21 Feb 2019 — A widely-publicized comparison of the greenhouse gases (GHG) produced by lab-grown and farm-raised beef suggests that the benefits of reducing methane, resulting from cattle, could in the long term be outweighed by increased CO2 levels. As a result, the involved Oxford University researchers have put forward that sustainable “labriculture” will depend on a large-scale transition to a decarbonized energy system and new tech. This study may at first sight come as a disappointment to proponents of lab-grown meat. But considering that the technology is still in its infancy, and that the world would benefit from more clean energy in general, could this be a moot point?
Mark Post, MD, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology at Maastricht University, a key figure in the development of lab-grown meat, warns that no assumptions about “any novel technology should be made before it reaches mature production,” and that also goes for the idea that culturing meat will lead to less GHG emission.
Still some years from large-scale commercialization, the lab-grown meat scene is progressing rapidly, both in terms of R&D and regulatory clarity. “Labriculture” – meat grown in the lab using cell culture techniques – has captured the industry and consumers’ attention for its promise of authentic tasting meat, without the need to raise, and ultimately slaughter, livestock.
Although not an inherent promise of lab-grown meat, environmental concerns have also been put forward as a reason for consumers to perhaps choose this type of meat instead of traditionally farm-reared sources, with agricultural greenhouse gas emissions currently responsible for around a quarter of current global warming.
The researchers found that although some projections for the uptake of particular forms of cultured meat could indeed be better for the climate, others could actually lead to higher global temperatures in the long run. Currently proposed types of lab-grown meat, they say, cannot provide a “cure-all” for the detrimental climate impacts of meat production.
Current estimates of the environmental benefits of lab-grown meat over farm-reared meat are based on carbon-dioxide equivalent footprints, the researchers note. This can be “misleading” because not all greenhouse gases generate the same amount of warming or have the same lifespan.
“Cattle are very emissions-intensive because they produce a large amount of methane from fermentation in their gut,” says study co-author Raymond Pierrehumbert, Halley Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford.
“Methane is an important greenhouse gas, but the way in which we generally describe methane emissions as ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ amounts can be misleading because the two gases are very different. Per ton emitted, methane has a much larger warming impact than carbon dioxide, however, it only remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years whereas carbon dioxide persists and accumulates for millennia.”
Methane’s impact on long-term warming is, therefore, not cumulative and is impacted greatly if emissions increase or decrease over time, the researchers warn.
Sustainable labriculture depends on clean energy and new tech
To compare the potential climate impacts of lab-grown meat and beef cattle, the researchers examined available data on the emissions associated with three current cattle farming methods and four possible meat culture methods, assuming current energy systems remained unchanged.
The researchers modeled the potential temperature impact of each production method over the next 1,000 years. And while cattle was found to initially have a greater warming effect through the release of methane, the model showed that in some cases the manufacture of lab-grown meat may ultimately result in more warming.
“This is important because while reducing methane emissions would be good – and an important part of our climate policies – if we simply replace that methane with carbon dioxide it could actually have detrimental long-term consequences,” warns lead author Dr. John Lynch, part of Oxford Martin’s LEAP (Livestock, Environment and People) program.
The study also highlights that both cultured meat and cattle farming have complex inputs and impacts that need to be considered to fully appreciate their effect on the environment.
“The climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend on what level of sustainable energy generation can be achieved, as well as the efficiency of future culture processes,” Lynch concludes.
Future food security
Although widely reported as a potential thorn in lab-grown meat’s proverbial side, the study and the involved researchers are by no means dismissive of the potential of lab-grown meat to be beneficial in environmental terms. They do, however, emphasize the need for continued and expanded labriculture research and especially the development of ways to produce cultured meat as efficiently as possible.
Post, for his part, notes that there are “good reasons to assume three environmental advantages.”
The first is that lab-grown meat could lead to “less GHG through either less energy use (heavily depending on assumptions what the outcome is) or emission poor energy consumption.” Secondly, lab-grown meat would entail less water usage, and thirdly, less feedstock resources and so less land, important for future food security.
“These benefits are interrelated, which makes the modeling very complex. Less land use will, depending on alternative usage of the land, reduce CO2 emission and increase CO2 capture. Less water usage will reduce the need for energy consuming desalination strategies,” Post continues.
“The entire paper is not realistic about what clean meat production will entail at scale. For example, the study assumes current and worst-case energy production for clean meat, but since clean meat uses about 1 percent of the land required by livestock, that is not realistic.”
“Clean meat production will use a tiny fraction of the land required for livestock and that freed up land could be used for clean energy production and carbon sequestration. By freeing up so much land, clean meat production should be a significant net positive for climate change,” he asserts.
Consumer acceptance key
Modeling specifics aside, addressing the environmental constraints to lab-grown meat could prove vital to successfully finding consumer acceptance.
“My expectation is that adverse environmental effects will easily outweigh other potential societal and personal benefits among consumers. The target group for cultured meat will not be willing to compromise with respect to sustainability,” says Wim Verbeke, Professor of Agro-food Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at Ghent University.
“Proven environmental benefits of cultured meat compared to conventional meat production are crucial because this constitutes a key promise and expectation in terms of societal benefits, and it is the issue that spontaneously raises doubt among consumers,” he explains.
