Science can develop, and has developed, tools to protect animals and the environment, but it cannot force society to use them, or even trust them. More than scientific advancements are needed to secure a sustainable livestock future.
A collaborative effort involving diverse stakeholders is needed to achieve a future that mitigates the environmental impacts of livestock and adapts livestock to the increased heat, drought, flood, and disease threats of a changing climate. It will require building a common knowledge base among meat and dairy stakeholders and a greater understanding of each others’ perspectives.
What should society do about the environmental impact of eating animal proteins?
Livestock contribute about 12% to 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Enteric fermentation – a digestive process in which microbes in cattle, sheep, and other ruminants ferment the animal’s food – is one of the largest sources of methane emissions in the United States, accounting for about 27% in 2021.
Due to concerns about livestock’s carbon footprint, as well as animal welfare and health, society often finds itself in a values debate about the role of meat and other animal proteins in diets. Science can develop technologies to improve livestock environmental footprints in ways that even improve animal health. Science cannot answer the debate over how animals should be raised and how much animal protein people should consume – but it can inform the discussion.
The climate needs productivity-enhancing technologies
Low consumer and producer trust in some technologies that make livestock production more sustainable has historically reduced their adoption. For example, despite regulatory approval and scientific evidence of its efficacy to increase milk yield, recombinant bovine somatotropin hormone (rbST) encountered resistance from producers and consumers. The synthetic hormone is based on the somatotropin hormone that cattle naturally produce. Providing cows with small doses of rbST makes their milk production more efficient, reducing the amount of energy, protein, and feed needed to produce milk. Improving productivity has large environmental benefits. Adopting rbST on only 11% of U.S. milk cows could reduce methane emissions by ~2.9% from U.S. dairies and could free up as much as 219,000 hectares (~half the area of Rhode Island) of cropland previously used for feed for other uses, like reforestation.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ recent Pathway Toward Lower Emissions Report forecasts that emissions from livestock production will increase 46% by 2050 based on global demand for meat and milk. The report also outlines the largest levers in mitigating increases in GHG emissions and further reducing emissions below current baselines are improved productivity, breeding, improved animal health, and directly altering fermentation in the rumen. Enhancing productivity and efficiency is the most promising way to cut emissions – increasing productivity alone could cut emissions in 2050 by more than 20%. Still, the suite of technologies listed, many still being developed, are needed to reduce emissions below today’s level.
Productivity Growth Has the Largest Global Potential Among Livestock Mitigation Strategies
Adopting emerging technologies that improve livestock productivity is still at risk due to similar public and producer concerns, and issues of trust and acceptance. These technologies include methane-reducing feed additives and livestock genetically engineered for disease resistance. With consumers paying even closer attention to what is in their food than in previous decades, livestock producers are concerned about whether and how they can build consumer acceptance of productivity-enhancing technologies. Researchers and product developers cannot assume that innovations improving animal health and carbon footprints will be embraced – the mistake made when developing rbST. Instead, scientists must jointly evaluate the merits of proposed solutions to sustainability problems in agriculture with other societal actors, like consumer advocacy groups, beef and dairy producers, retailers, and environmental groups. This is because sustainability is notoriously difficult to define, and thus practice. For example, deciding what is to be sustained, for how long, for whose benefit, at what cost, over what geographical area, and measured by what criteria, requires debate, negotiation, and compromises that science alone is ill-equipped to facilitate.
Yes, research has demonstrated that livestock can be genetically engineered to be disease-resistant, which increases productivity, lowers carbon footprints of production, and greatly reduces the amount of antibiotics used to fight diseases. But, without broader stakeholder input and involvement in developing these technologies, social and political value differences will likely impede progress. This is a major reason funding agencies and global science organizations have started to recognize the “ivory tower” pitfalls and now suggest that research aimed at addressing sustainability challenges is most effective when co-produced by academics and non-academics.
Overcoming sustainability challenges requires multiple voices in a collaborative learning environment
Convening a wide range of animal agriculture stakeholders is vital to broadening the safe and ethical introduction of livestock productivity-enhancing technologies. One common approach is facilitated joint fact-finding, where participants ask and answer questions together, discovering what is still unknown. Joint fact-finding is intended to overcome information gaps and scientific uncertainty. In the case of productivity-enhancing technologies, producers, retailers, and consumers might share their safety and ethical concerns with producing, selling, or consuming products that involve gene editing. This process allows stakeholders with differing viewpoints and interests to work together in compiling information – like the safety, efficacy, and cost of emerging productivity-enhancing technologies – analyzing facts, establishing common assumptions and informed opinions, and finally using the information to reach decisions together.
The power of co-producing knowledge
Society faces the urgent need for sustainable solutions in livestock production to reduce GHGs and protect animal health. The co-production of knowledge, especially through the joint fact-finding process, is a powerful approach to collectively exploring potential strategies. By actively involving stakeholders in problem identification, planning, implementation, and evaluation of solutions, we can ensure that the development of new livestock technologies is not only informed by science, but also by a diverse set of values and perspectives.