May 21, 2024

AgNext addresses ‘wicked’ problems in animal operations

Kim Stackhouse-Lawson

DUBUQUE, Iowa — The definition of sustainability varies from one farming operation to the next.

“Sustainability is improving four to five metrics across the system in your operation and making it unique to you,” said Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of AgNext at Colorado State University.

“It’s going to mean something different to my in-laws that have 120 cows in Kansas and my parents that have 300 sheep in northern California,” said Stackhouse-Lawson during a presentation at the Driftless Region Beef Conference, presented by University of Illinois Extension, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and University of Wisconsin Extension.

“In agriculture, everything is harder because we can’t tease apart food, fiber and fuel or plants and animals — it’s all connected,” she said.

AgNext is different from other sustainability centers.

“All we do is animal agriculture and we believe that animals are an important part of the sustainable food system,” Stackhouse-Lawson said. “You’ll never see our team talk about reducing animal agriculture.”

The center is driven by stakeholders.

“We heard from our stakeholders that they need a team that’s focused forward because most of the sustainability research has looked backwards in time,” Stackhouse-Lawson said. “That doesn’t tell us where we need to get 10 to 15 years out.”

In addition, the team of AgNext should evaluate not just economic sustainability, but also profitability.

“They said that they cannot just continue to maintain their economic status, but they need to be profitable because that’s what resilient food systems look like,” the director said.

AgNext, Stackhouse-Lawson said, was born out of a need to address wicked problems with a tighter industry-academic partnership.

“A wicked problem is a problem that has multiple answers and oftentimes a solution has unintended consequences,” Stackhouse-Lawson said.

“Those problems won’t be solved by just scientists or industry or consumer demands,” she said. “They take a broader systems approach and that’s what we were born to do.”

AgNext includes an industry innovation working group that consists of 12 people with three-year terms.

“We meet with them two to three times a year to discuss research priorities, talk about results and share problems,” Stackhouse-Lawson said. “We will also have a team of 12 faculty and so far we have hired seven people.”

One thing that is driving sustainability in a major way is the impact of animal agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions.

“About two and half years ago, we saw the first net zero commitments come out,” Stackhouse-Lawson said. “Today, more than 1,800 publicly traded companies in the U.S. have net zero commitments.”

For greenhouse gas emission accounting, there are Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 categories.

“Scope 1 emissions are everything in a operation, what is owned by the individual,” Stackhouse-Lawson said.

“Scope 2 emissions are those that come from the generation of the electricity the facility uses,” she said.

For example, Stackhouse-Lawson compared a meat packing plant in Texas that has more renewable energy in the grid to a meat packing plant in Colorado.

The Scope 2 emissions from the two plants that are almost identical in size will be lower in Texas than Colorado.

“Scope 3 emissions are everything it takes to get beef from producers to consumers,” Stackhouse-Lawson said. “That includes things like the fertilizer, tractors, cattle, company people getting on jets to go to meetings, plastic used in plants, consumers cooking beef, packaging and food waste.”

“Everybody who has a net zero commitment today includes Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions,” she said.

“And to top it off, nobody measures and reports in the same way — there is no standardization” Stackhouse-Lawson said.

“The way companies report it is different than the way EPA reports it, different than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports it, different than the accounting system the carbon markets use and different than the accounting systems that academia use,” she said. “When we saw companies make commitments, we saw unattainable goals being set.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its AR6 report that predicts how climate change will affect local climates.

“Globally, they’re seeing 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius warming as unavoidable and they are also seeing many climate impacts as irreversible,” Stackhouse-Lawson said.

“This report claims the net zero goals cited by many misinterpret the IPCC and we don’t need to be net zero — we just need to stop burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” the director said.

“They say the only reason to reduce methane is because when you burn fossil fuels it releases carbon dioxide and also sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere,” she said. “These molecules have a cooling ability on the planet so the reduction of methane should just be to offset the sulfate aerosols.”

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, Stackhouse-Lawson said, but it lives in the atmosphere for only 12 years.

“So, if we can reduce methane that can buy us time to get the infrastructure set up to stop burning fossil fuels,” she said. “But it’s confusing because we have major bodies suggesting different approaches.”

The cow-calf sector is the predominate driver of greenhouse gas emissions in beef production.

“The coolest thing a cow can do is turn forage we can’t eat into meat, milk and byproducts,” Stackhouse-Lawson said. “It’s her super power — her ability to upcycle forage into things we can eat, but it is also what makes methane — what a wicked problem.”

However, it is also challenging because the perception is counter, she said.

“As we transition cattle to higher concentrate diets, methane goes down,” she said. “So, if we’re going to reduce emissions, we have to know where to target.”

“I don’t have anything to tell you to do that’s a silver bullet except to keep doing what you’re doing because animal efficiency is the No. 1 thing you can do from a greenhouse gas perspective,” Stackhouse-Lawson said.

“Livestock allows us to do so much good on land that can’t be utilized for anything else and research work suggests that rangelands allow us to store 20% of the globe’s soil organic carbon,” she said. “We don’t get to take credit for that in any of the accounting frameworks that exist today and it’s so important.”

The director told the cattlemen that none of them are behind in regards to greenhouse gas emissions and they are likely doing a lot already.

“As you think about your operation, the best thing you can do today is write down what you did differently with new innovations,” she said.

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor