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Protein PACT
Can Our Current Food System Be Redeemed?

At SB’23 San Diego, we got several looks at some of the holistic, new approaches to agriculture that may just mitigate the risks in how our food — even meat — is produced.

Meat eaters aren’t going anywhere — so, we must tackle livestock’s environmental impacts

Image credit: Applegate

There were a few nods of the head when Eric Mittenthal, Chief Strategy Officer at the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), kicked off this Wednesday afternoon session by saying, “You might be wondering why we are speaking about meat at a sustainability conference.”

But with more than 90 percent of US citizens identifying as meat eaters, the significant impacts of meat consumption and livestock production must be tackled — and those responsible for driving down those impacts must be a part of the conversation.

Mittenthal was keen to explain the progress being made by members of NAMI’s Protein Pact in reducing environmental impacts while protecting the people and animals at the heart of the industry. All NAMI members will have an emissions-reduction target approved by the Science-Based Targets initiative by 2030, he told delegates: “People rely on animals for food. We need to thrive and now we are galvanizing everyone making meat, dairy and eggs to do so in a way that sustains generations to come.”

To give the GHG-reduction challenge some context, Frank Mitloehner, Director of the CLEAR Center at UC Davis, was given the floor. He has spent the last 21 years researching and quantifying the environmental footprint of livestock. The most important impact that livestock has on climate is through the release of one gas: methane. But as Mitloehner is keen to point out, methane is different from other greenhouse gases in that it is not just produced, but it’s also destroyed.

“The net contribution of methane globally is ten terragrams. That’s a number that is much smaller than what’s normally reported,” he said. “Yes, methane is a potent greenhouse gas and that’s why we need to pay attention. But it originates from atmospheric CO2, it makes its way to become a carbohydrate; then, it becomes methane. And after a little over ten years, hydroxylation converts it back to where it came from originally, which is CO2. So, it’s not like fossil fuels, which is a one-way street.”

Mitloehner has worked hard to ensure that methane is properly accounted for when it comes to policy development. The latest IPCC report notes the fact that current accounting methods for methane could be overblowing its impact by three to four times the effect, he says.

As this argument plays out in the background, there is widespread acknowledgement of the need to reduce the impact of meat production across the board. While Mitloehner praises the efforts of the dairy industry to produce biogas alongside milk (which will go a long way to help the industry in California meet its goal of reducing CO2 by roughly 7 million metric tons by 2030), Jamie Burr is proud to tell the story of the 67,000 pork producers he represents as Chief Sustainability Officer of the National Pork Board.

“It’s important that we continue to tell the producers’ story with data and lead with knowledge and not always the science,” he says. Alongside widespread certification to assure the quality of pork being produced, producers have worked hard to address their carbon, land, water and energy footprint on a per-pound-of-pork-produced basis. Today, performance is being driven by tracking on-farm data. “We can report back to producers their carbon footprint, their water use and soil loss; so that they really understand what’s happening.”

Next, Cindy Tews, Managing Member of the Fresno Livestock Commission, explained how she has lowered the impacts of operations on her California ranch: “We use cattle to graze land that is unsuitable for farming, which also reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire. We’re also reducing emissions by improving genetics; the beef producers have increased overall poundage with fewer cattle available.”

To wrap things up, Applegate president Joseph O’Connor proudly presented his own company’s values and commitment to regenerative agriculture as a potential beacon of hope in what is a challenging sector.

“Meat is part of the solution, just as I believe plant-based is part of the solution. That shocks some people,” he stated. “But the reality is, going to the extremes does not work. Consumers will not stop just because we stay, ‘You can’t do this, or you can’t do that.’ We need to find common ground.”

For companies such as Applegate that means continuing to push on claims and standards, introducing meat blends, and changing the meat we eat: “We have high standards for our 4,000 farms and partners. Animals should only have one bad day.”

Accelerating climate-smart agriculture through regenerative practices

Image credit: Oatly

During a fireside chat Wednesday afternoon, Julie Kunen, Director of Sustainability, North America at Oatly; and Dr. Anastasia Volkova, co-founder and CEO of Regrow Ag, discussed innovative farming practices as strategies for agricultural resilience. Oatmilk giant Oatly’s mission centers on a healthy product and “offering a climate solution at no sacrifice to consumers,” Kunen said. In speaking about how to build climate-forward farming practices, Kunen explained that companies should focus on material impacts — which for Oatly is the production of oats. The challenge of reducing Oatly’s environmental footprint also lies in creating efficiencies in transportation and factories.

