Can we eat our way out of climate change?

Can we eat our way out of climate change? If we all became vegans could we eliminate livestock and put a big dent in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?

Those are just some of the questions Dr. Sara Place tackles daily in her job as Elanco Animal Health’s chief sustainability officer. Earlier this week, Place joined Farm & Food Care’s virtual Food and Nutrition Forum to discuss both the perception and reality of livestock’s impact on the environment and climate change.

One of the biggest criticisms of livestock production is the notion that animals are eating food that could feed humans. But when it comes to resource competition, Place says that only 14 per cent of global livestock rations rations could be consumed by humans — 86 per cent of animal feed is not fit for our dinner plates according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

In this interview with RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin, Place notes that livestock are also highly efficient feed converters  — cattle only need 0.6 kg of protein to produce 1 kg of protein. And livestock production continues to increase efficiency; since 1975 the amount of land required to grow crops for livestock in the U.S. has shrunk by 26 per cent while overall meat production has grown significantly.

Watch Bernard Tobin and Sara Place discuss public perceptions of livestock production. Story continues after the interview.

Place also tackles the notion that humans can eat their way out of climate change by reducing reliance on animal protein.  Livestock in the U.S. is responsible for four per cent of GHG emissions (crop production contributes five per cent). Would a vegan world save the planet?

Based on 2017 research published by the National Academy of Sciences, Place says if every American adopted a vegan diet, U.S. greenhouse gases would only be reduced by 2.6 per cent or 0.36 per cent of global emissions.

While eliminating animal protein won’t save the planet, there are opportunities to lower livestock’s environmental footprint. Place notes that studies indicate livestock sector GHG emissions could be further reduced by 30 per cent with ongoing improvement in animal genetics, feeding programs, animal health, and manure and grazing management.

 

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