July 29, 2021

Put your stake in the ground on animal agriculture, sustainability

CARMEL, Ind. — Animal agriculture has an important role in protecting the planet.

“Animal agriculture’s role in a broader, sustainable landscape must be better illustrated as part of the solution, not the primary part of the problem,” said Jeff Simmons, president and CEO of Elanco.

“That’s what this conference is all about,” said Simmons during the 2021 Global Conference on Sustainable Beef organized by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

“I believe it starts at the farm gate and everything we do through the entire value chain must start with the farmer in mind,” he said. “For the global beef industry, our timing has never been more critical following the year that magnified the role of animals and what they do in our lives.”

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is a network that includes about 500 members from 24 countries. Established in 2012, the group includes farmers, processors, retailers, researchers, regulators and policymakers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic shook our system and woke up the world on the importance of healthy animals and making meat, milk, fish and eggs more available and more affordable,” Simmons said.

“2020 also brought more politics, more divide and more agendas that include issues like immigration, trade, science of vaccines and the environment, which are all critical to our industry and livelihoods,” he said. “We don’t have a choice — we must step in right now and lead.”

Goal Setting

The greatest movements happen when collective groups come together and have a common vision for the future, Simmons said.

“If we’re going to achieve the United Nations’ sustainable development goals like zero hunger, good health and well-being, temperature neutrality by 2050, we have to make a difference this decade,” he said.

Goals are the same for many people.

“We want a stable environment with clean air, clean water and high quality food that nourishes people,” Simmons said.

The first step, Simmons said, is to make a personal and organizational commitment.

“We need to put a stake in the ground,” Simmons said.

“In October 2020, Elanco put a stake in the ground on sustainability and animal agriculture with our healthy purpose pledges,” he said. “These decade-long commitments seek to improve the health of people, animals and the planet.”

“We’ve pledged to increase access to care for 3 billion farm animals and to help our customers remove 21 million metric tons of emissions from their farms by 2030,” he said.

Elanco’s commitment, Simmons said, mirrors his personal stake in the ground.

“I plan to create coalitions, simplify our story so we can be understood and walk alongside our industry to move on this road to net zero,” he said.

Simmons stressed the importance of working together.

“Our vision becomes reality when common purposes collide,” he said. “Together we can do hard things for the good of our society around the world.”

Beyond the lives lost to the pandemic, Simmons said, the greatest tragedy of COVID would be if people fail to act on what they have learned.

“Meat, milk and eggs truly matter to people as we saw empty shelves, meat rationing and surging sales of animal-based protein,” he said. “We saw people turn to these foods for comfort and nutrition in times of need.”

Carbon Footprint

Healthy animals play a critical role on the path to net zero, Simmons said.

“Despite only accounting for 4% of the U.S. greenhouse gases, livestock — particularly cattle — are often cited as the leading culprit in air emissions,” he said.

Simmons stressed the importance of investing in farm animal innovation.

“Most of the investment over the past decade has been on the crop side of the industry,” he said. “But more protein will be produced from animals, and that’s where the ability to reduce emissions within the sector dwarfs any impact an alternative protein could achieve.”

Cattle are a part of a natural biogenic carbon cycle producing methane derived from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“Cattle eat carbon captured in plants and emit a small fraction as methane,” Simmons said. “Unlike carbon, methane is a short-lived greenhouse gas that persists for roughly a decade.”

This is where there is opportunity for the cattle industry.

“Reducing methane emissions rapidly enough can actually have a cooling impact on the environment,” Simmons said.

“If we can cut methane emissions by one-third in 2050 compared to 2020, we can create a significant cooling effect on the climate,” he said. “And that can move us closer to the goal of the Paris Agreement to contain global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Animal Science

Simmons identified several ways to reduce enteric emissions from cattle including reducing the loss from death and disease, optimizing feed to sources that generate lower emissions, genetic selection for animals that have greater production efficiency and feed additives that reduce methane and improve efficiencies to generate more meat, milk and eggs per unit of feed.

“We need science-based targets to measure the right outcomes, and we need to modernize our regulatory systems,” he said. “By utilizing science-based targets, we can change what we measure and help drive investments, innovation and technology that impact these goals and make agriculture part of the solution.”

Elanco has developed products and solutions to help farmers improve the sustainability of livestock production, Simmons said.

“Our products help the beef industry reduce the footprint of beef production by 9%,” he said. “We have helped beef producers use 60 pounds less feed and produce 67 pounds more meat per animal.”

Throughout history, science and innovation have been the solutions to the greatest challenges, like the pandemic, Simmons said.

“Innovation matters and it will be the answer again,” Simmons said.

“Now is our time to move from defense to offense,” he said. “We need bold, courageous leaders to lean in because our future depends on it, and this is not just about my company or your company — it’s a personal challenge to all of us.”

This decade is not a time for animal agriculture and science to play it safe, Simmons said.

“I say lead because our industry can’t do it alone,” he said. “We need best-in-class innovators, trailblazers, collaborators, movers and shakers and visionaries that can break the industry bubble with solutions and ideas that make a better world.”

Simmons does not want any regrets when this decade is over.

“We proved during COVID that the world wants animal protein,” Simmons said.

“But we can improve how food gets to our plate and that’s on us,” he said. “Healthy animals are an essential part of the climate-smart agriculture required to nourish us while meeting climate goals.”

Martha Blum

Field Editor