PDPW Policy Summit tackles climate change, livestock biotech

Jan Shepel

MADISON - When it comes to the dairy industry there’s no shortage of issues and each year the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) holds a summit to update dairy farmers on those that affect their business.

This year’s summit, held in Madison Dec. 6-7, included information on dairy research and promotion efforts, international trade, consumer perceptions, dairy’s carbon footprint, the future use of antibiotics in livestock and animal biotechnology.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor specializing in air quality at the University of California-Davis spoke with the group via an internet connection from Germany, having had to travel there for a family emergency. For years he has pushed back against animal activists who try to blame animal agriculture for a lion’s share of the world’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions – those gases that contribute to climate change.

He noted that these activists argue that emissions from cows, pigs, sheep and chickens are comparable to all transportation sectors – including cars, trucks, airplanes and trains – and suggest that limiting meat consumption will help reduce these emissions and their contributions to climate change. In California, he said, “hardly a day goes by” when dairy production isn’t linked to global warming.

Activists argue that emissions from cows, pigs, sheep and chickens are comparable to all transportation sectors – including cars, trucks, airplanes and trains – and suggest that limiting meat consumption will help reduce these emissions and their contributions to climate change

Wrong path to solutions

Once the livestock sector began to be attacked in this way, Mitloehner joined leading scientists in researching the subject. They quantified the impacts of livestock production in the United States and found it accounts for 4.2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions – a far cry from the 18-51 percent range often cited by anti-livestock activists.

“Comparing the 4.2 percent greenhouse gas contribution from livestock to the 27 percent contributed from the transportation sector or 31 percent from the energy sector in the United States brings all of these contributions into perspective,” he noted.

Research from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed breakdown figures for each U.S. livestock species: beef cattle, 2.2 percent; dairy cattle, 1.37 percent; swine, 0.47 percent; poultry, 0.08 percent, sheep 0.03 percent; goats 0.01 percent and others like horses at 0.04 percent.

Mitloehner commented that many activists suggest “meatless Mondays” as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “But if all Americans practiced meatless Mondays, we would reduce the U.S. national greenhouse gas emissions by 0.6 percent. A beefless Monday per week would cut total emissions by 0.3 percent annually,” he said.

His conclusion – livestock sector emissions cannot be neglected but to compare them to the main emission sources would “put us on the wrong path to solutions.” 

The professor said that the Central Valley in California is home to large numbers of dairy cows and lies between two mountain ranges. “You see dairy cows everywhere in this valley so the finger pointing takes place very easily,” he said. Air quality in this valley is sometimes poor so it’s easy to blame the cows, he adds.

But he noted that air pollution generated in China can move over to California in four days and people don’t think about that.

Though the contribution of greenhouse gases from U.S. livestock is 4.2 percent, the livestock contribution to greenhouse gas globally is about 18 percent of the total.

Report’s long shadow

The discussion about livestock and their greenhouse gas emissions began in 2006, when the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization published a report dubbed “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which claimed that livestock created more greenhouse gases than transportation. The report got a lot of media attention and Mitloehner noted that to this day some of the now-discredited information in the report is still cited in the media or by anti-livestock activist groups.

United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization admitted it may have inflated livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions contribution at 18 percent and reduced the figure to 14 percent

“That’s why I keep talking about it,” he said. “To this day the New York Times refuses to confuse themselves with actual science and fact. They suggest to their readers that food choices make more difference than things like transportation and energy sectors, where the vast majority of greenhouse cases come from.”

 The UC-Davis professor studied the methodology used in fact-finding for the FAO report and found they had used two different ways of coming to their conclusions. For livestock they used “life cycle analysis” and enumerated emissions from soil, crops, manure etc. For transportation, however, they didn’t use the same “cradle to grave” analysis, he said. Rather, they only focused on the exhaust pipe.

Eventually the FAO admitted it may have inflated livestock’s contribution at 18 percent and reduced the figure to 14 percent. Mitloehner noted that since countries vary widely in terms of their livestock industry, there’s no way to use a global average for an isolated country. Paraguay, he noted, has twice as many cattle as people.

Globally, the United States has the lowest relative carbon footprint per unit of livestock produced. The reason for this lies largely in the production efficiencies of commodities like meat and milk – fewer animals are needed to produce the same or even greater amounts of food.

Great strides in productivity

The U.S. dairy and beef industries, he said, have made great strides in productivity in recent decades, which contributes to a reduced environmental footprint. In 1950, he noted, there were 22 million dairy cows and in 2015 there were 9 million cows, a reduction of 59 percent with a milk production increase of 79 percent over that of 1950.

In 1970 there were 140 million head of U.S. beef cattle and in 2015 there were 90 million head, a reduction of 36 percent in animal units, while the pounds of beef production remained the same.

“Improvements in livestock production efficiencies are directly related to reductions of the environmental impact,” he noted. “Production efficiencies and greenhouse gas emissions are inversely related – when one rises, the other falls.”

