How do farmers and ranchers address the need for safe, affordable and widely accessible food to nourish a growing world population while also practicing sustainable, regenerative agriculture to protect our planet’s natural resources?
That’s a big question, but ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference held in Lexington, Ky., on May 20-22, aimed to provide answers with an ambitious agenda. The conference included 116 speakers communicating to 3,500 attendees from 70 countries around the globe.
Among those speakers was Mark Lyons, Alltech CEO, who said, “We are here to try to provoke each other, to think in an open way and to come up with solutions for these challenges together.”
These challenges, he said, included addressing animal disease concerns, an increasing demand for protein around the globe, agriculture’s willingness to adapt to new technologies and an increasingly polarized political climate to operate in, just to name a few.
And yet, Lyons remains optimistic about the future. He told the audience, “We are in a time of extraordinary opportunity. Can we feed 8, 9 or 10 billion people? Yes, but what are we going to produce, and how are we going to do it?”
One of the hot discussions of the meeting was on cell-cultured proteins.
Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and investor in the plant-based protein company Beyond Meat, said recently, “Raising meat takes a great deal of land and water. There’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people. We need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources.”
Referencing this quote, Lyons said, “I think that’s a nice challenge for us to take up, and I’m very comfortable in our ability to achieve this. We can do this if we think differently, but we have to realize those messages are getting out.”
A common trend among the plant-based and lab-grown protein crowds is to attack or disparage conventionally-raised meat products while making claims of superiority in ethics, environmental impact, safety and nutrition.
Speakers during the beef session at ONE19 aimed to turn this conversation on its head, explaining the benefits of traditional beef production for the planet and for people.
Among the speakers was Frank Mitloehner, University of California Davis Department of Animal Science professor and air quality Extension specialist, who focused his career on debunking the cattle and climate change connection that was first perpetuated by a 2006 United Nations Report titled, “Livestock’s Long Shadow.”
Mitloehner explained that livestock account for just 3.3% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions instead of 18% as claimed by the original report.
Cattle emissions, he said, have been largely overstated as estimations of greenhouse gas emissions from beef production include everything from growing the crops for cattle feed to the refrigeration required on the retail side, and everything in between.
Meanwhile, transportation figures, which were reported as 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions, only factored in direct emissions from the tail pipes of vehicles.
“It’s important to note that all fossil fuels-using activities equal 80% of GHG emissions,” said Mitloehner. “For those special friends who say cows contribute the most GHG emissions, that’s simply not true.”
Taro Takahashi, a research scientist at Rothamsted Research in the UK, explained how the world would be impacted should society go meatless.
“Beef is such a good package of nutrition, and even though it produces more emissions than plants, when you divide it by calories of nutrition, it is a functional unit of food,” said Takahashi.
Takahashi is exploring a post-veganism trial, and his research has unveiled that while some grazing lands could be converted to grow cereal grains for human consumption, soil health is better maintained on these lands with ruminant animals converting grass to nutrient-dense proteins.
“Cattle use marginalized land to produce beef, and even in areas where we grow vegetables, soil health is maintained with animal manure,” Takahashi said.
Ultimately, should beef producers succeed in the decades to come, the speakers agreed that telling their stories, being transparent with consumers and owning the facts about cattle production will be paramount.