Alltech ONE Dublin: Feeding people while preserving the planet
Agriculture is at the heart of many important conversations in 2023. And whether the issue at hand is environmental concerns, the production of enough nutritious food for the global population or one of many other contentious topics, agricultural producers are often seen as anti-heroes — when, in reality, the agriculture industry has the greatest potential to make a positive impact on the world.
Proof of this positive impact was on display during the opening keynote addresses at Alltech ONE Dublin, the second stop on the Alltech ONE World Tour. Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech, opened the conference with an assertion that the widespread image of agriculture as a villain makes it more important than ever to tell the story of how animal and food production benefits our planet.
“Bad news is out there, and it does get the eyeballs,” he said. “That’s why I think it's critical for every business to be dedicating resources to communicating. And to me, that's the headline: ‘We need our animals. We capture more carbon with them than we would without them.’”
Lyons was joined onstage by Dr. Vaughn Holder, ruminant research director at Alltech, and Nikki Putnam Badding, director of human nutrition initiatives at Alltech and managing director of Acutia, who both illustrated how agriculture plays a vital role in both protecting the environment and ensuring the health of all people.
“We have two of the most important jobs in the world: We have to nourish our population and we have to preserve our planet for future generations,” Lyons said. “The challenge to all of us is to come up with the solutions that are going to help us."
“This is about ideas,” he continued. “It's about inspiration — and, I think, taking some risks, because we all know what the challenges are. And we need to think about them in a different way.”
Cattle: The secret weapon to sequestering carbon
Climate change is widespread and will only continue to intensify, placing a great strain on the world’s resources. Agricultural production is often cited as a significant factor in climate change — but in reality, as Holder outlined in his address at Alltech ONE Dublin, agriculture is one of the only industries with the ability to not only reduce its own greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but to capture and sequester emissions released by other industries.
“We exist at the interface between the world's biggest carbon-capture and machinery industry, and that's agriculture,” he said.
Alltech has been studying the agriculture industry’s ability to sequester carbon through a research alliance based on the 10,000-acre Buck Island Ranch in Lake Placid, Florida. During their research at Buck Island, the Alltech team has seen first-hand that cattle can help sequester carbon through grazing — which counters the popular argument that eliminating cattle production will also reduce emissions.
“We have more than enough capacity to put this carbon away,” Holder said. “So, this is what we're focusing on as a research group, is trying to understand this entire carbon cycle so that we can design interventions and identify levers that can allow us to use this cycle to ameliorate not only the methane side of carbon cycle but the big elephant in the room, which is CO2.”
As Holder referenced, much of the general conversation about agricultural — and, specifically, livestock — production focuses on the issue of methane, but the data has borne out that carbon dioxide is a much more dangerous foe.
“Carbon dioxide is the problem,” Holder said. “And if we don't figure out a way to suck carbon dioxide out of the environment, no matter what we do to methane, it's not going to make a difference."
“I think methane is important; don't get me wrong,” he added. “But we have to look at it in a little bit of a different framing. Fossil fuels are one-way highway.”
To explain this concept further, Holder argued that the methane produced by cows is fundamentally different from carbon dioxide, which accumulates in the atmosphere. “It stays where it was; it goes nowhere,” he said. Methane, on the other hand, can be mitigated and cycled out much more quickly.
“Methane has some pretty cool characteristics that allows it to be somewhat of an opportunity for us, rather than a threat to the industry,” he said.
To start with, contrary to popular belief, methane isn’t just produced by cows; it’s produced by “things that ferment,” Holder explained, including the feeds eaten by cattle herds. “And whether that's in a cow’s rumen or whether that's in the field, you're still going to be getting methane out of that.”
So, what would happen to these feeds and their byproducts if cattle production was eliminated? The consequences would be dire, Holder warned.
“Eighty-six percent of global livestock feed currently goes through livestock,” he said. “And that does two things for us: It allows us to actually get some of that food back to our food systems, but it also prevents that feed from fermenting out in the field and causing their own source of greenhouse gases. And if you put it into compost, which is what a lot of people would have you do, five times the amount of greenhouse gases will come off of those byproducts.”
