Dr. Anne Koontz – Making Agri-Food Science More Palatable for Consumers
As a research scientist at Alltech, Dr. Anne Koontz lives out her passion for science communication, outreach and international collaboration by helping farmers become more sustainable and efficient. She joined the Ag Future podcast to discuss how to support farmers by effectively communicating to those outside of the agri-food industry the realities of the environmental impact of animal production and how farmers have worked for more sustainable operations through science and research.
The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Dr. Anne Koontz hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Tom: I'm Tom Martin. Dr. Anne Koontz is a research scientist for Alltech with a strong interest in science communication, outreach, and international collaboration. We thank you for joining us, Dr. Koontz.
Dr. Koontz: Thank you for having me, Tom.
Tom: So, do people today understand the realities of scientific inquiry? Can science kind of be boiled down to recognizing that the more we know, the more we know we don't know?
Dr. Koontz: That is a fairly accurate statement. The important thing to remember about science and one of the things that's really hard for people who don't work in a scientific field is that science is constantly changing and updating itself whether we're finding new ways to ask a question, new ways to measure response. We're adding to that knowledge base constantly and reevaluating what we know. I have a very good friend who’s a brilliant scientist in her own right, Elizabeth Culprice, who wrote on Facebook not long ago. I have to quote this because it was just so perfect for this conversation. She said, “Perhaps the greatest utterance of the scientist is I don't know. Scientists never know. But upon seeing what we don't know, our next thought is how can I figure it out? How can I get closer to knowing? Formatting the known, creating a testable guess to what we think it could be and testing it, and moving closer to one step of knowing is what we do.” And I couldn't say it any better than she did of what scientists do and how important is to understand that science is all about not knowing and wanting to know what we don't know.
Tom: So, I guess we should filter through that: when we hear that there has been a scientific discovery or finding that, ‘yeah, that's true, but it could change in the future as more scientific inquiry is conducted.’
Dr. Koontz: That's absolutely correct, Tom. And I think the other aspect of that that’s important when we have these kind of conversations and we talk about science communication and science outreach is the idea that we often have to simplify things. The way that I would explain gravity to, you know, my 8-year-old niece is very different than the way that I would discuss gravity with another scientist. So, it is a new onset of understanding that come as we increase things. I'm a big fan of— You’ll see probably through the rest of this conversation as well. But one of my favorite things comes out of The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett. And he said that these sorts of simplification are simply lies we tell children and they’re okay types of lies because it's the only way that people at that age can understand that concept, but we need to be— When we’re teaching those simplifications that are constantly reminding people that as you get older, as you have more knowledge and more understanding, those concepts become more and more complex.
Tom: Well, Anne, I know that you think a lot about science communication and I’d like to turn to that with regard to the farm and I’m wondering how have digital media, and broader connection, and social media changed the way farmers communicate what they're doing.
Dr. Koontz: I think it has fundamentally changed the way farmers communicate with the greater audience around them. The ability to go direct to the world and say “look, this is my farm; this is what I'm doing today; here, let me walk you through my barn or take a ride on my tractor together” and show both the good and the bad of farming is really important. These farmers that are willing to do this, this type of communication, are really letting everyone into their everyday lives and showing the good, showing the bad, showing the frustrations and the excitement that come with farming, and making an industry that a very small percentage of our population work in— making that industry much more relatable to those who don't have access to a farm.
Tom: How can scientists like you in the agrifood industry support those narratives that farmers are sharing with consumers through TikTok or Instagram?
Dr. Koontz: That’s a really great question, Tom. And I love this. The most important thing is to like what they're doing, share them with your platform, share them with your followers so you keep getting their message out there. And if you're willing to dive into the conversations— Now, sometimes they can get a bit heated and touchy when you get into the comments on a lot of those farmer’s pages. And I applaud every single one of the farmers who are willing to take that on and be on social media in that way, but the things that we can do as scientists especially is to backup what the farmers are saying. So, show that the farmers aren’t unique cases and link to other farmers who are saying and doing the same thing. And when people start asking, you know, why do they do it this way, why are you making this particular decision, to then link and discuss the science and the research that goes into those decisions that farmers are making and so that it's not just an arbitrary, we've always done it this way or I think this is right for me, but there is actually a huge knowledge base of science and research that is guiding all of these to allow farmers to be both sustainable and productive.
Tom: Climate change and the greenhouse gases contributing to it have never been under as much scrutiny as they are today. And agriculture is often singled out as a culprit, ruminants and cattle in particular. As one whose work focuses on understanding impacts of animal production on the environment, how do you respond to that?
