AGRICULTURE, SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: ARE WE DOING IT RIGHT?

This series on "Agriculture, Sustainability and the Environment: Are we doing it right?" brings together academics, professionals and researchers who are working on agriculture and environmental related theories and issues on the ground. Our writers focus on describing how humans impact environment in many different ways through various agricultural practices that have serious sustainability implications for the future of our environment. You are welcome to leave comments on the research and ideas shared in the posts for this series as well as contact us to share your thoughts on the topic of agriculture, sustainability and environment with us.

Greetings,

Fatima Zahra 

Companion Species Climate Change and Our Food Animal Futures

By Nicole Welk-Joerger

Methane is estimated to account for 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This number is a contentious one, but reached considering research conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Their estimates that methane accounts for between 16% and 25% of greenhouse gases are cited frequently by different scholars encouraging larger climate change interventions. Though the numbers are debatable, what is agreed upon is the significant source of this methane. The largest anthropogenic (or, human caused) source of methane comes from the agriculture industry, more specifically from the beef cattle and milking cows that contribute to our larger food system. 

Figure 1: Table showing methane as second major greenhouse gas emission in the U.S. Source: EPA “Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: Executive Summary,” 2013.

Figure 1: Table showing methane as second major greenhouse gas emission in the U.S.

Source: EPA “Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: Executive Summary,” 2013.

There are some striking realities embedded within these two facts. First, methane is shown to be 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping greenhouse gases [1]. This means that some of this climate change we’ve been experiencing comes specifically from our food animals [2]. Touching on this, a second striking notion is that this production of waste is politically recognized as “anthropogenic,” placing domesticated animals within our human regime.  This emphasizes our need as scholars to pay more attention to the ways we have changed animals, and how animals are in turn changing us (and in this case, the environment). 

To think of climate change as a consequence that is not entirely human can have dangerous political consequences – particularly when climate change’s legitimacy continues to be debated within academic and political spheres. However, looking at our cows and their methane forces us to think more deeply about our obsessions with human exceptionalism; obsessions that often cause us to forget the shared forces that have contributed to the changes we are seeing in larger ecological systems.

Photo 1: Cows carrying packs in experiment to measure their methane emissions.  Source: National Geographic, 2015.

Photo 1: Cows carrying packs in experiment to measure their methane emissions. 

Source: National Geographic, 2015.

To borrow some vocabulary from studies in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), methane helps better reveal the intimate “envirotechnical” parts of our food system – spaces where technological management and natural forces collide [3].  It also helps reveal specific relationships we have with our domesticated food animals: our “companion species” as STS scholar Donna Haraway would call them [4]. Methane emissions force us to ask important questions about us, our animals and their manure within these agro-technological systems and multispecies relationships. How are these animals being cared for?  What kinds of care produce higher methane emissions?  How much burping, flatulence, and manure are animals producing, and where does it all go?

Agricultural researchers have taken these questions seriously, and their scientific and technological solutions to methane have begun to be adopted by a number of farmers. One of these solutions includes technological anaerobic digestion.  Using airtight containers, manure gasses are trapped and converted into various forms of energy, from electricity and heat to vehicle fuel.  The technology enables the natural process of anaerobic digestion to work more quickly and with precision – paying special attention to the activity of microorganisms as they break down the organic matter of manure among other waste products [5]. 

Photo 2: Small, anaerobic digester installed on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania.   Source: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

Photo 2: Small, anaerobic digester installed on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania.  

Source: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

Special attention to microbes has also been incredibly important for reducing methane emissions within individual cattle. Over the past few decades, veterinarians and animal nutritionists have encouraged farmers to use different dietary regiments in their cattle to create “happier” rumen bugs. These are the microbes responsible for breaking down food in our cows’ first stomachs; the companion species of our companion species.  Happier bugs translate for scientists, nutritionists, and farmers into healthier, more efficient cattle.  For the environment, happier bugs also mean reduced methane gas – with this energy being “better converted” into meat and milk in animals.  Some of these dietary solutions are incredibly similar to those suggested for humans with tummy troubles, including the addition of yeast cultures to feed as a probiotic [6]. Other solutions entail specially designed, synthetic additives. For example, Royal DSM, a company dedicated to scientific interventions in health and nutrition, has developed the methane inhibitor 3-nitrooxypropanol (3NOP). Research over the past year has shown that cows fed the 3NOP compound demonstrate a 30 percent decrease in methane with no reduction in an animal’s meat or milk production [7]. Still, others claim re-adopting primarily grass-fed diets in cattle would best help with emissions, but some scientists and farmers disagree with these sentiments (among others) that may affect production rates, feed cost, and even feed taste.   In an experiment conducted by Michigan State University, cattle avoided eating feed with added tea extract for reasons of “palatability” according to researchers [8]. 
 

