Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist at UC-Davis CLEAR Center, shared the latest research and answered questions about sustainability and how producers and companies can stay ahead of the curve.

Addressing Sustainability and Telling our Story Is Critical

The CLEAR Center conducts research and communicates in ways that consumers, journalists and politicians and others can understand. It serves as a clearinghouse on sustainability information related to livestock and uses several communications forms – website, scientific papers, social media, YouTube, virtual and in-person presentations and media interviews – to share information and address questions.

Recent research projects include:

  • Rethinking methane: the path to climate neutrality
  • Biomethane
  • Feed additives to reduce pollutants
  • GHG quantification on farms
  • Workers
  • Meat vs. plant-based diets

Farmers Are Making Progress

American farmers, and the pork sector in particular, are changing the narrative on sustainability and making great gains. The We Care® initiative is a great example of showing consumers that pig farmers care about the animals, consumer needs, product quality and more. It also includes the key elements of verification and validation.

The sustainability of animal agriculture involves five areas:

  • Climate and the environment
  • Worker recruitment, retention and safety
  • Animal health and welfare
  • Food safety
  • Financial stability

Sustainability = Stewardship

“For those of you who twitch when you hear sustainability … this term is not that different to the term stewardship, and I don’t think that many farmers have a beef with the word stewardship.

  • Who doesn’t want to be the best stewards of the land and natural resources?
  • Who does not want to be the best steward of their animals?
  • The best steward of the people working with them?
  • The best steward of the quality of product you produce?
  • And the best steward of the finances around your farm?

Sustainability is a term that is quite popular on the coastlines of the United States, but stewardship is a term that has been used forever in agriculture. That is what you are particularly good at, and that is why you should own it. You should also own the term sustainability.”

– Dr. Frank Mitloehner, UC-Davis CLEAR Center

What Are Greenhouse Gases?

We hear a lot about greenhouse gases and GHG emissions, but what are they and how do they impact the atmosphere and climate?

  • Gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide lay a “blanket” over our atmosphere.
  • The sun radiates solar beams to the surface of the earth. Instead of that solar radiation and heat being reflected back into space, it is bouncing off the greenhouse gas “blanket” and staying in our atmosphere.
  • The thicker the blanket of gases becomes, the more heat is retained in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

The main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is the burning of fossil fuels. However, agriculture and livestock production does have a role. Animal agriculture emissions have been roughly stable since 1990. These emissions are primarily methane and makeup about 4% of direct U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

What Is Methane?

  • Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, about 28 times more heat-wrapping than carbon dioxide per molecule.
  • Methane is also short-lived, only staying in the atmosphere for about 10 years instead of 1,000 years like carbon dioxide.
  • Methane can also be destroyed through sinks in the atmosphere and soils.

Globally, about 558 teragrams (tg) of methane is produced each year through fossil fuel production and use, agriculture and waste, biomass burning, wetlands and other natural sources.

However, about 548 tg of methane is also destroyed each year through natural sinks in the atmosphere and soils.

That leaves about 10 tg that is currently increasing in the atmosphere each year that we need to reduce. If agriculture is able to reduce more than 10 tg per year, that is a net reduction in methane emissions each year.

How Does Carbon Cycle Compare In Animals Compared to Fossil Fuels? 

With fossil fuels, carbon that was originally from plants and animals that died, decayed and fossilized underground is taken from the ground and burned, and added directly into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

With animals, there is a biogenic carbon cycle.

  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide during photosynthesis is taken out of the air and absorbed into plants, it is pumped into the soil to provide energy for soil microbes to build humus and store carbon.
  • All animals process food differently. Ruminants like cows belch out methane gas, which goes back into the cycle.
  • Animal manure is also a source of greenhouse gas production, forming methane once it hits the lagoon or pit.

Methane Reduction Can Decrease Warming

If animal herds remain stable, that causes a stable amount of methane in the atmosphere and a stable amount of warming.

If methane production is decreased, warming decreases.

There is a real opportunity for agriculture to reduce methane through managing manure, feed additives, improved carbon sequestration and more. Not only does this present an opportunity for the livestock industry to be climate neutral, but there is also the opportunity to sell carbon credits to other industries.

If We Manage Methane, We Manage the Climate

“Methane is treated like CO2 on steroids, just a more powerful greenhouse gas. This is not true because it is short-lived, it behaves differently in the atmosphere, it warms the planet differently … That makes us part of a potential climate solution. If we manage methane, we manage the climate. And that is a short-term solution we have at our disposal that others don’t.”

– Dr. Frank Mitloehner, UC-Davis CLEAR Center

In California, a law mandating a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 drove the search for solutions, and the dairy industry has responded. 

In partnership with the state legislature, a program was launched to encourage the installation of methane digesters to capture biogas from methane in covered lagoons and turn it into renewable natural gas to replace diesel fuel. Dairies have reduced greenhouse gases by 2 million metric tons and reduced emissions by 30%.  

Climate neutral means that this industry will no longer cause any additional warming to our planet, and if this industry goes even beyond that, it can sell its carbon credits to other industries and exactly that is already happening. We now have Shell, BP, BMW and other companies in the state of California buying credits from farmers because these farmers can generate these credits and others cannot.

Agriculture Is Increasing Productivity and Improving Environmental Footprint

There are several key ways that agriculture is improving its environmental footprint, and increasing productivity to meet global demand for food. These actions have allowed us to shrink the number of animals required to meet food demand.

  • Improving reproduction
  • Improving animal health
  • Improved genetics for both animals and plants
  • More energy-dense feed

The pork industry’s improvement in saving pigs per litter is a good example.

Can We Eat Our Way Out of Climate Change?

Some news reports and social media are encouraging eating less meat to help meet global climate change goals.

Americans are not over-consuming protein sources. In fact, most population segments’ intake of protein is at the lower end of recommended intake ranges.

  • If one omnivore converts to a vegan diet, it would save 0.8 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. In comparison, the carbon footprint of each passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight is 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
  • If the entire U.S. converted to Meatless Mondays, it would result in .3% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • If the entire U.S. went vegan, it would reduce its carbon footprint by 2.6%.

Food waste has a tremendous impact on food security as well as the environmental impact of agriculture. Globally, 1 out of 3 calories produced are wasted and 40% of the food in the U.S. is wasted.

Full Recording – Dr. Frank Mitloehner Presentation