Learning from past mistakes helps animal agriculture move forward

Alison Van Eenennaam said innovations in animal agriculture should be celebrated and not hidden.

“When I talk about some of the innovation that we’re doing in animal agriculture, because it seems like sometimes, that is a controversial thing in and of itself,” she said. “I’m excited about the research we’re doing—the genetic improvements and the opportunities for continuous improvement.”

Van Eenennaam, Extension specialist, animal biotechnology and genomics at the University of California-Davis, spoke at the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s Obstacles to Opportunities 2021 Virtual Stakeholders Summit pre-conference webinar April 28.

Facts aren’t always enough to alter those narratives about animal agriculture that contain misinformation. In her role as an animal scientist, Van Eenennaam shared how the work of all those involved in animal agriculture—nutritionists, geneticists and veterinarians—have worked to reduce the impact of animal-sourced food. And learn what hasn’t worked in the past to make the future more productive.

“Anyone working in animal ag in 2021 is familiar, I think, with the tradeoffs that result from misinformation and fear mongering around animal-sourced foods,” she said.

One example of this is what happened with lean, finely textured beef, or pink slime. That is “a horrible sounding name for a process to add smaller pieces of lean meat to ground beef to produce a leaner product, which reduces food waste by utilizing as much meat from an animal as possible,” according to Van Eenennaam.

One would think it was a win-win from a food waste perspective, but it wasn’t. It revealed just how much labels matter and how futile it was to try to counteract fear, uncertainty and doubt with facts, explanations and data.

“This is also not the first time that there have been ambiguities about the consumption of animal source foods and contradictory dietary recommendations,” Van Eenennaam said. “Thinking back over my lifetime, there’s been the margarine versus butter debate, which turned out to be nothing more than a well intentioned guess.”

Then there was the “don’t eat eggs versus they are the perfect protein” along with a few other food battles.

“I guess for me it’s perplexing as a member of an omnivore species that the framing is now that I have to pick a kingdom for dinner, rather than a nice Cobb salad,” she said. It is this demonization of food production methods that “has effectively blocked, global farmer access to useful, genetic innovation.”

Van Eenennaam said she’s been incredibly frustrated during her career because of the beliefs of some people and the “research” they do on the internet. No amount of facts, explanations or data has been able to counteract the narrative that GMOs are unsafe—“despite the consensus opinion of every major scientific society in the world.”

“Now we sit with only 37% of U.S. adults who believe that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods,” she said. “And the disconnect around this topic is the greatest of any politicized topic, including evolution and childhood vaccinations.”

An even more controversial topic than biotechnology is animal sourced foods, she said. One thing that can be agreed upon here is there is a looming demand because of the increased human population and rising incomes in the developing world. The FAO predicts an increase of 400 million metric tons of animal-sourced foods between now and 2050.

“And just to put that into perspective, that’s about as much terrestrial meat as we currently produce, but it’s what to do about this predicted increase, as to where it gets interesting,” Van Eenennam said.

Understanding differences

She uses a wizard, prophet and magician concept to outline the different perspectives people have about food production.

The wizard’s point of view is that if it’s a production challenge, there is a need to change how food is produced. There is a strong strand of optimism or pragmatism underlying this approach as it presents a positive vision of human ingenuity. Little attention is paid to potential negatives of overconsumption of animal products in middle-to high-income countries; instead the importance of meat and dairy to consumers in low- and middle-income countries is emphasized. The focus is on consumption patterns of urban populations.

The prophet concept sees a consumption challenge, requiring changes to dietary drivers that determine food production. Many hold the conviction excessive consumption of high-impact foods—meat and dairy products—are the leading cause of environmental and health crises humans face. While this perspective strongly emphasizes the diet-related chronic diseases that are associated with overconsumption of animal products in MHIC, it tends to overlook that they provide a vital means to improve malnutrition and stunting in LMIC, especially in rural communities.

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The magician views this as a socio-economic challenge—both in production and consumption and sees it as a problem of imbalance. This group thinks a more localized but diverse system is better able to deliver the full gamut of micronutrients needed for optimal health. They tend to romanticize smaller production avenues and want organic or “agro-ecological” approaches that arbitrarily forbid the use of certain technologies and innovations without acknowledging resulting yield gap. This perspective tends to favor socio-economic governance of the food system.

Van Eenennaam said the wizard perspective is the one she’s most familiar with because of her background. Nutrition classes taught her animal sourced food supplies high quality protein, bioavailable vitamin A, vitamin D3, B12, iron, iodine, zinc, calcium folic acid and key essential fatty acids that can be locally difficult to obtain in adequate quantities from plant source foods alone.

