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Protein PACT
US Meat Industry:
Meat, Dairy Sustainability Efforts Contribute to Global Goals

Through its continuous-improvement initiative, the Protein PACT, the industry is on a mission to ensure meat is part of the climate conversation.

The vast majority (86 percent) of people around the world identify as meat eaters; and according to the USDA, the US is the biggest consumer of meat in the world. This makes the meat industry an incredibly important sector when it comes to environmental impact reduction and sparking innovation for sustainability.

Sustainable Brands® caught up with Julie Anna Potts, President and CEO of the Meat Institute — an association that represents 95 percent of all beef and pork sold in the US. Through its continuous-improvement initiative, the Protein PACT, it is an industry on a mission to ensure meat is part of the climate conversation.

“Not only can meat be produced sustainably but it is, in fact, central to climate and food-security solutions,” she says.

How did you come to lead the Meat Institute? And what is its purpose?

Julie Anna Potts: I’ve worked in agriculture for decades, including through roles on the Hill and at the American Farm Bureau Federation. One of my greatest inspirations has always been the dedication of the people who produce the food we need here at home and for families around the world.

I joined the Meat Institute back in 2018 — and I found that same dedication carries all the way from livestock producers to the meat packers and processors we represent.

The Meat Institute represents 350 general members of all sizes — operating across the United States, Mexico and Canada. These general members vary in their operations — some handle live animals, others engage only in further processing. We also have 175 supplier and allied members who provide critical equipment and services for packers and processors.

We trace our roots back to 1906, just after the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act — one of the first US laws to set federal food-processing standards. Today, the association represents around 95 percent of beef and pork sold in the United States — plus chicken, turkey, lamb and veal.

We support members with hands-on technical and regulatory support, proactive advocacy, unique collaborative opportunities, and our world-class continuous improvement initiative — the Protein PACT for the People, Animals & Climate of Tomorrow. Our mission is focused on connecting people and resources to strengthen trust in the food we produce.

Given its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), can the meat industry ever truly be part of the climate solution?

JAP: Well, we believe not only that meat can be produced sustainably but that it is, in fact, central to climate and food-security solutions. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s latest data, livestock accounts for 12 percent of global GHGs. It also says the livestock sector “has the potential to achieve significant emission reductions while still meeting the anticipated increase in the demand for animal products by 2050.”

Producing nutrient-dense foods like meat, milk, and eggs sustainably has never been more important. The FAO has repeatedly said that livestock provides crucial sources of nutrition not easily obtained from other sources.

Consumption of animal-source foods varies around the world, and micronutrient deficiencies are common even in high-income populations. Iron and vitamin A are among the most common micronutrient deficiencies around the world — particularly, in children and pregnant women. Globally, more than half of all pre-school-aged children — around 372 million — and 1.2 billion women of child-bearing age suffer from a lack of at least one of three micronutrients: iron, vitamin A or zinc.

To make sure these foods continue to sustain generations to come, the Meat Institute has set a target for 100 percent of members to have science-based GHG-reduction targets by 2030.

Today, 24 members representing a large majority of meat sold in the US have set or publicly committed to set targets approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative. More than 60 percent of establishments in our data collection are already covered by company commitments to reduce GHGs.

Other Protein PACT partners have similarly ambitious goals. For example, the US beef supply chain has committed to achieve climate neutrality by 2040; US dairy aims to achieve GHG neutrality by 2050; and the US pork sector has set a goal to reduce GHGs by 40 percent by 2030.

Through the Protein Pact, you are heavily focused on setting goals and ensuring effective and robust sustainability reporting. But as we’ve seen in other sectors, goal-setting doesn’t necessarily mean action. How will you ensure your members follow through in taking action?

JAP: We’ve spent the last three years building the concept and framework of the Protein PACT, within our organization and with partners across animal agriculture. In a sector that has no history of collecting and reporting on data, it’s remarkable that we’ve been able to gather such momentum for ambitious targets and transparent verification of progress. Member participation in our data-collection effort grew 60 percent in 2023, and data now covers more than 90 percent of meat sold in the US and half of all facilities operated by Meat Institute members.