This is the kind of fact that Holder wishes made headlines, as it is somewhat counterintuitive to what the average person might believe.
“When we are making recommendations on changing our food systems to save the environment, we've got to be thinking about these types of things,” he said. “The systemic effects of what we are doing are probably much more important than the direct interventions that we are trying to make in the first place.”
Holder has seen first-hand the positive impact of agriculture on the planet — and he hopes the rest of the world can see it, too, so that ag producers can get back to their original mission.
“We have a massive role play in climate change, and I don't think there's another industry that has a similar position,” Holder said. “But we can't lose sight of what our primary purpose is, and that's feeding people, sustaining the world. That's the most important component, in my opinion, of sustainability. We have to keep food production primary when we are thinking about changing these systems.”
Producing nutritious food for all
In her opening remarks, Putnam Badding directly echoed Holder’s comments about the broader definition of sustainability — but also took them a step further by expanding on the notion of what it really means to maintain a healthy populace.
“Sustainability doesn't begin and end with environmental impact,” she argued. “We must look after the long-term health of the planet and the people who share it. But providing enough food is not enough. We must change the dialogue from providing enough food to providing enough nutrition.”
One in ten people in the world are undernourished, and one in four are considered malnourished — equaling over 2 billion people worldwide. As Putnam Badding explained, malnutrition comes in many forms, including “undernutrition,” or a lack of calories, protein and micronutrients. As a result, the ag industry must start focusing on more than simply producing enough food for the world; we must also ensure that we are providing the most nutrient-dense food possible. And, as Putnam Badding explained, the journey to producing truly nutritious food begins right under our feet.
“Nutrition, for humans, starts in the soil,” she said. “More nutrient-dense soil produces higher yields of more nutrient-dense crops. The more nutrient-dense the soil is — through use of regenerative agricultural practices or micronutrient-enriched fertilizers — we can actually produce more nutrient-dense and greater yields of crops.”
Putnam Badding was quick to assure the attendees at Alltech ONE Dublin that she was not downplaying the role of animals in nourishing the planet, as animals provide humans with nutrition that we would not be able to access otherwise.
“Animals are the original up-cyclers,” she said. “They take that biomass that Dr. Holder mentioned is unsuitable for human consumption — we can't eat that; we can't pull nutrients from it — and they create packages of highly bioavailable protein and micronutrient-dense pieces of delicious food for us to consume. And often, they're using land that is not suitable for intensive food production.”
Although animal-derived products and plant-based foods are sometimes pitted against each other, Putnam Badding sees both as critical in the effort to nourish the world.
“This is not a ‘plants versus animals’ discussion. The end goal is nutrition for all, and to truly achieve that, we will rely on both plants and animals,” she said. “Animals provide us with essential nutrients that plants do not, and vice versa. Nutrition security requires all food sources. As we work together to nourish 10 billion people and beyond, we must remember that soil, plants, and animal, environmental and human health are all deeply interrelated.”
Considering the vital role of animal and crop production in helping the global population thrive, Putnam Badding posited that it’s time to give agriculture its due — and for the rest of the world to see it in a new light.
“Our purpose is more than farming. It's more than food production. It's more than environmental sustainability,” she explained. “It's sustaining healthy people and a healthy planet for generations to come. By placing nutritional quality at the heart of agricultural practices, we can truly achieve zero hunger and good health and well-being for all.”
As Putnam Badding, Holder and Lyons all made clear, agriculture does not deserve the bad rap it sometimes receives.
“We see this industry as having the greatest potential to positively shape the future of our planet,” Lyons said.
But it won’t be easy, as all three speakers acknowledged. There are many hurdles ahead — but then again, there always have been for farmers and the agriculture industry. We will be able to cross them together if we see them as a chance to change the world for the better.
“We've got to make sure we embrace the opportunities that are in front of us. Because it is a huge responsibility, but it also is a tremendous, tremendous opportunity,” Lyons said. “This is a time that calls on us to do much more. But isn't that an exciting thing to be a part of?
“Agriculture can really transform things in ways that other industries cannot,” he continued. “Ag truly is at this interface of nourishing the present and preserving the future. And that's tremendously inspiring.”