Livestock industry leaders joined with producers and government officials at a virtual forum Tuesday to consider the question of how animal agriculture can sustainably feed a growing world.

The forum, co-sponsored by Elanco and Agri-Pulse, brought discussion of the role animal agriculture can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to feed a growing population. It came before next week's United Nations Food Systems Summit, which will bring together government officials from across the world to ponder the same questions.

“It is allowing our industry a seat at the table to be able to show how we can play a critical role in reducing obesity, increasing people's access to protein in hunger, while cooling the climate in the next nine years,” Jeff Simmons, president and CEO of Elanco Animal Health, said at the forum. “Candidly, I think our data shows and science shows the only way to do this is by methane. And we have a bigger impact on that than anybody else.”

Simmons noted animal proteins are currently some of the most widely consumed products across the world. However, raising livestock has been attributed as a factor in climate emissions due to the methane the animals emit. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, manure from domestic livestock made up 9% of U.S. methane emissions in 2019. 

“Agriculture, in general, is contributing to climate change and animals, in some cases, have also been called out as contributing to climate change,” Agnes Kalibata, the United Nations special envoy to the Food Systems Summit, said at the event. “We need to address that challenge — we can't just walk away from it.”

At the upcoming Food Systems Summit, she wants to see leaders and important private sector players look for ways to cooperate to address both hunger and climate change across the globe, as well as equity and the issues brought about by COVID-19. She said while animals do cause some of the problems associated with climate change, they can also be part of the solution. 

“There are ways of managing some of the products that come from animals that can definitely impact how much they impact the environment,” she said. 

Later, she added: “For me, the issue is that we look at the science, we look at innovation, but also we look at the realities of the footprint. If businesses can demonstrate that they can actually reduce footprint, then we need to work with them to reduce that footprint.”

A few producers spoke about how they were attempting to lower their environmental footprint. Mike McCloskey, the co-founder of Select Milk Producers and owner of Curtis Creek Dairy Farms, said the dairy has implemented a number of measures to lower its carbon footprint.

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Curtis Creek harvests all of its cow manure and has enough digesters to produce electricity to power the farm. He also said that the farm’s cows are being bred to be more feed efficient and emit less methane. 

“When you start adding all these things up … you can start thinking of animals that are producing 70% less methane,” he said. 

Several companies and organizations have announced sustainability commitments and goals to achieve reductions - or even neutrality - in their greenhouse gas emissions at various points over the next few decades. Simmons pressed the conference's virtual attendees to recognize the value of protein production in diets all over the world and to press for recognition of the potential emissions reductions available in the production of meat, milk, eggs and fish. 

"We need to get on offense, not defense," he said, "because the world needs what we have more than ever."

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