head of beef in the United States; today, there are only 90 million head. Notably, however, the same amount of beef (24 million tons) was produced in both 1970 and 2010, meaning that, over the years, we have begun accomplishing the same amount of beef with fewer cattle.

“This is thanks to improved fertility, health and genetics,” explained Dr. Mitloehner, who went on to argue that we should focus on better and more efficient livestock health than on livestock elimination.

3)     According to Dr. Mitloehner, there are two types of agricultural land. Two-thirds of the land can be defined as marginal land, which crops cannot be grown on for various reasons, such as poor soil or water restraints. As such, marginal land is used for ruminant livestock. The other one-third is arable land, which is ideal for crops. When others suggest that we halt livestock production, they are really suggesting the abandonment of usable land. With the population growing so quickly, Dr. Mitloehner asked, would it really be wise to ignore such a valuable resource?

“How can we feed three times the people (that currently inhabit the earth) in our lifetime if we aren’t using all the land we can to produce food?” he added.

Agriculture ambassadors

To put it bluntly, agriculture has been the target of gossip; numbers have been skewed, media coverage has been exaggerated and farmers have been misrepresented.

“Unfortunately, for the longest time, this industry didn’t have data to show what their impact was,” said Dr. Mitloehner. “So, the notion was (that) you’re guilty until proven innocent.”

By utilizing Dr. Mitloehner’s expertise, however, we can become ambassadors of agriculture, farmers and the truth about agriculture’s contributions to climate change. With the population expected to triple by 2050, the question of how to feed the world remains — and we should thank our farmers for being part of the solution to that problem.