Correcting the record on animal agriculture and sustainability

Animal agriculture — farmers, ranchers, veterinarians, feed mills, animal health companies and others — is committed to providing a safe and healthful food supply for everyone. This dedication starts on the farm by caring for the land and raising healthy animals. 

Unfortunately, a recent piece relies on misinformation to fuel confusion and controversy about the sustainability of animal agriculture. The author ignored animal agriculture’s longstanding commitment to innovation and continuous improvement in the area of sustainability, including the design of modern production systems that have helped reduce animal agriculture’s carbon footprint.  

Critics frequently cite global numbers for the environmental impact of animal agriculture rather than using statistics specific to the U.S., where production practices have advanced to decrease greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and animal agriculture is responsible for just 4 percent of total GHG emissions. 

Livestock production in the U.S. is a model for the rest of the world for several reasons. We use advanced genetics, our livestock and poultry receive high-caliber veterinary care and we feed our animals optimal diets. For these reasons, animal agriculture is highly efficient in the U.S. and therefore has a smaller environmental impact compared to other countries across the globe. For example, the U.S. produces 18 percent of the world’s beef with only 6 percent of the world’s cattle. 

All sectors of U.S. animal agriculture — beef, pork, poultry, dairy and eggs — have made tremendous improvements in all areas of farming, including sustainability. Today, modern farms combine the best of traditional farming practices with the benefits of modern technology and agriculture science. This reduces both resource use and GHG emissions per unit of food, while ensuring that it is safe and affordable to the consumer. For example, while the beef community is frequently vilified in this area, it has in reality made significant improvements in sustainability. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. beef community has cut the land needed to produce a pound of beef by 33 percent, the water required by 12 percent and the carbon footprint of a pound of beef has been reduced by 16 percent. Other sectors of animal agriculture have similar success stories — in the last 40 years, the amount of feed a dairy cow needs to eat to produce 100 pounds of milk has decreased by more than 40 percent.  

The nutritional value of meat, poultry, dairy and eggs is also frequently misrepresented by those opposed to animal agriculture. Meat and dairy provide unmatched nutrition for healthy bodies, brains and bones. A blanket recommendation for people to swap meat for plant-based proteins can have substantial negative consequences for nutrition. Research shows that diets without meat can be harmful to brain, bone and muscle health and it can contribute to malnutrition, even in developed countries.  

It is deeply frustrating to continue to see animal agriculture being disparaged, particularly at a time where the farm and food communities have demonstrated continued resilience in the face of a global pandemic and heightening fears about food security. While environmental and animal rights activist groups continue to elicit fear and spread misinformation, the animal agriculture community will continue to find solutions by working with groups with a vested interest in protecting the environment, while providing safe, nutritious food to the public.  

Kay Johnson Smith is president and CEO of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a nonprofit working to bridge the communication gap between farm and fork.

Tags animal agriculture Carbon footprint environmental groups farmers food supply Greenhouse gas emissions Meat Nutrition

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