Agriculture is vital to meeting the world's climate change goals
Buck Island project shows that grazing improves carbon cycling
Healthy, sustainable food systems are vital to achieving the world’s development goals and ensuring global economic growth – but climate change threatens these goals. It disrupts every aspect of agriculture and makes it increasingly difficult to ensure that sustainable nutrition is accessible for the growing global population.
The focus on climate change – and the action needed to help mitigate it – has grown increasingly over the past decade. Nations around the world are taking steps to reduce greenhouse gases and limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, which experts say will help us avoid the worst impacts of climate change, including continued extreme weather events, rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity and food shortages.
Global warming and its consequences remain in the spotlight this week as we celebrate the 53rd anniversary of Earth Day. This year’s theme, “Invest in Our Planet,” calls on businesses, governments and citizens to act boldly to solve the world’s environmental crises. Each year on April 22, more than 1 billion people participate in Earth Day activities, making it the largest civic observation in the world.
Climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying – and it is causing a strain on the world’s energy, food, metals and water. While the current pace and scale of climate action are insufficient to tackle the problem, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said there are clear solutions for securing a livable future for all – and they must be implemented now.
The role of agri-food
As the world looks to implement those solutions, there is a clear opportunity for the agri-food community to lead the way. Agriculture is at the forefront of solutions to nourish and nurture our planet and its people, and consumers expect food producers to step up.
In fact, consumers put the responsibility for improving food sustainability on the food producer above anyone else, according to the 2021 Global Sustainability Insights report by Bord Bia, an Irish state agency that promotes sales of Irish food and horticulture and enables the growth and sustainability of Irish producers.
“Whilst everyone across the value chain has a role to play, food producers are clearly front and center,” said Tara McCarthy, Alltech’s global vice president of ESG. “The proactive role of industry and policymakers in this conversation is absolutely key. Consumers are asking for guidance, for support and for action.”
Implementing sustainability measures can be costly, and the pressures of compliance along the value chain – combined with the current inflationary environment – can jeopardize the economic viability of some primary food producers, farmers and processors, she said. To remain viable, they need solutions that can enhance their businesses' efficiency and enable them to maintain sustainable margins while doing their part for the environment.
The most effective way to ensure that quality nutrition is available to everyone is to improve farmers and producers’ production efficiency, long-term viability and environmental contribution, McCarthy said.
As a leader in the global agriculture industry, Alltech prioritizes the efficient production of nutritious food while working to minimize its own carbon footprint and helping producers worldwide find and implement solutions to their sustainability challenges. Its nutritional solutions help optimize the nutrients in animal feed, thereby supporting the health and efficiency of livestock while reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.
Climate change cannot be solved without agriculture, and agriculture cannot thrive without tackling climate change. We must meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future, said Dr. Vaughn Holder, Alltech’s research project manager for beef nutrition.
“Agriculture has gone from having the most important job in the world to having the two most important jobs in the world: feeding the world and reversing climate change,” he said.
The world needs the nourishment of protein-rich meat, milk, eggs and seafood and crops that are grown in healthy soil. At the same time, we must work to minimize the harmful effects of agricultural practices on the environment – and on animals and humans. This can be accomplished by improving the health of animals and the soil, maximizing the value of feedstuffs, increasing the efficiency of the farm and reinvesting in innovation.
Reducing GHG emissions in agriculture
Agriculture is one major source of GHG emissions, but it’s also a major source of carbon sequestration – the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Unlike any other sector, agriculture has the ability to not only reduce our own GHG emissions but capture and sequester emissions released by other industries.
Through the implementation of leading-edge nutrition and pasture management practices, agriculture is in a unique position to provide the food resources that the world population needs while restoring the planet. If we focus on feed and growth efficiency strategies and carbon sequestration management strategies on grazed lands, agriculture could reduce greenhouse gases by over 50%, according to Dr. Holder.
Improving the performance and productivity of livestock means it takes fewer animals to produce the same amount of food, which reduces the overall environmental footprint of livestock, including GHG emissions.
Grazing animals on land actually benefits the environment and improves carbon cycling, an exciting research project at a beef ranch in Florida has shown. Through an alliance with Archbold Expeditions at Buck Island Ranch, Alltech is measuring the carbon emissions of beef production and evaluating the effects of pasture management, grazing strategies, mineral supplementation and other nutritional strategies. The results have confirmed that carbon-neutral – and even net-positive – beef production is possible at Buck Island, and that same potential likely extends to environments around the world.
The Buck Island project has also helped researchers gain a better understanding of the full carbon cycle on a beef ranch, one that is not solely focused on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the animal, but also natural GHG emissions from the land, the photosynthesis of GHGs and the sequestration of carbon in the soil.
“What Buck Island shows us is that with animals on the land, we capture more carbon than without them,” said Dr. Mark Lyons, Alltech president and CEO. “That is profoundly powerful.”
Animal emissions are not the full story
Discussions around GHGs and global warming often center around agriculture emissions, but we need to think beyond emissions and look at the full cycle, Dr. Holder said.
Ice core data shows that methane and carbon dioxide have risen rapidly to unprecedented levels in the last 70 years. While methane is often the most talked about, carbon dioxide contributes more to global warming. Carbon dioxide is a stock gas with no natural removal cycle and a long lifespan. Stock gases accumulate over time because they stay in the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 65% of global GHG emissions are carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use and industrial processes.
In contrast, methane is a flow gas that has a natural removal cycle through chemical reactions that occur in the atmosphere – and it can be absorbed by soil and vegetation.
As the Buck Island project has shown, agriculture systems have the potential to be net positive in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon cycles, not just neutral, Dr. Holder said. At Buck Island, having cattle grazing the land has resulted in less GHG flux from the land. More emissions were produced, but the amount sequestered offset the difference.
Focusing only on emissions misses the bigger picture, however. The soil’s ability to sequester carbon is a critical part of the story. Alltech Crop Science and one of the newest members of the Alltech family, Ideagro, have a wealth of information and technologies for nourishing the soil through its microbial population. Alltech’s teams continue to investigate how these microbes boost soil chemistry and nutrient density, helping to sequester more carbon in the soil.
Researchers at Buck Island are also working with Alltech E-CO2 and others to develop precision tools to measure methane yields and intensity. The next step is the inclusion of advanced sequestering measurements that will evaluate how grazing, pasture management, nutrition and other strategies affect the carbon cycle and make it possible for beef operations to sequester carbon.
The potential to capture carbon in the soil presents an amazing opportunity for the agri-food community to embrace our critical role in solving climate change, but also to improve soil health, increase crop productivity and promote biodiversity.
“We have to continue to think beyond emissions and beyond methane,” Dr. Holder said.