“When comparing farm-reared meat and the concept lab-grown options, consumers perceive hardly any personal benefits (e.g. taste, nutrition, health), which is logical because of lack of personal experience with the product,” he notes.
“Therefore, societal benefits are crucial for future acceptance. These relate to ethical animal welfare benefits, global food security and a reduced environmental impact. There seems to be little uncertainty among consumers about the first two, but there are doubts among consumers about the latter,” Verbeke adds.
To this end, he puts forward that technological developments related to energy use and emission in the upscaling and industrial production, convincing life cycle analyses studies and scientific consensus about the environmental impacts of alternative meat production systems will be vital to convincing consumers.
Room for growth
Since we are still a few years away in scaling up lab-grown meat to offer to the mainstream consumer, there is arguably time for the “labricultural” industry to invest in the technologies
“Culturing meat is a controlled system that has ample opportunities for further economization, both financial as resource-related,” Post notes. “As biotechnology and clean energy advance, cultured meat production will become more and more efficient, and thus help to address all of these pressing problems. Conversely, the efficiency gain in conventional meat production has been incremental and is biologically limited, especially in ruminants.”
The higher versatility, he states, of cultured meat production over conventional meat can be translated for instance into co-locating cultured meat production facilities with carbon-neutral energy sources.
“This is already being done by plant-based meat companies. For example, Turtle Island, the makers of Tofurky, has their production facility in the Columbia River valley, so all their power is renewable hydroelectricity. Companies such as Black and Veitch who have decades of experience building large-scale sustainable manufacturing plants are already involved doing forward-looking work with cultured meat companies, even before production has started to scale up.
“It is extremely important to look at individual variables like global warming, but one should also keep an eye on other benefits of cultured meat production over conventional meat production,” he emphasizes.
Such benefits include elimination of antibiotics use for food production, elimination of zoonoses by reducing intensity of livestock farming, and last but not least, the moral issues associated with livestock farming that will be under increasing scrutiny by consumers.
“Early LCAs such as this study are on the one hand very useful in emphasizing the areas where the technology has to develop, but they are also tenuous in the absence of an established industrial practice. This is obviously true for LCAs that are favorable for cultured meat as the ones that are more critical,” Post concludes.
By Lucy Gunn
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In its effort to lead the global push against climate change, the world’s second-largest economy has assigned soldiers to tree-planting duty, spent billions of dollars on cleaner energy (pdf), and has actively pushed some of its cities away from using coal.
Still, China has yet to figure out what to do about one of its biggest environmental hurdles—its demand for milk.
That’s because the world’s most populous country is expected to almost triple its consumption of dairy across the next 30 years, according to a study published this month in the journal, Global Change Biology. To figure out just how much the world would be impacted by China’s appetite for dairy by 2050, a team of researchers led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences set out to assess what factors in the country would drive milk consumption and measure the ultimate impact.
In short, the rising demand for for dairy in China will increase the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions coming from dairy herds by 35%, it’ll require 32% more land be dedicated to dairy, and it will boost nitrogen pollution from production by 48%, according to the study.
The bad news is there’s no way to avoid the increases. The possible good news is that by modernizing how farmers handle nitrogen-rich manure, changing dairy cow diets to reduce methane emissions, and improving land management, the increases could be more modest.
The world’s 270 million dairy cows live on farms that produce the manure, ammonia, methane, and nitrous oxide that are negatively impacting the climate. The agricultural sector accounts for about 14% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations.
“The consequences of sticking to a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario are unthinkable,” the lead author of the study, Zhaohai Bai, has said.
Between 1961 and 2016, milk consumption in China increased more than 25 times to 31 kg (68 lb) per capita each year. (Milk is measured by the weight of its milk-fat content.) It’s now the world’s largest importer of milk and per-capita consumption is expect to increase to 82 kg per year by 2050, according to the study.
It’s become a familiar narrative, one that’s been unfolding in the nation for some time. China is developing rapidly, creating a larger middle class with more purchasing power. With more money to spend, the more people are indulging in dairy and meat products.
“For a more sustainable dairy future globally, high milk demanding regions, such as China, must match the production efficiencies of the world’s leading producers,” Bai said.
Growing global demand for beef is hindering efforts to combat climate change, scientists say
Go to any US city and you’ll spot Americans gorging on Big Macs and Whoppers at McDonald’s and Burger King. Visit Japan, and you’ll see folks slurping down gyudonbeef bowls, an incredibly popular dish featuring rice, onion and fatty strips of beef simmered in sweet soy sauce. Culture, tradition and geography might divide us, but a love for fast, cheap food that’s rich in beef definitely unites us.
But that growing demand for beef has immense environmental repercussions, especially regarding a stable climate – a fact not addressed by global trade agreements.
Back in January, one of Donald Trump’s first actions as president was to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), a multi-country trade deal that would have ramped up commerce with Asian countries — and opened Japan to a flood of US beef.
But Trump’s move slammed the door on the US beef industry’s designs for the lucrative Japanese market, the top export market for American ranchers, thanks partly to dishes like gyudon.
What lies ahead for the industry now that TPP is off the table is unclear. But no matter what transpires, environmentalists fear for the planet’s future if trade deals like TPP don’t start taking climate change into account, instead of encouraging more consumption, production and harm to the Earth.
