Animals make our lives better in so many ways. They’re the source of nutritious meat, milk and eggs that sustain us, medicines, biofuels, clothing, fertilizer and more. A source of companionship and comfort, we couldn’t imagine living without our pets. Service animals provide physical and emotional support that help us get through the challenges of each day. The beautiful animals in the wild are part of a miraculously balanced ecosystem and the great diversity of animals in zoos allow us to experience and enjoy nature’s greatest achievements. And then there’s Toto, Lassie and Babe the pig. The entertainers of the bunch! Animals make life more meaningful.
If you checked out my last blog “Are Healthy Animals the Key to a Healthy World?” you have a better understanding of how animals can help us reach some of the 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) created by the United Nations. Countries around the world are coming together to reach these goals by 2030.
In the piece, I touched on three goals where animal agriculture plays a key role: alleviating poverty, ending hunger and providing jobs to support families and communities.
This is particularly critical in developing countries where raising just a few animals, like cows, goats or chickens, provides food for a family and an income to help them survive. If just one animal gets sick, or heaven forbid, a disease spreads through a small herd or flock resulting in suffering or death, the consequences can be devastating not only to the animals, but to the farmers and their families.
Healthy animals truly do make for healthy families and a healthy world. As a veterinarian, I took an oath to protect animal health and prevent suffering, and am proud to be a part of a much larger community focused on animal health to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Among those are improving sustainable food production and addressing climate change, Sustainable Development Goals 12 and 13, which go hand in hand.
#12: Sustainable Production
Farmers are the original stewards of the environment. Whether growing crops or raising livestock, farmers are committed to taking care of the natural resources gifted to them to continue to produce food and to hand down that gift to their children, and their children’s children.
As a farmer, I can tell you it truly is a passion and being “sustainable” – while that may be a word that’s relatively new to many – is something farmers have been doing for centuries.
So how is animal agriculture, in particular, contributing to a sustainable world?
Consider the circular nature of the farm. Many farmers raising livestock also grow crops, like corn and soybeans, which are used to feed the animals, whose manure is used to fertilize the crops. And so it goes – in a continuous, sustainable cycle.
More livestock farmers, like pig farmer Danny Kluthe in Nebraska, are investing in anaerobic digesters that turn livestock manure into fuel, power for the surrounding communities and odorless fertilizer for fields. His converted pick-up truck gets 70 mpg from the natural gas generated by the digester. He heats the barns with the energy created and he’s growing more abundant crops because of an increase in manure nutrients that are improving soil organic matter. That’s pig power!
You might be surprised to know that what we feed livestock reduces waste and enhances sustainability. The pulp from orange juice – as strange as that sounds – is just one example.
Oranges are picked and processed into orange juice that we drink with our breakfast, put in our afternoon smoothies or add to an evening cocktail. If it weren’t for cows, the leftover citrus pulp would be a waste product that would likely end up in our landfills. The same is true for unconsumable potatoes in Idaho and chocolate in Pennsylvania. What’s considered waste for human food can often become a delicious part of a balanced diet for livestock! (We’ll learn more about this in the next blog.)
#13: Climate Change
First, let’s set the record straight. Contrary to what some doom and gloomers would lead you to believe, the carbon footprint of animal agriculture is relatively small compared to other sectors of the economy.
Transportation, power production and the cement industry emit a combined 80 percent of all GHGs in the U.S. The dairy industry contributes two percent and the beef industry approximately three percent in the U.S. That’s according to one of the foremost experts on environmental impacts of meat and milk production, Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., professor and air quality specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California. I had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Mitloehner, who explained that reducing methane emissions from cattle can actually contribute to global cooling.
Even though the footprint of animal agriculture is relatively small, it doesn’t mean we can’t do better. We can – and we do. Here are some other examples of how animal agriculture is making improvements:
Better animal health Reducing stress and disease helps animals stay healthy and decreases mortality.
Improved genetics Selecting and breeding animals for feed efficiency, good fertility and improved health has a positive impact on the environment.
Increased animal productivity Today’s animals produce more meat, milk and eggs per animal. In other words, fewer animals are needed to produce the same amount of food, which translates to a lower carbon footprint.
Dietary supplements and feed additives A variety of dietary supplements and feed alternatives are being trialed to assess whether they can reduce methane emissions from livestock. Supplements being considered include oils, fats, probiotics, nitrates, enzymes, marine algae and plant extracts. Other additives can reduce the number of bacteria that produce methane in the rumen (the largest stomach chamber of ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats).
Properly store and handle manure How farmers today store, apply and dispose of manure not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but addresses air and water quality. Some technologies allow gases to be used for fuel and power generation, like on Danny’s farm mentioned above.
Improved On-Farm Energy Efficiency Farmers today are incorporating more energy efficient technologies in barns, engines, tractors and the like.
These efforts and more demonstrate the ongoing dedication of farmers and ranchers to animal health and environmental stewardship – continually innovating to ensure they’re being the best stewards of the livestock and natural resources entrusted to their care.
Click on the arrow to enlarge the infographic and learn more about your food’s sustainability story.
While commitments of farmers and ranchers will help us achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals, that’s not why they do it. Providing meat, milk and eggs and doing so in a way that protects the land, air and water is simply who they are. It’s a sustainability story as old as farming itself – and one that will continue to unfold as part of a global effort to make planet earth better for all.
Graphics Source: sdgs.un.org/goals