Public Debate on Production Agriculture — What are the trade-offs on the decisions we make?

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Public Debate on Production Agriculture — What are the trade-offs on the decisions we make?


By Jackie Atkins, Ph.D., Director of Science and Education

As I write this article, I am in the middle of a flurry of summer conferences where the animal science and beef cattle communities gather to share new findings, new innovations, and a highlight of recent talks, new ways to communicate with the public.  On the last subject, I wish every ASA member was in the room to hear the message.  Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist in Animal Biotechnology and Genomics from University of California – Davis, spoke on the challenge of communicating technology and the positives of science with the public. 

Van Eenennaam cited multiple examples of improvements in breeding practices with corn, dairy, and poultry and the corresponding reduced carbon footprint of these industries associated with the higher-yielding production. For example, milk production per cow has increased 443% since the 1940s, all while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per glass of milk by 2/3. This is a prime example of sustainability — using fewer resources to produce more yield (food) for the world.     Yet, critics of animal agriculture often discredit the technologies that allow for better production with lower inputs and view more sustainable agriculture analogous to old-fashioned production systems.  Case in point — a major grocery retailer is calling for slower-growing chickens. What does this do to the environmental impact to raise the same amount of food?  It takes longer to get to the same endpoint meaning more feed, more water, and more energy used to gain the same amount of food.  More specifically, if the poultry industry was unable to use improved chicken genetics but was instead constrained to 1950s genetics, we would need an additional 18 billion chickens to produce the same amount of protein produced by modern broilers today.  This is not the direction global animal agriculture needs to move in order to feed the world’s population.   

Fearmongering is effective.  We saw this in the dairy industry.  Due to unscientific and unfounded scare tactics, rBST has been removed from available technology to improve the efficiency of milk production.  As a result, each glass of milk you drink has a 7% increase in GHG emissions relative to what it would have had been if rBST was allowed because consumer pressure due to fearmongering tactics removed a safe technology from the dairy industry.   

We are in the middle of another public debate that could again handcuff agriculture and global food production to using more environmental resources to yield the same amount of food:  GMOs.  Genetically modified organisms are a matter of public debate for safety and environmental impact.  Van Eenennaam shared an impressive list of accomplishments made possible by genetically modified crops, citing research from Graham Brookes & Peter Barfoot’s article, Environmental Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops (2018), including decreases in insecticide use, pesticide use, and fuel for tilling.   

Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam

Activists against GMOs cite retracted scientific articles as proof of the dangers of GMOs;  however, deep digging into decades of scientific literature indicates GMOs are safe to eat, safe for livestock to eat, and they offer faster improvements in food production than traditional plant breeding.  If we were held to the 1950’s plant and animal breeding technologies and the resulting rate of genetic improvements in the US, we would need an additional 120 million acres of soy cropland, 300 million acres of corn cropland, 31 million head of dairy cattle, and 4.4 billion chickens consuming 66.5 billion more pounds of feed. Think of the limited resources this would engulf by not using science and technology to improve the efficiency and sustainability of these food production industries. Public opinion based on non-scientific “alternative facts” can change policy.   

 If you want to learn more, I highly recommend checking out the debate called Genetically Modified Food from Intelligence2 debates (from December 3, 2014), watch the 2017 documentary movie called Food Evolution narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson (it’s available for free on Hulu and on a number of video on-demand channels), or find Alison Van Eenennaam at UC Davis and follow her on Twitter @BioBeef.     

Van Eenennaam closed with these words, “There are costs associated with excessive precaution. Doing nothing is doing something.” I encourage you all to educate yourself on policy issues influencing production agriculture and join in a respectful debate to ensure the sustainability of our food supply.

Additional information.

Intelligence Squared debate link



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