“I guess the reason that I have this wizardly perspective is really historical and just looking at the improvements in food production over the last century, as the human population increased from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000,” she said. “It’s really agricultural research that’s fueled an avalanche of innovation, which resulted in this dramatic reduction of life threatening famine during the 20th century.”

“This has really been called one of the greatest unacknowledged triumphs of our time,” Van Eenennaam said.

Over the next 10 years, terrestrial meat production is expected to expand by about 40 million metric tons, reaching nearly 366 million metric tons by 2030, she said.

Another detail that caught Van Eenennaam’s attention while putting her presentation together was there’s a large number of cattle in Africa, and it’s now home to about a quarter of the global cattle population. As well, many developing countries had relatively high emissions intensity for beef—partly due to low production per animal, but also because ruminants are collectively responsible for disproportionate amount of livestock greenhouse gas emissions by virtue of the methanogens in the rumen producing methane as they digest cellulose.

“The developing world is contributing about 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions from ruminants, and about 56% of the emissions from monogastrics,” she said. “The good news is that there’s a significant potential for further efficiency gains because technologies and practices that reduce emissions are in existence.”

Those new techniques aren’t widely adopted even though many offer environmental and economic benefits. Van Eenennaam said FAO reports there could potentially be a reduction of up to 30% of greenhouse gases from the livestock sector, as well as increased efficiency.

“The livestock sector is identified as a really important stakeholder in delivering on the mitigation efforts necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “In other words, don’t alienate the world’s farmers, ranchers, they are actually going to be key stakeholders and partners in trying to address the greenhouse gas emissions.”

In this example, Van Eenennaam said her “wizardly take on the situation” contrasts the prophet take. Prophets see this as a consumption challenge, which requires changes to determine food production and demand restraints.

“This perspective tends to really emphasize obesity related chronic diseases and focuses particularly on industrial animal production or factory farming,” she said. “And pretty much ignores the fact that most animal production takes place in extensive production systems in the developing world, and notably this perspective strongly emphasizes the diet related chronic diseases associated with overconsumption in middle and high income countries.”

Prophets tend to overlook that animal protein provides a vital means to improve malnutrition and stunting in low- and middle-income countries, especially in rural communities.

“Many with this perspective favor meat taxes and other government interventions to alter dietary habits and is perhaps most epitomized by the Eat Lancet diet that was proposed,” she said.

Van Eenennaam said this thought has kind of morphed into what she’s seeing in the plant-based meat substitutes, cultured meat and other alternatives to animal protein. The driving rationale behind the alternative meats is a simplistic narrative that relates to greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of protein produced.

With these types of alternatives, they’re pushing to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases coming from ruminants. Compared to monogastrics, ruiminats are higher, but there’s a lot of variation in the rates.

“I find it somewhat ironic that the collective work of nutritionists and geneticists and veterinarians, especially in the United States, have dramatically reduced the environmental footprint of animal source food,” Van Eenennaam said.

Those alternative systems have the same goals of reducing the environmental footprint of food in the developed world.

Future implications

According to Van Eenennaam, addressing the future protein demand is going to require effort in the environmental efficiency of food production. This approach on it’s own is not going to deliver a sustainable food system.

“Equal attention actually needs to be paid by these issues raised by other framings,” she said. “But I would argue that we’re probably going to need wizards and prophets and magicians and plants and animals.”

Van Eenennaam questioned whether we really want to use the fear tactics around agricultural innovations.

“Are we really going to use this FUD tactic—fear, uncertainty and doubt?” she said. “I think we just have to have a more nuanced discussion that moves away from this nonsensical plant versus animal, synthetic versus natural, extensive versus intensive, GMO versus organic, alternative versus real, good versus evil dichotomies.”

It is possible to improve efficiency of production systems of animal sourced foods, plant sourced foods and cultured meat without denigrating any.

“I think there are many practices that are in existence,” she said. “We can actually work as a livestock sector in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and at the same time, we can work on strategies to reduce the environmental impact of cultured meat and plant based alternatives.”

We all have to work towards having compelling stories about how innovation is working towards a shared goal of decreasing the environmental footprint of providing nutritious food to counteract the possibility of blocked access to innovation.

“And that misinformation, fear and uncertainty is going to actually inhibit our ability to adopt safety innovations in all food producing sectors to the ultimate detriment of global food security,” she said.

For more information about the Animal Agriculture Alliance visit https://animalagalliance.org/.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].