Jeff Simmons is president and CEO of Elanco Animal Health, a global company focused on advancing the health of animals, people and the planet.
At this month’s Golden Globes, the meal got almost as much attention as the movies with award-winner Joaquin Phoenix and other celebrities touting veganism as a path to saving the planet. The event’s meatless menu created a lot of buzz and critics gave the effort mixed reviews.
I’m a big proponent of reducing our impact on the environment and I applaud people who want to be part of real change. We face big challenges and it will take all of us working together. If there’s one thing I can absolutely agree with Joaquin on, it’s that we should be talking about animals and their impact on our world. But his storyline is missing the bigger picture. Let’s make sure the facts don’t hit the cutting room floor.
Our bodies need protein. Animal sourced-foods — meat, milk, fish and eggs — provide unique health benefits that enable us to live life to the fullest. They are the primary dietary source of key ingredients like vitamin B12 and choline, a nutrient that is critical to brain function. In emerging economies, adding animal protein in the diet means less prevalence of stunting, higher levels of physical activity, increased initiative and leadership behaviors, and overall improved health.
We can’t focus on our physical health at the expense of our planet. There are things we can and should do better to reduce our impact on the environment, but the solution to climate change isn’t eliminating animal agriculture. In fact, we can’t create a sustainable environment without animals. The sustainable solution is keeping our animals healthier by being judicious and responsible with the resources available to us. By improving animal health, we can produce more food with fewer animals and a smaller environmental footprint.
Animals act as conservationists for our planet in ways we cannot.
For example, 86% of the 6 billion tons of feed livestock consumed annually is made up of materials people cannot eat. The process of creating human food from plants creates leftovers, such as wheat middlings from making flour, which can be used as animal feed and upgraded into nutrient-rich animal source food. This both reduces the potential impact of disposed food waste and leftovers, and adds to the bounty on humanity’s collective dinner table. For example, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, cattle return 1 pound of protein to the human food system for every 0.6 pounds of potentially human edible protein they consume.
And when it comes to emissions, celebrities’ rides to the Golden Globes have far greater impact on the environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for 26% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock production is just 4%.
Experts predict a growing population will drive a need for 70% more protein globally in the coming decades. There can be a future where we meet this demand without jeopardizing our resources. But we need to put the focus and energy in the right places where we can make the biggest impact. According to UC-Davis professor Frank Mitloehner, all Americans practicing Meatless Mondays would only reduce the U.S. national greenhouse gas emissions by 0.6%. Meanwhile, farmers and ranchers are continually working to reduce their carbon footprint. For example, the carbon footprint of U.S. dairy production has shrunk to just a third of what it was in 1950.
Taking nutrient-rich animal source food choices off the table isn’t a solution to our challenges. Let’s focus on meaningful steps that make an impact like getting farms to carbon neutral and producing protein more efficiently. We need tools and resources for farmers, particularly in emerging economies. We need science and innovation to help raise livestock more efficiently. We need productive public, private, NGO partnerships.
What is undoubtedly good about the conversation is that we can all agree change is necessary. I would welcome the opportunity to talk with anyone — celebrity or otherwise — about the complex topic of climate and animal agriculture. We can only solve this if we work together for scientific truth and solutions.
It starts with healthy animals. And it also starts with us.