Japan is hooked on beef
Japan wasn’t always sold on red meat, or any meat at all. But today, you need only look at how beef-bowl outlets have conquered Asian city streets to see how that has changed. Yoshinoya, the Japanese fast-food chain, can now be found in US cities. The company only uses US beef, and this allegiance is so strong that the Yoshinoya beef bowl became a pork bowl in 2003 when Japan banned US beef imports for 20 months over fears of foot-and-mouth disease.
Japan’s demand for beef doesn’t look like it will slow down any time soon. Its government is looking to attract 40 million tourists every year by 2020, when it hosts the Olympics, and with tourists come a whole lot of mouths to feed. “It’s pretty exciting,” Philip Seng, CEO of the US Meat Exporters Federation, says. “If you have that many tourists, they’re going to want to eat… We see that consumption is going to increase for the foreseeable future in Japan.”
The same beef boom is playing out across Asia, with increasing wealth and disposable income driving demand in previously meat-light countries. In South Korea, a new appetite for craft burgers is just the tip of a beefy iceberg: in 2007, the US exported 25,000 tons of beef to South Korea; last year that figure reached nearly 180,000 tons.
The Chinese beef market is expected to grow by as much as 20 percent between 2017 and 2025, and is part of a wider trend toward meat eating; in 1982 the average Chinese person ate around 13 kilograms (28.6 pounds) of meat per year, and today it’s around 63 kilograms (138.8 pounds). McDonald’s plans to open 2,000 more restaurants across the country by 2025 — signs that beef consumption is only going to grow.
Asia is clearly fertile ground for those looking to plunge deeper into the market.
What’s the beef with beef?
While all of that growth may be good for the market and profits, beef continues to be the most climate change-intensive foodstuff in the American diet, says Sajatha Bergen, policy specialist in the Food and Agriculture Program at the National Resource Defense Council. And with the beef habit now catching on across Southeast Asia, that problem is only deepening.
But defining the range of that problem is tricky. US beef industry carbon dioxide “emissions are actually coming from a few different places,” Bergen says. In the industrial production model, grain is grown to feed cattle, using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and that requires a lot of fossil fuels. Next, the cow’s digestive system turns some of what it eats into methane — over 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, according to scientists. And finally, cow manure is either spread or stored in lagoons, and that can produce additional methane emissions. Taking all this into account, Bergen believes that it’s not unfair to describe cows as “mini-greenhouse gas factories.”
Renée Vellvé, a researcher at GRAIN, an international NGO, believes that we have to expand our vision to include the entire industrialized food system in order to get a true sense of just how staggeringly costly beef, and agriculture in general, is to the environment. She notes that, in addition to the obvious impacts, meat must also be packaged, refrigerated all along the supply chain, transported — usually over long distances — and stored in supermarket and home refrigerators.
Every step contributes to climate change, says Vellvé, from fertilizing seedling crops all the way to your dinner plate. Thinking about the “food system at large,” not just how the food is produced, is essential, she says: “If you isolate agriculture it’s not enough.”
Research by GRAIN in 2014 found that when using this comprehensive approach, our food system accounts for roughly half of all greenhouse gas emissions — with much of that meat-related. In the US, the EPA currently estimates that agriculture contributes around 9 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions; of that, livestock takes up around 5 percent.
For Gidon Eshel, research professor of environmental physics at Bard College, New York, the direct climate impact of beef production isn’t the worst of it. “Beef is responsible for the lion’s share of land use [in the US],” he says. And by overusing fertilizers the industry is also responsible for the release of massive amounts of reactive nitrogen into water supplies, which can undermine water quality in lakes, rivers and estuaries. By spurring algae growth, which can in turn lower oxygen levels when bacteria feed on it, the release of nitrogen can suffocate bodies of water, creating so-called dead zones. Just this year the largest dead zone ever recorded hit the Gulf of Mexico — a calamity tied to meat production.
The source of all this harm can be found in the industrial model of agriculture, says Ben Lilliston, director of corporate strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy. “In many ways, it’s been fairly disastrous for the environment.”
The industrial system, he explains, is based on producing far more product than is needed and then exporting that product around the globe – an incredibly inefficient system. It has, however, created a global market for really cheap meat, while externalizing all the environmental costs of production to nation states and communities, Lilliston said. “Of course, we’ve expanded that model around the world to other countries.”
Bergen agrees: “Even if we export the beef, we still keep the water pollution, the air pollution… is it really fair for US communities to bear the brunt of environmental damage?”
Enter TPP, or exit it
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which Trump withdrew the US after taking office, would have offered another boost for the industrial agriculture model, Lilliston said. The negotiations, which were highly influenced and dominated by big business, “facilitated a fairly serious expansion of this industrial model of agriculture where you produce way more than you need.”
And that is to be expected. For decades trade deals have been designed to benefit business and make goods flow more smoothly between countries in order to open up new markets. To do this, the deals reduce tariffs (designed to protect local industries) and remove or weaken trade-limiting regulations, including public health and environmental standards.
What was really at stake for the US beef industry with TPP was deep access to Japan.