Dr. Koontz: My first answer is always going to be carefully. The most important thing to me is don’t deny and don’t get angry. Absolutely agriculture and cattle in particular contribute to greenhouse gases and global climate change. I like to start with whatever resource or citation the person that I'm talking to is pulling from. So, say someone has said, you know, cows are responsible for 14% of greenhouse gas emission. Let's work with that number. That number comes from the FAO. It's not wrong, but it’s actually the easy global figure for all of animal agriculture. So, if we put that in the context for most of the conversations lately have been in the U.S., so in the United States, the EPA gives the number of greenhouse gas emissions of 10% for all of agriculture with about 35% of that being animal agriculture and ruminant in particular. Now, that 34% sounds like a lot, but 34% of 10%, which means it’s 3.9% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emission. Now, if we compare that back to other sectors, which I think is absolutely critical, the same EPA says that 29% of greenhouse gases come from transportation sector and 25% are related to energy production. When you put that 3.9% or 3.4% of emissions from ruminants in that context, the 29% for transportation and 25% for electricity, it doesn't seem quite important. But if all you see is that, you know, 34% of agriculture is ruminants or 14.5% of global greenhouse gases are agriculture, those numbers seem scary and big. So, it's really important to have the context and the comparisons for these conversations. And like I said, don’t deny. Do we contribute? Absolutely. Are we constantly working to contribute less? Yes.
Tom: Is it accurate to equate the climate impact of methane emissions with the impact of carbon dioxide? In other words, are there important differences in the nature of these emissions?
Dr. Koontz: So, this is one of those questions where I have to refer back to the beginning of our conversation and say I'm not an expert in this particular thing. And this is a topic that is rapidly evolving in the science community. So, to hit on some of the high points, there's a difference between the carbon dioxide and methane in how they react within the atmosphere. So, carbon dioxide is considered a stock gas, which means it hangs around in the atmosphere once it's produced for a very long time. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 years. Methane on the other hand is considered a slow gas, which means that it only hangs out in the atmosphere for about 10 years and then it's broken down through a process called hydroxyl oxidation. So, putting that in the context of a big picture and why this has become a hot topic within agriculture in particular is that plants take up carbon dioxide and carbon sources from the environment. That's something we all learned in school generally. And those plants store that carbon and complex types of molecules. Carbohydrates, etc. So, when these plants then are consumed by animals in agriculture, those carbon-based molecules are broken down. And in a cow, some of that is converted to methane and release them again into the atmosphere. But if that methane is then broken down in 10 years into carbon dioxide, some portion of our carbon dioxide is taken up by plant. And this cycle just continues again and again. So, if we’re not significantly increasing the amount of methane we’re putting back into the atmosphere in comparison to the amount we're taking out, then perhaps we're a little more carbon neutral than we thought we were at least in that particular aspect of our carbon footprint. Now, there's a lot more to that discussion than in my very simplified overview right there. It is very much a current topic of debate and discussion within agriculture, within climate science. And it is one that I'll be keeping an eye on for sure for the next few years.
Tom: Well, you're right. I'm wondering if there's a danger that this increasing clamor for a reduction in livestock emissions might upstage the effort to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
Dr. Koontz: I think that's a very good conversation to have and it's a touchy topic, Tom. I mean in true scientific fashion, again, I'm going to say it depends. So, as I said before, does agriculture contribute?
Absolutely. Do we need to reduce that contribution? If we can, yes. Do fossil fuels contribute? Again, absolutely. Do they need to reduce their contribution? Certainly. But when we start equating those things by simply saying they're both contributors, that’s where it gets difficult because, as I said before, the contribution coming from livestock and agriculture is significantly less than the contribution that’s coming from transportation and energy sectors that are largely fossil fuel based. But when you put that to someone as far as what they can do in their everyday life to reduce their personal impact, it's much easier to say “well, I'm just not going to eat meat one day a week” than it is to say “well, I’m gonna stop using my car one day a week.” Those are two very different lifestyle changes and one is going to be far more approachable to most people.
Tom: Pollution from the really large farm operations runs off into streams that feed into major waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico. And that contributes to algal blooms, dead zones that impact drinking water supplies, aquatic ecosystems, recreation, people's livelihoods. What's your perspective on these large scale operations?
Dr. Koontz: I think this is another one of those areas, Tom, that is a touchy subject, but an incredibly important subject. There is no doubt that agricultural runoffs contribute to all of these dead zones and issues with our water quality throughout the world But it is one of those places where it is very important, again, to look at contribution. And unfortunately, I don’t have those numbers right in front of me because I’ve not seen them. This is not an area that I’ve spent a lot of time looking into as a scientist, but I do know that, well, agricultural runoff is significant. There is the more recent research coming out of especially Duke University in North Carolina that's looking at dead zones in urban streams and what they're finding is that those exist there as well. And so, we have to really start examining not only agriculture's contribution to these issues, but also our urban footprint, you know. One thing I paid attention to for years and tried to look at on my own property is the use of salt and ice melt ‘cause I could use salt as a weed killer. But when I use salt as an ice melt in the winter, that salt is staying in the environment, contributing to my grass not growing or contamination of my soil around my own property. And when we think about that scaled up to a global issue of how much salt and other ice melt type products we put on to roadways and where does that ultimately end up and what is it affecting as far as the environmental around us, again, I don’t wanna downplay agricultural contribution because we absolutely do have an agricultural contribution. But there are other factors that come into this issue of dead zones, water quality, and soil loss. And I know that within agriculture, farmers are constantly looking at adding buffer zones, changing the way they plant, changing the way they kill, using precision farming to really only get the nutrients where they need to be when they need to be there so that we are minimizing that loss or leaching. And I think they’re doing everything they can as the information and technology becomes available. And that’s really all we can ask.