Photo 3: Banner advertisement addressing importance of rumen bug management   Source: The Bullvine, 2014.

Photo 3: Banner advertisement addressing importance of rumen bug management  

Source: The Bullvine, 2014.

All of these solutions – from technological innovation to dietary manipulation – are predicated on humans sustaining a diet of high meat and milk consumption.  As we can see from some scholarship on these dietary habits (which I cover in the second part of this blog on food animals,) what we eat produces just as much of an environmental impact as what our cows eat.  But if we are willing to change cow diets indefinitely, why not human ones?  Veganism has certainly developed as a dietary movement in part reacting to the “carbon footprint” of current agriculture systems.  But not everyone has to be vegan to make a difference in our emissions. “Eating welltogether,” as Haraway suggests, entails being close to our food systems and understanding the consequences of these systems; from how organisms are made “killable,” as Haraway emphasizes in her work, to how we are creating conditions that accelerate climate change [9].  Making a personal commitment to consume a little less meat and dairy given these understandings could make a world of difference [10].

Moving forward, we need to seriously consider how certain food ideologies have developed over time and the consequences they carry not just for our bodies, but the bodies of our animal companions.  Frankly, attention to methane has shown that humans and animals are producing greenhouse gasses together and contributing to some of the issues we may be seeing in our environments. While researchers in agricultural science have provided some solutions – we need to recognize the significance of our eating habits and approach all of our eating and feeding options carefully in the wake of new ecological changes.

End notes:

[1] EPA (2016). Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2014, ES-13.  Seehttps://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/usinventoryreport.html for full report.

[2] I want to emphasize “some” in this sentence, because we cannot ignore that the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation and energy use.   The agricultural sector certainly has room to change and help in lowering emissions, but focus on this sector detracts attention to others, particularly as anti-food animal activism gains better traction and visibility.  There is a fantastic, recent blog about this by UC Davis professor, Frank Mitloehner: http://blogs.ucdavis.edu/egghead/2016/04/27/livestock-and-climate-change-facts-and-fiction/

[3] See Mark Finlay, “Far Beyond Tractors: Envirotech and the Intersections of Technology, Agriculture, and the Environment,” Technology and Culture 51, no. 2 (2010): 480–85; Sarah Prichard, “An Envirotechnical Disaster: Nature, Technology, and Politics at Fukushima,” Environmental History 17, no. 2 (2012): 219-243. 

[4] Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[5] EPA (2015). “Learn about biogas recovery.” <https://www.epa.gov/agstar/learn-about-biogas-recovery#adwork>.

[6] J. Newbold, E.J. Kim, and N. Scollan (2010).  Reducing animal greenhouse gas emissions.  IBERS Knowledge-Based Innovations No. 3 <http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/media/chap-2-eng.pdf>.

[7] Jeff Mulhollem. “Feed supplement greatly reduces dairy cow methane emissions.” Penn State News. August 4, 2015 <http://news.psu.edu/story/364787/2015/08/04/research/feed-supplement-greatly-reduces-dairy-cow-methane-emissions>.

[8] Laura Beil. “Getting creative to cut methane from cows.” ScienceNews, November 18, 2015 <https://www.sciencenews.org/article/getting-creative-cut-methane-cows>.

[9] When Species Meet, 296

[10] A few studies are being conducted on overall meat consumption and its impact on climate change, but none suggest veganism is the only solution.  The Chatham House’s write up on this issue (https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/changing-climate-changing-diets) is a good starting point to understanding all sides of such studies, as well as the BBC’s coverage of the research (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34899066).

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Nicole Welk-Joerger is a PhD student in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania.  Her current research interests focus on the intersections of human and animal health, with particular attention to issues in public health, food studies, environmental history, and the history of technology. Tweet her @welkjoerger.