Japan used to be a “controlled market,” says Seng, one that always looked after its domestic production first, at the expense of imports. That’s why it’s been a tough nut to crack for beef exporters like those in the US. But over time exporters have penetrated the market, to the point that today about 60 percent of Japan’s beef is imported. In 2015, Japan imported nearly 500,000 tons of beef, around 200,000 tons of it from the US.
TPP would have progressively whittled tariffs on frozen beef from 38.5 percent down to 9 percent by 2032 — a boon for the US. A report released by the US International Trade Commission prior to Trump’s decision to pull out of TPP estimated the value of beef exports to be worth $876 million per year by the end of the 16-year tariff reduction period.
Trump’s actions represent a “clear loss” to the industry, according to Andrew Muhammad, associate director of the USDA’s Economic Research Service Market and Economics Division.
KORUS, a free-trade agreement between the US and South Korea that was signed in 2012 (which included tariff reductions and the removal of “government-imposed obstacles” to trade, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) resulted in a 42 percent jump in US beef exports over a five-year period there, and an 82 percent rise in annual sales.
So it’s easy to see why Trump’s TPP decision wasn’t popular with the US agricultural sector. With his thumbs down, expanded access to the Japanese market was put out of reach for US beef exporters.
The problem for the American cattlemen and beef processors didn’t end there. Now Australia has managed to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with Japan, gaining improved market access, while US beef still is at the mercy of high Japanese tariffs. In August, the tariffs on frozen beef from countries without economic partnership agreements with Japan were raised from 38.5 percent to 50 percent, an increase triggered by a built-in emergency system to guard against spikes in imports.
That’s why the US beef industry is now desperate to thrash out a trade deal with the Japanese. “Our organization, NCBA [National Cattlemen’s Beef Association], will work with [the Trump] administration on bilateral trade deals, if that’s the way to go,” NCBA president Craig Uden told agriculture.com. “We know that our trade partners want our product, and if we don’t fill the demand, someone else will.”
However, speaking from 45 years of experience working with the Japanese, Seng says it will be very difficult to get a bilateral deal that comes close to the benefits TPP would have provided. He explains that there was a “tremendous amount of political capital put on the table” by the Japanese to come down to 9 percent. This included overcoming the doubts of their own agricultural sector who feared an influx of cheap beef would damage their own market share. From Seng’s viewpoint, the objective now is to figure out a way to get back into TPP.
In November, the remaining 11 member nations committed to the TPP agreement are due to restart negotiations and plow ahead without the United States. But it looks as if TPP-11, as it has been dubbed, could be tweaked only slightly to encourage the US to enter later.
Vellvé isn’t ruling this out. She believes that in the next three or four years the US could well join the TPP, with or without Trump in office, as the business voices calling for it are influential: “The [beef] industry is pushing very hard and is very creative at getting what it wants.”
Lilliston, of the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy, echoes this and says that TPP saw beef-producing multinational corporations, like Cargill, JBS and others, come together to form a “beef alliance” and push their agenda. “They are real forces in these trade negotiations and it’s not the same as seeing things through a national agenda.”
Climate change, meet trade; trade, meet climate change
But even as TPP moves forward, with or without the US, another important constituency has not been invited to the negotiating table: Nature, and the NGOs and national environmental agencies that represent her.
In a 2009 report, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme said free trade agreements (FTAs) “most likely” lead to increased CO2emissions.
The “trading regime in general, and the United States led [FTAs]… are in tension with the policies for aggressive climate action,” Kevin Gallagher wrote in “Trade in the Balance: Reconciling Trade Policy and Climate Change,” a report released in 2016 by Boston University.
“Trade is intrinsic to the success and robustness of the industrial system” of food production, Vellvé says. But trade agreements “very much drive climate change coming from the food system, insofar as the [deals] create demand for cheap commodities,” she explains. For instance, an influx of cheap American beef has made it possible for gyudon chain stores like Yoshinoya to offer their beef bowls to Japanese consumers for around $3 a pop, in the same way that cheap beef has allowed McDonald’s to sell its Big Macs for $4.79 in the States.
Those low prices create more consumption, demanding higher industrial production, with bigger environmental costs. But nowhere in the industrial food chain, or in global trade treaties, are allowances made for the mounting environmental harm. This is a dangerous blind spot that, ignored for long enough, is going to bite back with increased climate and weather instability, more severe heatwaves, droughts and hurricanes, rising sea levels and increased ocean acidity — all of which will directly impact food security.
Vellvé argues that to reach our climate goals, countries will need to overhaul the way our food is grown. To do so, we’ll need to get rid of large-scale monocrop cultivation, big plantations and the current model of big trade.
“That’s a huge shift,” she acknowledges.
Vellvé points to other systems of agriculture as models, like small-scale farming, that could replace industrial-sized Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). This “small is better” approach would not only be less harmful from an environmental point of view, but could also be beneficial for farmers, cheaper to run and involve less labor in some cases.
But bridging the disconnect between an agribusiness industry focused on profit, global trade agreements that primarily serve business, and escalating climate change impacts, certainly won’t be easy. A mention of climate change didn’t even appear in the final TPP draft agreement, at the behest of Washington, despite it appearing in some initial drafts. The Paris Agreement also didn’t acknowledge TPP, or any other trade deals for that matter.
