The recent International Greenhouse Gases and Animal Agriculture Conference (GGAA) in Banff, Alberta, Canada, brought together more than 400 scientists and top minds in the nutrient management and greenhouse gas emissions realm from about 40 countries. A summary at the end of the conference highlighted 10 key steps for managing greenhouse gases. The steps were outlined by the chairpersons of each of the sessions held during the conference.
- Avoid a one-size-fits-all mindset. The options for manure management are one example where many approaches are coming into play, including a variety of housing, grazing, storage and treatment application options. The progress is exciting, yet the experts agree that there is no one solution that fits all. “Options are good but we need them presented in a way that allows farmers to make decisions to best meet their individual needs,” says Elizabeth Pattey, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, who chaired a session on atmospheric emissions and biogas capture.
- Use better measuring sticks in research. It is important that the newly developed field of greenhouse gases related to animal agriculture continually improves and coordinates the approach to measuring emissions, says Mark Powell, USDA, Madison, WI. He identified several key questions such as: How do we mimic natural conditions? How do we make sense of the measurements that we make? How do we reconcile and interpret results from individual animal studies and those involving herds and plots? “There’s a need to agree on the most important reporting factors that will be useful for practical applications and also to guide research,” he says. Powell chaired a session on emission measurement.
- Look for win-wins situations. Michael Kreuzer of ETH in Zurich, Switzerland, chaired a session on mitigation strategies for enteric methane. One promising example of a win-win approach is dietary strategies that incorporate oils or oilseeds to reduce emissions. A number of these approaches may also improve the health value of resulting livestock products. “There is an incredible number of new studies and options emerging from this dietary area,” Kreuzer says. “One of the favorites that is holding up well is feeding linseed or flaxseed that contains oil. This has the additional advantage of increasing omega-3 fatty acids in milk and meat, which is desirable from a human health perspective.” Many GGAA presenters emphasized that emissions reduction strategies that are not only effective at reducing emissions but also practical and economically feasible for producers are the most important win-win of all.
- Anchor strategies in the rumen. “What produces methane is the microbial population in the rumen, so all of our strategies have got to have a clear anchoring in the rumen,” says Jamie Newbold of Aberystwyth University, Wales. Newbold chaired a session on microbial ecology and says enormous progress has been made in the technology used to describe the rumen microbial ecology, which is driving new approaches to mitigation. “One of the keys for further progress is to move toward describing the functional genomics of metabolic inhibitors. As we get into understanding that, our ability to design new mitigation methods will increase dramatically,” he says.
- Take advantage of heritability. One of the standout new opportunities highlighted at the conference was the apparent heritability of methane production among animal genetic lines, according to Newbold. “This is enormously exciting. I think we’ve got to drill down to that over the next three years. That’s going to require collaboration between laboratories and very much between countries as we try to get the datasets large enough to really make strong progress.”
- Invest in modeling research to spur broad progress. Modeling livestock greenhouse gas emissions is an area of science focused on the complex task of understanding and replicating the sophisticated livestock emissions dynamic. It is also a lynchpin that supports many areas of research and applied strategies and needs to continue as a high priority area for future work, says Odd Magne Harstad of the Norwegian Institute of Life Sciences, Norway. “Enteric methane is a very important source of greenhouse gas. It is therefore very important to model livestock greenhouse gas emissions as accurately as possible, and it is critical that this area of research continues as a high priority in the future,” Harstad says.
- Engage the developing world. A significant point made during the conference session on big-picture issues was that the majority of livestock emissions come from developing countries that don’t have the luxury of focusing on emissions mitigation strategies. Unfortunately, these countries are also typically not well-represented in science forums, such as GGAA. “These are the countries where most of the population growth is predicted to occur over the next 40 years, and where additional food production will have to take place to meet their needs,” says Richard Eckard, University of Melbourne, Australia, who chaired this session. “This is a challenge for us, because these are countries that are rightly more concerned about where their next meal will come from. We have a responsibility to engage more with these countries, to help them adopt the appropriate technologies and strategies as they become available.”
- Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. One of the compelling issues discussed at the conference was how to achieve net reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, while more than doubling food production by 2050 to feed the world’s population. “Most of us in research are fairly reticent in making statements on such issues,” Eckard says. “It’s a forum such as this that should be sending a message to our policy colleagues, not to expect net global reductions in emissions from agriculture by 2050, while we have to double food production in the same time.” He points out that many of the papers at the conference demonstrate that emissions can be reduced per unit of food produced and efficiency can be improved, but doubling food production in the next 40 years will mean a net increase in emissions from agriculture. “The world needs realistic targets and balanced strategies. We can’t let this become the elephant in the room that we avoid confronting,” Eckard says.
- Fix the metrics. Conference attendees say scientists need to deliver the important message to policy makers that benchmarks and targets for agricultural emissions shouldn’t be measured on the same metrics as those used for the fossil fuel industry. “Agriculture is unique. With fossil fuels, there are options to drive the adoption of alternatives. There is no alternative to food,” Eckard relates.
A key presentation during the conference pointed out the world needs to take into account the multiple, and often unvalued, benefits from livestock production systems and not focus on single issues. “We need to develop different metrics for agriculture that are more appropriate to measure our progress towards more efficient food production, with less greenhouse gases (versus) business as usual. Focusing just on emissions intensity or absolute emissions is not the solution,” Eckard states.
- Get aggressive at all levels. Throughout the conference there was an emphasis on the need for the scientific community to ensure the policymakers have a clear understanding of realistic opportunities, challenges and timeframes for science-driven progress. “We need to be clear about what can be achieved and even what can’t be achieved over the next 40 years,” Eckard says. There is a need for more ambitious research that brings livestock management more closely in tune with needs and nuances of a regreening earth. “Tinkering at the edges with incremental gains will not get us there in 40 years’ time,” he concludes.