Tom: Well, how do you think agriculture can improve not just the perception, but the reality of its environmental sustainability?
Dr. Koontz: Those are two very different questions. I think the reality about environmental sustainability is very much already there. I've never met a farmer who didn't absolutely love the land they worked with and care about it and want it be there for multiple generations down the road. And because of that, they're generally very aware of what they're doing and how it affects the world around them. Now, whether or not that's been accurately communicated, that's an issue, but I think as we mentioned before, getting access directly to consumers and the rest of the world, your social media and other interaction capabilities is really changing. The ability to know that a farmer is person and not just someone who is, you know, essentially looking at the land like it’s a factory floor and trying to get more and more out of it as best they can, but genuinely cares and wants to do the best they can to produce safe healthy food while also taking care of the land they work with is really critical. And so, I think it's a balance. I think the reality is already there and we are continuing to push that reality forward with the science that’s done by researchers like myself and then the implementation of that science by the farmers and ranchers around the world. It's really a focus on that perception through communications that is critical.
Tom: Okay. Big change of subject here, but this is a question I’ve been looking forward to asking. Are doors opening to women in the agrisciences?
Dr. Koontz: You know, Tom, that's not a terrible question. But at the same time, I want to rephrase it and look at it— You know, I'm a woman who's been in agriscience in some way, shape, or form my entire life. I grew up with access to farm through my grandparents, knew I wanted to be in agriculture fairly early on in my life, knew I wanted to be a scientist fairly early on in life. And I honestly personally never had a lot of pushback to being a woman in science. You always run into the odd person that proves you wrong. But you know, they're manageable. And so, I think not only are doors opening, but they are open. And I see that because more and more of the scientists I collaborate with around the world are women. And more and more of the farmers I talk to are women. And women are no doubt a driving force in agriscience. And we're going to hear more and more of us out there talking, and communicating, and showing you what our lives are like, and why you should also be in agriscience.
Tom: Okay. Let's talk about Alltech’s Planet of Plenty mission, and tell me how science informs or plays a role in that mission.
Dr. Koontz: Absolutely. So, the three leaves that are in the Planet of Plenty logo are really critical. And we’ve given meaning to each of those 3 leaves. Science, sustainability, and storytelling. So, from that, you obviously can see that science is very much at the core of Planet of Plenty. Science is guiding the development of sustainability solutions. The science is guiding the changes we’re making and supporting farmers in farming options and ranching management. And science underpins all of the stories that are being showcased in the Planet of Plenty ongoing activities. And so, it’s really all about making that science applicable and communicating it very well to the world.
Tom: Why would you say it's important not just to the ag industry, but to consumers as well, that events such as the ONE Ideas Conference are held annually?
Dr. Koontz: And here, we're right back to the beginning, aren’t we, Tom? Knowledge is constantly growing and everything else is changing. And honestly, I don't think the speed of change is going to slow down. If anything, it's just going to continue to increase. Because that change has been so rapidly, there's so much technology, and knowledge, and ideas that are generated every year, and so having these kinds of ability to get together, and talk, and discuss, and see what's new around the world on an annual basis really just gives you that one-stop shop for new ideas and new concepts. The other aspect that is absolutely one of my favorite things about Alltech’s One Conference is the international diversity. Well, in non-COVID times, I get to travel a fair bit for my job and see how things are done in a lot of different places and that gives me so many connections because, you know, someone encounters a problem— the same problem in different places. But because of their available resources, and cultural differences, and climate, and everything else, they solve that problem in a different way. And so, when you can start bringing those different solutions to the same problem and in discussing those things on an international level, you really start to find some of the key things that tie together and you can make those solutions stronger in each different location.
Tom: You know, it's been several years now, but I remember when we discussed CRISPR technology at the ONE Ideas Conference. And at that time, it seemed novel. It seemed exotic, but here we are today with evidently a breakthrough in CRISPR technology that might lead to restoring the vision of the blind.
Dr. Koontz: It is absolutely amazing. I have so many stunning scientist friends who work in cutting-edge technology. And if I could just communicate what they're doing to the public on a daily basis, I would be overwhelmed. Science is moving so fast. We're seeing new things every day. And there's no doubt that Alltech has made it and absolutely key point to be on the forefront of that change in technology and knowledge and make sure that we're presenting the best of those changes and knowledge update to the people that come to our conferences and that’s just fun.
Tom: I tend to agree with you. That’s Alltech research scientist, Anne Koontz. Thanks for talking with us, Dr. Koontz.
Dr. Koontz: Thank you for having me.
Tom: And I'm Tom Martin. Thanks for listening.