“By having an [industrialized food economy] like the US – one of the biggest [carbon] polluters – say we don’t care about the Paris Agreement – we’re going to negotiate trade agreements as if climate change doesn’t exist – that’s very problematic,” Lilliston says. The issue is being discussed in places like the WTO, he adds, but those people who matter, the trade negotiators, are proceeding as in the past, and acting as if environmental concerns didn’t exist.
As it stands, he says, strict trade rules furnish global markets with cheap goods that can price out local producers, and those treaties deregulate in a way that almost always favors industrial farming, making it impossible for smaller-scale operations to compete.
Lilliston argues that unless we change trade agreements to nurture local and sustainable food producers, allowing them to grow and participate on a level playing field in global markets, or at least put climate-friendly policies in place, we’ll soon be in a tough spot economically and environmentally.
Take drought, for example: it has deepened significantly over the US Midwest and West in recent decades, and severely impacted cattle herds and curtailed industry profits. And severe drought, like that seen in 2012, is projected to only worsen in future years as climate change escalates, further affecting the beef industry.
The good news: moves are being made by the beef sector to encourage sustainability, cut waste and decrease its climate impact. Seng at USMEF says that the beef industry is “working tenaciously to reduce any kind of greenhouse gases.” Jude Capper, an agricultural sustainability consultant, suggests the US beef industry has already made advances along this road in past decades: “US beef is considerably more productive and has a lower carbon footprint per unit than in many less efficient countries,” she says.
But others, like Vellvé, question whether these baby steps will be nearly enough. She acknowledges the efforts of the industry, but describes that work as little more than “eye shadow”.
“It’s not going to get us where we need to [go, to] stay within the [emissions] targets that were set at the Paris Agreement,” she says.
NRDC’s Bergen agrees. There are a lot of ways to cut the environmental costs of beef production, but the rapidly rising demand for beef worldwide will negate any positive effects: “Ultimately we need to reduce the amount of beef we eat.”
The decision by Donald Trump to back out of TPP has halted, at least for now, the beef industry’s drive to gain Japanese market share. But what is truly needed now is not the same old type of treaty, but a new deal — a TPP that acknowledges and addresses the deep links between industrial food production and climate change.
With the US now out of TPP, will the other 11 countries work climate change back into the agreement? It’s possible, and would be a big step forward, says Lilliston, but only on one big condition: “If TPP was to include climate considerations, how does the enforcement work on that?”
It’s pretty simple what needs to be done, Lilliston concludes: Future trade deals in the US, and around the world, must explicitly assure that trade and profit do not override climate policy: “That’s a fairly radical idea and would be a major change in trade agreements,” he says. “But at some point we are going to have to make that decision.”
Scientists recently announced that the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an area the size of New Jersey where oxygen levels are too low to sustain most forms of life, is larger than ever. For years, environmentalists have used annual surveys of the dead zone to bring attention to large amounts of agricultural pollution from the nation’s breadbasket that flows down the Mississippi River and fuels oxygen-depleting algae blooms in the Gulf.
This year, the message is hitting much closer to home, especially for those living near farmlands.
A new report from the Environmental Working Group shows that the agricultural pollution causing the dead zone is also contaminating drinking water supplies for millions of Americans with potentially dangerous chemicals. Environmental groups particularly blame large-scale meat production, which require huge supplies of industrially grown corn and soy to raise animals to satisfy the nation’s appetite for cheap meat.
The US leads the world in meat production. One-third of all land in the continental US is used to grow feed and provide pasture for animals that will be killed for meat, according to the environmental group Mighty Earth. Now that agricultural pollution’s impact on drinking water is coming into focus, meat producers such as Tyson Foods are under pressure to set standards that would require large farms in their supply chains to clean up their acts.
“People just naturally pay more attention to the pollution issue in their own backyard than they do [to] pollution issues thousands of miles away,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director at the Gulf Restoration Network, a group that works to reduce pollution in the Gulf South.
Chemicals called nitrates and other pollutants can contaminate drinking water sources when fertilizer and manure drain from poorly protected agricultural fields. Drinking water supplies for roughly 200 million Americans in 49 states have some level of nitrate contamination, but the highest levels are found in rural towns surrounded by industrial farms, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Runoff from farm fields finds its way from rural watersheds to the Gulf, providing nutrients for summertime algae blooms that force fish to migrate and kill off smaller creatures at the bottom of the food chain. The dead zone spanned 8,777 square miles off the coast of Louisiana and Texas when marine scientists measured it over the past summer.
Nitrates are naturally found in soil and water, but high levels of exposure have been linked to birth defects, cancer and a dangerous condition known as blue baby syndrome in infants, which results from low levels of oxygen in the blood. Few water supplies in the US have levels of nitrates above the federal limit of 10 parts per million, which was set 25 years ago to prevent blue baby syndrome, but studies have found that the risk of cancer increases at levels as low as 5 parts per million.
Treating polluted water is expensive, and drinking water utilities often use chlorine and other disinfecting treatments when agricultural pollution contaminates sources of drinking water with manure and other pollutants. When these treatment chemicals interact with plant and animal waste, they create potentially dangerous byproducts such as trihalomethanes (THMs), a group of chemicals linked to liver, kidney and intestinal tumors in animals, according to the Environmental Working Group.
