White discusses nutritional, greenhouse gas impacts of removing animals from U.S. agriculture
When the Dietary Guidelines for Americans were published in 2015, many in the cattle industry remember the conclusions reached by the document, stated reducing the consumption of animal products would have benefits in terms of human health and environmental impacts.
“Canada’s Food Guide and Brazil’s equivalent recommendations demonstrate that, around the world in both developed and developing countries, equivalent policy guides are coming out, making the exact same claims that reducing consumption of animal products would benefit human and environmental health,” says Robin White of Virginia Tech University.
“This is no longer just a U.S. issue,” comments White. “It is becoming a much more global issue.”
First, White says any international recognition should ask, from a scientific standpoint, if there is an issue and whether these statements accurate.
“If the answer is yes, we need to do something now to change our industry so that the answer becomes no,” she comments.
White says livestock play a role in agriculture “by taking a small investment of human edible food and recycling that with additions of by-product feeds and inedible food that otherwise would not make it into the food production system and creating food, fiber, biofuel and other products that are utilized by the human component of our society.”
She notes fertilizer is also created.
“What livestock are doing is capturing resources that would otherwise not be utilized and re-incorporating them into our system. This is a really important part of efficient and sustainable production,” White says. “But, not all people understand livestock in this context.”
The other side
Other literature is being leveraged in policy documents to indicate human health and environmental concerns with livestock production.
“There are several ways humans could reduce use of livestock products,” White explains.
The most extreme situation is elimination of livestock products entirely, which is the scenario that is most studied in the literature and is also the scenario she looked at in her research.
“Although we might not think of it, existing literature on carbon and water footprints implicitly has this assumption of substitution,” White says. “If we remove the carbon footprint associated with beef, it will no longer be there, and they follow this idea of entire removal of products from the production system.”
Comparing different food products, White notes a paper from last year summarized carbon and water footprint.
Across all categories, cereal grains have the lowest environmental impact and ruminant meat has the highest environmental impact per unit of product under the categories of greenhouse gas emissions, land use, energy use, acidification potential and eutrophication potential.
Fresh produce, eggs, dairy, poultry, pork and aquaculture fall somewhere in the middle.
“Carbon footprints of individual food products are not really representative of the way we consume foods,” she adds. “We wouldn’t consume a diet of only corn because it doesn’t meet our dietary requirements. We should be looking at diets, rather than individual foods.”
Considering entire diets makes the picture more complex.
“The diets low in animal products have a reduced environmental impact, but they’re high in sugar and tend to be low in essential micronutrients,” White summarizes. “Although there may be benefits from the environmental side, when we look at a more comprehensive picture, there are concerns from the human health side, which raises the question of whether the statements in policy documents are fair, given the current body of knowledge.”
Further, the study doesn’t consider the feasibility of scaling low-environmental-impact diets to a national or international level, says White.
“We can all identify at least one or two crops that don’t work where we live,” she comments. “When they think about these diets, they assume agriculture would just adapt to whatever these diets demand, but we know that isn’t feasible.”
White says rather than asking what the ideal diet is, rather, the question should be geared toward how to feed people with what is produced in the U.S. currently.
White’s research quantified the impact of animal agriculture to U.S. society by testing the scenario of removing livestock entirely.
“We take data from USDA Agriculture Research Service and Economic Research Service about the yield and the weight of the used land in the country and aggregate the data about nutrients to estimate nutrients supplied from the land,” she says.
The data is matched to U.S. census data and nutrient requirements for various age and gender-based populations to get what the actual nutrient requirement would be for the U.S. population.
Finally, a nutrient balance is created to determine how the U.S. does at producing enough food for the U.S. without animal production.
After scrutinizing the data, the research team produced a paper, which is available online at no charge.
“In a system without animals, we do have an increased total weight of food available, but if we compare what that food actually is, the vast majority of our food available in the system without animals is grains and legumes available,” White says.
She continues, “The remaining portions of fruits, vegetables, sugars, etc. remain fairly stable. The net change is an increase in the things we feed livestock – grains and legumes.”
However, the food produced is not reflective of the healthfulness of the diet, so they further analyzed the available nutrition from the system.
“We have a tremendous availability of nutrients in our system without animals,” White says. “But, that is not the case for our nutrients.”
In a system with animals, increased availability of calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, B12, DHA, EPA, arachidonic acid and alpha-linoleic acid.
“Are those the nutrients that are already large on that graph? No. They tend to be many of the nutrients in the smallest supply in our food production system,” White says. “These are nutrients we think of as being most-limiting nutrients for the U.S. population.”
As a result, decreasing their availability as a result of eliminating livestock may not be the best option.
Environment and economics
“We didn’t want to just discuss nutrient availability,” White continues. “We also wanted to look at additional considerations, like environmental and economic contributions.”
In analyzing economic contributions for things like exports and jobs, White says livestock directly contribute 1.4 million jobs and $32 billion in export income.
“Those are pretty strong numbers favoring the contributions to society,” she says.
White’s team also looked at environmental contributions in terms of environmental footprint, noting that livestock provide 49 percent of agriculture’s carbon footprint.
“If we remove livestock, we don’t dramatically get a 49 percent improvement in the carbon footprint,” she emphasizes. “We only get a 28 percent improvement in agricultural footprint.”
Further, the 28 percent reduction is only in the agriculture industry and doesn’t reflect the U.S. carbon footprint, which is only reduced by 2.6 percent
White comments, “Most people would say 2.6 percent is probably not a tremendous payout.”
Look for more information on White’s study in the March 24 edition of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.