In Mexico, for example, the average dairy cow produces 10,500 pounds of milk per cow per year, so it requires more than two cows in Mexico to produce the same amount of milk as one average U.S. cow at 22,248 pounds per cow per year. That Mexican cow increases the methane and manure production by a factor of 9 compared to the U.S. cow, he noted.

The comparison is even worse for the cow in India, which produces only 2,500 pounds of milk per cow per year. (Mitloehner used figures from the USDA “Comparison in World Farming” to draw these conclusions.)

Horses, dogs and cats

Those who would like to detract from the livestock industry, he said, never mention the fact that about 40 percent of all food produced in the United States goes to waste; that carries its own environmental footprint, he added. About half of all fruits and vegetables are wasted and 20 percent of all meat and dairy gets wasted.

They also never mention that there are more horses in the United States (9.5 million) than there are dairy cows.

There are more horses in the United States (9.5 million) than there are dairy cows.

Also not mentioned, he says, is the fact that there are 140 million dogs and cats in the United States, which consume the same amount of food as 70 million people – that’s about the same size as the swine sector. “They never talk about dogs or cats. They are trying to appeal to a certain group of stakeholders that like horses, dogs and cats.”

Mitloehner maintains that these agitators who suggest that all Americans should become vegans to help save the planet create the impression that dairy farmers are “resource-depleting” and that they are cruel to their animals. He maintains that the U.S. livestock, poultry and feed industries are one of the most efficient systems with the lowest environmental impact in the world.

Losing opportunities

A colleague of Mitloehner’s at UC-Davis spoke at the PDPW summit, on the subject of biology’s interface with social science. Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, a professor in the Department of Animal Science, studies animal genomics and animal biotechnology and frequently provides a voice on some controversial subjects.

Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam

Plant and animal breeding, she said, has one of the greatest sustainability stories of all time. She showed how flat corn production was until 1935 or 1940 when plant breeders began hybridizing to make improvements. Similarly, dairy production was flat until the 1940s when artificial insemination came in. “AI was initially a controversial technology. The general public was averse to anything done with sex,” she said. “So opposition to new technology is not new.”

Since 1944 production per cow has risen 443 percent and the carbon footprint is about one-third of what it was in the 1940s. If we were to go back to the “good old days” of the 1950s, she said, we would need about 30 million more head of cows. (The population of U.S. dairy cows peaked in 1944 at 25.6 million head.)

In 2009 the 3 billion base pairs in the bovine genome were mapped and scientists found that human and cattle genomes are 83 percent identical, she said. “But there is a lot of genetic variation between individual animals.”

The sequencing of the genome enabled the development of the high-density SNP chips to test individual animals for their naturally occurring genetic variations associated with superior performance, she said. Since the dairy industry already had a highly accurate body of information from AI breeding and record keeping, it allowed producers to use the chips for genomic testing and selection – especially with Holsteins.

“The rate of genetic gain in marketed Holstein bulls has doubled since 2009 when genomic selection was introduced,” she added. Now, advanced reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization are being used.

But Van Eenennaam maintains that genetic improvement will stop short of genetic modification or use of genetically engineered products. “RIP rbST,” she said bluntly. “The last creamery in California that would accept milk from rbST-treated cows has now said no.”

Opportunities lost

Advancements like a mastitis-resistant cow or genetically engineered pigs whose bacon is high in omega-3 fatty acids are not going to market, she said. Regulations and politics will get in the way. The tale of the transgenic North Atlantic Salmon, which can arrive at a marketable size in 16-18 months rather than 30 months shows why we’re not soon going to see any of the other improvements in animals, she added.

Regulations and politics get in the way of bringing genetically engineered pigs to market.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in charge of regulating transgenic animals, “just like dog wormers,” she said. The salmon was created in 1989 and the FDA began its review in 1995 and eventually approved the fish in 2015. But then in 2016, Congress slapped a ban on the sale of the fish in the United States after Alaskan senators and a coalition of environmental groups sued over approval of the fish.

Van Eenennaam said that some gene editing techniques could be eliminate the use of certain drugs and produce better food for consumers as well as reducing animal suffering. For example, polled alleles can be inserted into Holstein genetics and provide a pain-free alternative to de-horning. The first Holsteins born with this genetic improvement hit the ground in 2015 and more have been produced since.

However, animals whose genomes have been altered are now considered “drugs” by federal authorities. “Random mutations are not drugs but now they consider gene-edited animals to be drugs. So goodbye gene editing,” she said.

Gene editing could also be used to improve livestock’s muscle mass, eliminate milk allergens and confer immunity in hogs to the PRRS virus. Cows could also be created to be resistant to tuberculosis – an important factor in countries where that disease is still a problem.

From the public’s perspective, people assume that if there is a 25-year regulatory process the product must have been bad to begin with, she said. “We won’t be able to use gene editing if that regulatory paradigm continues to exist.”

Also of concern is that plants go through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and animals don’t. Approval for them is through the FDA. “Plants go through and animals don’t. I think there needs to be consistency. I see this as a foregone opportunity.”