The EPA sets limits on the amount of THMs allowed in drinking water, but environmentalists say those limits were based on the technical feasibility of removing the chemicals, not concerns over their long-term toxicity. In 2010, state scientists in California estimated that levels 100 times lower the legal limit would pose a one-in-a-million lifetime risk of cancer.
Nationwide, water supplies in 1,647 communities, serving 4.4 million people, are contaminated with THMs in amounts at least 75 times higher than California’s one-in-a-million cancer risk level. In 2014 and 2015, 411 of those communities had levels of THMs at or above the EPA’s limits, and two-thirds were found in five states with high levels of agricultural pollution — Louisiana, California, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas. (You can find out if THMs and other pollutants are in your water supply using this database.)
Craig Cox, the Environmental Working Group’s vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said farmers can take simple steps to reduce agricultural runoff, but too few farmers are taking action. Agricultural trade groups have considerable political clout in Washington, and farmers are exempt from many state and federal environmental regulations. A federal program pays billions of dollars a year to farmers that adopt conservation practices; however, that money does not always support the best pollution control methods.
“Decades of ill-conceived federal farm policy has been a driving factor in this situation we have today that puts millions of American families at risk of drinking tap water contaminated with these dangerous pollutants,” Cox said in a statement.
Environmentalists in the Gulf spent years fighting for tougher regulation of industrial farming to protect waterways from runoff and ultimately reduce the size of the dead zone, even filing an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to act during the Obama administration. The EPA did introduce eight policy guidelines to help states reduce fertilizer pollution in 2011, but no states have implemented more than two of them because the program is largely voluntarily, according to the Mississippi River Collaborative.
Now that the Trump administration is in charge, prospects for establishing tougher standards are slim at best.
“I don’t have a whole lot of confidence that the feds will be taking stronger steps to make sure that nitrogen pollution isn’t getting into our drinking [water] supply,” Rota told Truthout.
Unable to change farming practices with regulation, activists are now focusing on brand-name companies that buy from industrial farms. Mighty Earth recently mapped high levels of nitrates in Midwestern waterways and found that supply chains for major meat companies were responsible for much of the fertilizer pollution. Tyson Foods, which produces roughly 20 percent of the country’s meat supply through brands, such as Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farms, Ball Park and Sara Lee, stood out from the rest, with major processing facilities in all five states that are top contributors to pollution in the Gulf.
Activists across the country are now calling on Tyson directly, demanding that the company pressure its subsidiaries and suppliers to clean up their acts. Audrey Beedle, a community organizer with the Clean It Up Tyson campaign in Louisiana, said that Tyson’s new CEO has shown interest in sustainability, and activists see an opening to hold the company to task. Unlike individual farmers, large companies like Tyson are more responsive to pressure from consumers.
“They are a household name; everybody knows Tyson,” Beedle said in an interview. “People want to know what’s in their food. They are sick of unchecked corporations.”
Activists say there are several methods farms can use to prevent agricultural runoff, including rotating crops with small grains, planting cover crops, optimizing fertilizer applications to prevent runoff and using conservation tillage practices. They are also calling for a moratorium on the further clearing of native prairie ecosystems for industrial farming.
Tyson, which runs meat packaging and processing plants, not farms, claims it’s “misleading” to single out one company when water pollution is a problem across the agriculture industry. Nearly 40 percent of corn, for example, is grown to produce ethanol, not meat. In a statement to Truthout, Tyson said that real change on this issue requires “a broad coalition of stakeholders,” and the company is working with trade associations and researchers to “promote continuous improvement in how we and our suppliers operate.”
Rota said individual farmers generally don’t want to cause problems in their own communities or downstream. He thinks they will do the right thing if they are provided with the right solutions and held accountable.
“Farmers aren’t bad people, and I don’t know of any farmer who goes out to say, ‘I’m going to pollute other people’s drinking water,'” Rota said. “But they are business people, and they need to be responsible for their businesses.”
Raising cattle contributes to global warming in a big way. The animals expel large amounts of methane when they burp and fart, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide. U.S. beef production, in fact, roughly equals the annual emissions of 24 million cars, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. That’s a lot of methane.
Researchers think there may be a better way. Rather than ask people to give up beef, they are trying to design more climate-friendly cattle. The goal is to breed animals with digestive systems that can create less methane. One approach is to tinker with the microbes that live in the rumen, the main organ in the animals’ digestive tract. These tiny organisms enable fermentation during digestion and produce the methane released by the cattle.
Scientists in the United Kingdom last year found that a cow’s genes influence the makeup of these microbial communities, which include bacteria and also Archaea, the primary producers of methane. This discovery means cattle farmers potentially could selectively breed animals that end up with a lower ratio of Archaea-to-bacteria, thus leading to less methane.
“The methanogens — or Archaea, which produce methane — are totally different from bacteria, so we could determine their abundances in the rumen samples,” said Rainer Roehe, professor of animal genetics at Scotland’s Rural College. Roehe studied the composition of microbes in sample animals and established that the host animals’ genes were responsible for their makeup. “The higher the Archaea-to-bacteria ratio, the larger the amount of methane emissions,” he said.
