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COP26’s focus on methane is right—but don’t scapegoat animal agriculture on the altar of climate change

November 16, 2021, 6:02 PM UTC
Only by working with farmers can sustainable solutions be found.
Carsten Koall—Getty Images

As the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) unfolded, the conversation on climate rightfully shifted to where animal agriculture has been focused for years: combating methane. But as we put methane in the climate crosshairs, we must ensure we are bringing the right voices to the table to identify impactful solutions.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s Global Methane Pledge, now signed by more than 100 countries, is a perfect opportunity to include farmers in conversations about regulation. Farmers bring critical insight to the problem-solving process. Their experience and input will help us thread the needle to enact urgent climate solutions while continuing to feed the world. 

Curbing livestock methane emissions by just a third can slow the overall rate of warming, creating a cooling effect while allowing the world more time to address the more complex and long-term CO2 impacts. Without farmers, ranchers, and landowners at the table in climate change conversations, we can’t bring forward feasible solutions.

This year, in a survey of over 1,000 participants, Elanco found that two out of five people who avoid consuming meat believe animal agriculture is the biggest creator of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the U.S., contributing more than any other industry—but that’s wrong. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations states that livestock generates 4% of U.S. GHG emissions, whereas other singular industries can represent up to 75%. What many don’t realize is that animal agriculture already has a track record of reducing its environmental footprint. 

According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the global average GHG emission intensities for beef, milk, chicken, eggs, and pork have all declined between 30% and 60% from 1961 to 2017.

The animal agriculture industry is poised to usher in continued and greater changes, but science must guide us, and we need regulations that consider the farmers, ranchers, and foresters who steward our land. Because feeding the world and cooling the climate are interconnected issues.  

In 2020, more than 30% of the global population lacked year-round access to adequate food. And according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 921 million people in the world’s poorer countries are food insecure—an increase of 160 million since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Industrialized nations that previously committed to changing this through financial support of emerging economies and investment in aid and resiliency measures are missing their targets—a major point of contention during COP26.

Protein demand must be met in a sustainable way to avoid additional strain on the environment. We must seize the opportunity to achieve climate-neutral meat production through innovation in animal agriculture, not at the expense of global food security. 

What we can do 

Together, farmers, ranchers, and landowners are focusing on four areas to join the efforts against climate change and world hunger:

  1. Implement measurement systems to integrate sustainability into daily operations and business decisions. 
  2. Encourage innovation and the discovery of new technologies like methane capture and conversion.
  3. Create a market and opportunity for farmers to benefit economically from sustainable business practices.
  4. Communicate with farmers, ranchers, and landowners to help them understand that climate neutrality is possible, and that industry collaboration is a necessity to reach these goals. 

We must listen to those who steward the land. Nutrition, climate, and economic sustainability are urgent, interconnected global challenges, and animals can and will be a critical part of the solution. It’s time for a true “farm to table” approach where animal agriculture experts can bring their expertise to these global conversations so we can successfully collaborate to make a difference. 

Jeff Simmons is president and CEO of Elanco Animal Health, a global leader in animal health dedicated to advancing the health of animals, people, and the planet.

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