We now have the next few years to demonstrate that the Protein PACT works in the long run as a vehicle for driving continuous-improvement action and delivering on our targets. This will require even greater collaboration with partners across the supply chain — including our customers like consumer brands, food service and restaurants, and retailers. It is incumbent on all of us to streamline efforts and show that working together, we can achieve our goals because it’s the right thing to do, and because consumers demand nothing less.

Nothing about this is easy. There will be numerous gaps and major innovations and investments needed to fill those gaps. We have realigned the mandate and mission of the Foundation for Meat & Poultry Research & Education to help identify and fill research gaps, and we’re looking to all of our partners to find new ways each organization can contribute and ways in which we can collaborate to advance shared objectives.

What support does your sector need — policy, economic, culture change — to achieve its vision for sustainability?

JAP: First and foremost, we need partners within and beyond animal agriculture to come together on the common goal of producing the food people need to thrive, sustainably. No single food or type of production can achieve that alone; we need every food and every production system to continuously improve and optimize its impact across our Protein PACT focus areas of climate, animal care, food safety, labor and human rights, and nutrition.

This common commitment is what will drive filling other gaps. For example, how to scale technological advances and share best practices for sustainable productivity growth in the US and around the world.

What are the biggest challenges or barriers to farmers in playing a role in achieving your vision?

JAP: Farmers are, by definition, committed to stewardship of their land and their animals. But, at our Protein PACT Summit in October, Chair of the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef Chad Ellis made a really powerful point that, for farmers, “Conservation without compensation is just conversation.”

In food production, a large portion of GHGs come from the farm; but farmers cannot shoulder the challenge of reducing emissions for their supply chains alone. Tackling this challenge requires not only financing but also practical and technical innovations that must be developed in collaboration across the supply chain, with implementation and measurement efforts also aligned throughout.

That’s why one of our top priorities is to work hand-in-hand with farmers, ranchers, regulators, and partners across the food system — connecting people and resources to ensure meat continues to be a vital, trusted pillar of healthy diets and thriving communities for generations to come.

How do farmers ‘square the circle’ between addressing rampant climate change while meeting growing demand for the food people need?

JAP: Recent decades show a proven track record of success in producing nutrient-dense animal-source foods more sustainably than ever. Over the last 30-40 years, US dairy farmers have cut emissions from each gallon of milk by nearly 20 percent. Ranchers have reduced emissions per pound of beef produced by more than 40 percent while also producing more than 66 percent more beef per animal.

And US pig farmers have decreased water use by 25 percent, land use by nearly 76 percent, energy use by 7 percent, and have shrunk their carbon footprint by almost 8 percent.

Further achievements are within reach. We are doing the work to produce the food people need to thrive, while protecting the environment we all share.

Many people think that cutting back on — or cutting out — meat is necessary to save the planet. What would you say to that? Can meat really be sustainable?

JAP: As I mentioned, the FAO says that livestock contribute 12 percent of global greenhouse gases but play a critical role in healthy diets. In addition, according to the UN, livestock contribute about 40 percent of the world’s agricultural value and provide livelihoods and incomes for at least 1.3 billion people globally. An estimated 12 percent of the world’s population depends solely on livestock for its livelihood.

Livestock also graze on land that can’t support other crops, turn crops and by-products people can’t eat into high-quality protein and other nutrients; and play a key role in improving soil health and achieving bio-circularity, among other benefits.

Like all foods, meat must strive to optimize its environmental impact — including by setting and achieving science-based targets in line with the Paris Agreement goals.

There’s no doubt that not only can meat be sustainable — global sustainability goals cannot be achieved without meat.

The Protein PACT unites partners across animal agriculture who are verifying progress toward goals for healthy people, healthy animals, healthy communities, and a healthy environment.

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Published 7 months ago.