His study, which appeared in PLOS Genetics, recently won the journal’s prestigious genetics research prize. The journal called the work “the first step toward breeding low-emission cattle, which will become increasingly important in the face of growing global demand for meat.” The research identified specific microbial “profiles,” that is, combinations of microbes, which could help determine which cattle digest their feed more efficiently, and emit less methane.
“These can then be used as selection criteria to mitigate methane emissions,” Roehe said. “The selection to reduce methane emissions would be permanent, cumulative and sustainable over generations as with any other trait, such as growth rate, milk yield, etc. used in animal breeding.” This, over time, “would have a substantial impact on methane emissions from livestock,” Roehe said.
He predicted the approach not only would reduce the environmental footprint of beef production, but it would also enable farmers to produce meat more cost effectively. It also likely would improve animals’ health and improve the quality of meat, since rumen microbial fermentation enhances the production of omega-3 fatty acids, he said.
He and his colleagues tested 72 animals — eight descendants from each of nine sires — in order to predict the effect of their genes on the microbial community, Roehe explained. “The only common factor of these progenies was its genes inherited from its sire,” he said.
“Archaea and bacteria are available in the rumen of all ruminates,” he said. “What we determined are the abundances of these Archaea and bacteria in the rumen of each animal and then calculated their ratio, which was correlated to methane emissions.”
They analyzed the samples and found that inherited genes “influenced significantly methane emissions [and] the Archaea-to-bacteria ratio,” he said. They determined that more than 80 percent of the methane emissions could be explained by the “relative abundance” of 20 genes, he said. Even with different diets and different breeds of cattle, the outcome remained the same. “That means that the animals’ genetics shapes the composition of its own microbial community,” he said.
There also likely are biological factors involved, including salvia production, which influences pH in the rumen — “and thus the living conditions of the rumen microbial community” — the physical size, structural differences and contraction of the rumen, which affects the rate at which digested food passes through the rumen, and even “crosstalk” between rumen microbes and other cells, he said.
In practice, breeders would need rumen samples from many animals to determine their genetic makeup. While the research still is in the experimental stages, Roehe said, “we are working with breeding organizations together to prove the efficiency of the system under practical conditions.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.
All I ever had to see of the dairy industry to hate it were images of calves torn from their mothers to be isolated, tremblingly, in solitary crates and hutches. All I ever had to hear were the mothers crying for their stolen newborns. This is not just big dairy operations; it is dairy farming. I remember back in the 1970s being taken by a friend to a small dairy farm in Pennsylvania and seeing the cows and the mud and the cement milking “parlor” and the milking machinery. That was my first glimpse of a bizarre and sickening business considered by everyone I grew up with as “normal.” In fact, it wasn’t “considered” at all.
Whenever possible, I post comments to food section articles in The Washington Post and elsewhere pushing back against claims that the mammary milk stolen from mother cows and goats is “necessary” for human calcium; in reality, interspecies mammary milk is not even digestible by the majority of the human population. Even if it were, the business would be what it is, ugly. Despite the machinery, packaging and other things between themselves and the cow or goat, consumers of mammary-gland products are essentially sucking the nipples of a nursing mother robbed of her baby and her baby’s birthright.
I’m one of those people who never realized for the longest time that in order to produce milk, a cow, like all mammals, has to be pregnant. Reading “The Cookbook for People Who Love Animals” in 1983 turned on a light bulb in my brain. That cookbook described how dairy cows have been genetically manipulated to produce such an unnatural amount of milk for human consumption that their udders drag on the milking parlor floor and workers tramp on those swollen, dragging udders without a thought.
The cows, meanwhile, are drained of the calcium they need for their own bones, which are being depleted in order to produce milk for cheese pizzas and anything else it can be poured into for profit. Like hens manipulated for excessive egg shell production, dairy cows develop osteoporosis and painful lameness. They develop mastitis, a painful infection in their udders that leaks pus into their milk. A man who grew up on a family dairy farm in Maryland once told me that they sometimes inserted large antibiotic syringes directly into the cow’s udders to treat the infection.
The bodies of dairy cows are disproportioned by the weight and drag of their abnormal udders, and the cows have to be gotten rid of as soon as they no longer pay their way. Like hens bred for egg production, the cows’ bodies are mere envelopes for their ovaries; after that, they’re done with.
In her book Slaughterhouse, Gail Eisnitz writes that every hamburger contains about 100 “spent” dairy cows. Think about that the next time you pass by the wormy messes in the meat display counter.
Slaughterhouse was first published in 1997. Twenty years ago, Gail Eisnitz bore witness to events that are the same today as they were then: Your worst nightmares are “normal agricultural practices.” (See my review of Slaughterhouse.)
Articles I’ve read in agribusiness publications about cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs and other farmed animals being locked in a building in which a fire broke out, quote the “humane” family farmer: “At least no one got hurt.” I recall an article about a small dairy farm’s cows – those who did not die in the barn fire but were suffering badly from smoke inhalation – being held without help on the farm until the auction truck came to take them away.
Farmers are not sentimental about “their” animals, and this is a source of pride with them. Yet they have no problem creating smarmy, cloyingly sentimental and dishonest ads on TV and elsewhere about their “wholesome” enterprise and their “humane” animal care – anything to anesthetize the public. Each time I see one of these “dairy pure” types of ads with a farmer holding an inert newborn calf (just taken away from his or her mother), I want to puke and weep with sadness and disgust.
I want all forms of animal agribusiness to be abolished forever asap. I support whatever will make that happen. I will never stop working for an animal-free food supply and for animals themselves until I die trying.
Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns
In the future, the breeding of the climate-friendly cow can be speeded up by using genetic information. A recent study identifies areas in the cow’s genotype which are linked to the amount of methane it produces. Cows subjected to study did not unnecessarily chew their cuds when being placed in glass cases.
Of the greenhouse gases produced by humans, 16 per cent consists of methane, of which one third originates in cattle production: more than one billion cattle graze the planet, and each of them emit around 500 litres of methane every day, thereby warming up the climate.
Could it be possible to produce a cow with lower methane emissions through the means available for breeding? The genotype and feed affect a cow’s microbial make-up and functioning. Microbes in the cow’s intestine and rumen on their part play a key role in the functioning of the cow’s entire biological system. “A similar interaction was previously detected in humans,” says Johanna Vilkki, professor at Luke.
As part of a project named RuminOmics, led by the University of Aberdeen and funded by the EU, the Natural Resources Institute Finland, in collaboration with ten other European research institutes, investigated the interaction between a ruminant’s genotype, feed, and the microbial make-up of the rumen, examining the role these factors played in the energy-efficiency of dairy cattle and their methane emissions.
Significant differences in methane production between individuals
Under the RuminOmics project, one thousand cows were examined in different European countries. One hundred Ayshire cows visited a metabolic chamber, located in Luke’s Jokioinen cowshed, in which their methane emissions were measured. In addition, their digestion, production characteristics, energy-efficiency and metabolism, as well as their microbial make-up, were monitored.
Substantial differences in measurement results were found between different farms and countries, as feeding practices, for example, differ from each other a great deal. It was expected that Finnish and Swedish cows would produce more methane than cows in other countries. This is attributable to their feed which is dominated by silage, not by the climate.
“If the methane emissions from cows are to be reduced, a straightforward approach according to which only cows with low emissions are left in the livestock is perhaps not the best solution. On the contrary, the results indicate that many cows with low methane emissions are inefficient due to the fact that they are unable to make use contained in fodder.
Relative methane emissions of a cow per production unit, kilo of milk or beef are reduced if the production level or production age are increased.
Therefore, it makes sense, from an ethical and environmental perspective, to favour cows with an excellent production capability and keep them in production for as long as possible,” Viikki says by way of recommendation.
Genes reveal a cow with low emission
Information available in the near future will indicate whether or not cows with low emissions and a good production capability can be selected for breeding on the basis of genetic data. The study identified areas in the cow’s genotype, the variation of which was linked to the amount of methane produced per kilo of milk produced.
“We will investigate whether these genes affect the variation in the microbial make-up of cows’ rumen or other characteristics of cows such as the size of their rumen, production level of capability to use fodder.”
Reduced emissions and healthier milk
Cows’ fodder contains a great deal of unsaturated fatty acids, but the microbes in the rumen transform them into saturated fatty acids. Therefore, approximately 70 percent of the fats in milk comprises solid fats.
The make-up of fatty acids in the cows studied was measured, and its connection to the microbial make-up of the rumen was examined. Further research will reveal whether a cow’s fatty acid make-up indicates the cow’s methane emissions.
“By changing the feed of cows, we seek to reduce the proportion of microbes causing methane emissions, the amount of which is also related to the amount of saturated fatty acids in milk. Using this method, we can perhaps also change the nutritional make-up of milk in a healthier direction,” Viikki remarks.
What is a metabolic chamber?
Methane production of dairy cattle is measured in the four metabolic chambers at Luke’s experimental cowshed in Minkiö. Animal well-being has been taken into consideration in the planning of the chambers.
In order to create an agreeable environment for the cows in their chambers of 20 cubic metres in volume, they have been placed in the vicinity of other cows in the cowshed. The chambers have a steel framework with transparent polycarbonate walls, allowing the cows to see the other cows in the herd. To ensure safety, the chambers have an emergency exit which will open if the equipment experiences a power outage or the carbon dioxide level reaches too high a value.
In the course of studies, air intake and outflow is measured for the concentration of carbon dioxide, oxygen, methane and hydrogen using a gas analyser. The volume of air flow is measured using a mass flowmeter.
Cows’ daily feed consumption and milk production is measured and recorded, and the manure and urine produced is collected. This will enable the analysis of the energy metabolism of dairy cattle in addition to methane measurements.
The American appetite for meat — which is 4 times the global average — is eating away at wild habitat, water and even our climate. Yet while other governments have taken specific steps to recommend diets lower in meat and dairy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to cater to the livestock industry, leaving sustainability out of important policy conversations like our national dietary guidelines.
Think about it: Americans eat 50 billion pounds of meat a year, yet our farms don’t even produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet the 2.5 cups a day recommended in the national dietary guidelines. Something is wrong with this picture.
It’s time for the USDA to create a plan to address the urgent need for Americans to reduce meat and dairy consumption and eat a healthy, sustainable diet. National guidelines on diets have enormous influence on how people eat, including in schools and government facilities.
Join us in urging the USDA to issue a public statement and plan of action to promote a sustainable American diet.