The conversation continued about the adoption of regenerative language by brands. Kunen advised brands to define their own way and starting point. She shared that as brash as Oatly is a brand, the company is data-driven and science-focused in its work. She revealed that the company conducted internal workshops to understand the impacts in its oats supply chain and partnered with suppliers — even defining “sourced sustainably,” “regeneration,” KPIs and markers of success. The company has adopted “climate-smart agriculture” as a synonym for “regenerative agriculture.”

Earlier this year, Oatly launched the ‘F.A.R.M.’ (Future Agriculture Renovation Movement) — a bold initiative to restore carbon, improve biodiversity and support farm viability. In partnership with Regrow, Oatly developed a framework to build agricultural resilience throughout its farming supply chains, with tiers and KPIs that encompasses direct collaboration with procurement and oat producers. Kunen explained that the company is testing this framework among several farms and pays for farmers’ time. Oatly is evaluating per-acre incentives for producers, as well as abatement potential practices. Volkova added that a transition in regenerative agriculture is the practice of payment on a per-acre basis, which can be an effective way to share the risk.

“We wanted to define ‘sustainable sourcing’ for ourselves and going on that journey provided value to the company,” Kunen said. The journey has included an iterative process of going granular — to the local level to get feedback with the intent to scale. She admitted this all takes a lot of time — currently, four years — but at a higher level, Oatly sees the business case because “it’s an investment that [otherwise] renders the business untenable.”

This holistic approach of engaging suppliers, processors and farm advisors among others provides the aperture to look upstream in the agriculture supply chain, socialize internal learning, and identify areas for improvement. As Volkova pointed out, “we can take actions that are non-regrettable bets” that drive decision-making.

Unleashing the power in organic waste

Image credit: Bioenergy Devco

We are well aware of the negative environmental impact of landfills — particularly, in the context of food-waste decomposition and the associated methane emissions. Food waste has received a lot of attention at this conference — from prevention and redistribution strategies to redesigning processes for repurposing of byproducts into valuable products.

But even after all preventive measures are exhausted, there will inevitably be food waste that requires processing. Traditionally, this waste may end up in landfills. Within this space, policymakers are aiming to decarbonize by mandating organic-waste diversion from landfills, food manufacturers have largely apathetic attitudes towards waste-disposal practices, and municipalities still lack adequate organic-waste diversion infrastructure. This session highlighted the potential of anaerobic digestion (AD) as a win-win, alternative solution that converts food waste into clean energy — relieving the burden on landfills and addressing policy-driven requirements.

An exciting collaboration between Bioenergy Devco, Northstar Recycling and Mercuria Energy Group is striving to bring more AD facilities online in North America. Leveraging their experience of operating AD facilities in Europe, Bioenergy Devco is actively seeking to expand its North American presence by establishing new facilities — including its first Stateside AD facility in Maryland. Working with Northstar Recycling helps to establish a supportive business environment by identifying and securing consistent feedstock supply — namely, food scraps and agricultural residues from regional farms and food manufacturers. Bioenergy Devco’s partnership with Mercuria optimizes the trading of the final biogas product.

Organics play a key role in the energy transition, as not all renewable natural gas (RNG) is created equal. The primary sources for RNG today are from dairy agriculture, landfills and anaerobic digestion of food waste. Recognizing the limitations in existing carbon intensity (CI) scoring methodologies, Bioenergy Devco collaborated with external experts to develop a comprehensive in-house life cycle assessment (LCA) method of its own AD facilities and processing operations. What they discovered was, when the playing field is leveled, RNG produced through AD demonstrates the more favorable CI score. More importantly, this in-house LCA has unlocked the ability for Bioenergy Devco to convey key metrics to customers — including emissions-avoidance profile for a facility, and even generating sustainability reports tailored to individual food-waste providers.

As Chief Commercial Officer McClain Porter explained, "Through our in-house LCA tool, we can provide crucial information to brands from a holistic approach, which is lacking in current CI methodologies."

McClain closed by emphasizing the significance of consumer demands driving corporate attention to environmental concerns. The public’s ongoing demand for progress on ESG goals plays a pivotal role in catalyzing this movement and determining the success of sustainability initiatives. As noted by Clara Son — Commodity Sales Team Member at Northstar — noted, food manufacturers are eager to engage in the circularity narrative; and the AD approach with customized sustainability reporting capabilities can drive these synergies forward.

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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