Climate change is a hot topic around the globe and an area of focus during this year’s Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) Symposium in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Ruaraidh Petre, executive director at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, kicked off the discussion in June with a look at rhetoric versus reality. The rhetoric being the many false messages spread about animal agriculture and the reality, well, that these messages aren’t going away anytime soon.
“The facts are on our side,” Petre said, referring to U.S. beef methane emissions. “But we need to get those facts across, we need the data, and we need to be transparent.”
One hundred countries have signed the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% by the year 2030. While that mostly applies to oil and gas industries, livestock will be in the crosshairs as well, Petre said. And some countries have already begun government regulation.
“New Zealand has legislation for the whole country to be carbon neutral by 2050,” Petre said. “By the end of this year, people are supposed to know their number – that is, every farm in New Zealand is supposed to know what their emissions are and they are supposed to be working toward reducing it. So, if you didn’t think that this going to be regulated – it’s already happening.”
Here in the U.S., it is a more voluntary set of ambitions, with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) targeting climate neutrality by the year 2040. Fortunately, Petre pointed out, a lot of what producers are already doing to improve their economic performance can contribute to sustainability globally.
“[Consumers] want to eat beef, they like beef, but they want to be reassured that it’s a responsible thing to do,” Petre concluded. “People are not being massively turned off because of the negative messages. They’re just asking questions; they want reassurance, so the more transparency and the more data we can give them coming up through the supply chain, the happier they will be to buy and eat our products.”
Fitting environmental impacts into economic selection indexes
John Crowley of AbacusBio, an agri-science and technology firm with a head office in New Zealand, told attendees that breeding and genetics could be a solution to tackling climate change.
“Genetic selection, feed efficiency, animal health – which can be tackled through breeding and genetics – reduced animal mortality and reduced age at harvest; they all hold a lot of promise in reducing the greenhouse gas footprint in beef,” Crowley said.
According to Crowley, packers are already working on frameworks to source and verify greenhouse gas-efficient animals. He predicts premiums for improving animals at the greenhouse gas level. And, as an exporting nation, other countries will be interested in U.S. beef genetics and the metrics being used.
“Age of slaughter and methane yield are two huge ones that hold a lot of promise,” Crowley said, when looking at traits to select for. “Age of slaughter has huge carbon savings potential. … Every day an animal doesn’t have to exist or doesn’t have to eat more and convert more dry matter into methane, it is a good day for the carbon footprint.”
Age at first calving, calving interval, longevity and feed efficiency are other traits that would drive carbon savings, as well as production traits such as milk yield and carcass weight that reduce animal maintenance, he said.
Feed efficiency is a trait producers should be careful of. Crowley explained that if producers have X amount of feed and they get more feed-efficient animals, are they going to reduce that feed that’s in the bunk? Or are they just going to bring on more animals to eat the same amount of feed anyway? The same can be said of a pastoral setting.
“All that dry matter is still going to get converted to methane,” Crowley said. “Improvements in feed efficiency sometimes have no effect and sometimes can have a negative effect on greenhouse gas. So you must be careful with feed efficiency, and it needs to be managed correctly.”
Where do we go from here?
Jason Sawyer, associate professor and research scientist with the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management, concluded the conversation with some possible pathways toward climate-neutral beef.
As Sawyer pointed out in his virtual presentation, the terms “climate neutral,” “carbon neutral” and even “zero emissions” can be confusing and often get used interchangeably. He explained, however, that “climate neutrality” is the goal.
“Climate neutrality implies a system with minimal effect on projected global temperature change,” Sawyer explained. “In other words, a system that would maintain or even reduce greenhouse gas-induced warming in the atmosphere.”
While the U.S. beef industry’s contribution to atmospheric methane accumulation is very small, Sawyer pointed out that even small annual reductions can help lead the industry to reach climate neutrality.
Using two different scenarios as examples – one with an annual reduction of methane emissions of 0.4% and an annual reduction in methane emissions of 1.5% – Sawyer explained that a reduction of 1.5% per year could achieve climate neutrality before 2040, although it is a challenging goal.
“Achieving [1.5 percent reduction] year-over-year for the next 30 years would imply a total reduction of annual methane emissions of about 35 percent from current estimated levels,” Sawyer said. “While that’s not an impossibility, it certainly is a substantial overall reduction, and must not come at the cost of reducing the innate ability of cattle to upcycle forage into high-quality protein.”
On the other hand, Sawyer said the reduction of 0.4% is quite achievable through production practices already in use or available. Methane-reducing technologies currently deployed in the finishing sector, which are not typically reflected in the estimation according to the EPA methodology, and capitalizing on genetic selection are some examples. “It’s been estimated that [a] 0.4 percent reduction is achievable through genetic selection,” he said. “However, achieving this amount of reduction cannot by itself achieve climate neutrality, but could be combined with other strategies.”
One companion strategy is to increase the sinks of carbon in land used for beef production. If an average carbon accumulation of 45 kilograms per grazed acre were achieved, even without any reductions in methane, Sawyer estimates that neutrality is achieved by the late 2030s. Even if an average uptake of carbon in grazing lands of 25 kilograms per acre were achieved (which represents one carbon credit on 10% of the grazing acres in the U.S.) and combined with the modest reductions in methane emissions rate, neutrality could be achieved in a similar time frame. The more ambitious pathway (50 kilograms per acre) represents the estimated improvement in greenhouse gas uptake simply from applying grazing management. This doesn’t necessarily imply a highly aggressive grazing management scenario; it implies managed versus unmanaged grazing on those landscapes, he said.
“So, as we think about that, the implication of that is that beef systems may already be climate positive,” Sawyer said, if the current carbon assimilation in grazing lands is included in the assessment. “But it is difficult to measure the aspect of those systems, and the data required to fully account for these processes is the current limitation.”