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HokieTalks: Improving the role of animals in climate change

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Category: research Video duration: HokieTalks: Improving the role of animals in climate change
Robin White with the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, gives her presentation "Improving the role of animals in climate change."
[00:00:02] >> What I was asked to talk about was some of our work of evaluating the role of animals in climate change, and I thought that this might be a little bit of a heavy topic for 8:30 on a Saturday morning and so we decided to adjust it a little bit to talk more about opportunities to talk about improving the role of animals in climate change. [00:00:24] One of the reasons why I wanted to just make that minor adjustment to the focus is because it's what I highlight is one of the most important things about working at Virginia Tech, is that this is a very forward looking university which means as a researcher it's really fun to be here because we're encouraged to look into the future and to ask questions about how things are progressing. [00:00:49] As an animal scientist to me one of the most important answers to this question revolves around what's going on with our global population and what's happening with food demand, so most people are aware that by the year 2050 we're expected to have a population of 10 billion people. [00:01:08] Now what some people are not aware of is over that same time scale the demand for animal protein products specifically is anticipated to increase 70 percent which is a tremendous increase if you think about what goes into producing animal products. Where we really get concerned about this increase in animal protein products is when we think about the potential impact of a 70 percent increase in their production. [00:01:36] What this chart is showing you is the breakdown of our current agricultural emissions on a global scale and a comparison to what these emissions might look like in 2050. You'll note that the large dark bar at the top of each graph represents the impact of animal agriculture so as we experience the 70 percent increase in demand for animal products there's going to be an increase in production and a concurrent increase in environmental impact, so we expect that this will have a pretty important impact in terms of how our our climate looks moving forward. [00:02:19] Now many people have seen headlines like this they're very common in the news and they are increasing in frequency and it forces consumers to ask the question can I be an environmentalist or cannot have this forward looking frame about the way that our society is moving and still consume the diet that I'm eating today or do I need to think about reducing consumption of animal products and increasing consumption of things like vegetables. [00:02:52] What I want to share with you is a little bit of work that our group has done just some findings of it to try and address this question of should we stop consuming livestock products because I think it's a very important question for us when we look at this kind of turning point that our society is in; "Livestock's long shadow" this is a publication that was put out by the Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations quite some time ago and it highlighted the fact that livestock does in fact have a very substantial environmental impact. [00:03:22] Our group has done some work simulating what would happen if we removed animals from agriculture and as you might expect we would have more food, so if we take the food that we currently feed to animals and feed it to people instead we're going to experience about a 20 percent increase in the availability of food when we talk about feeding the global population increasing food is an important thing but it's not all about the weight of food produced as we change from high nutrient dense products like meat and milk to low nutrient dense high energy products like the grains that we feed to animals we're going to experience a shift in the nutrient profile of our food production system. [00:04:05] Which means we might have more energy available for people but we're also going to experience limitations in the availability of really critical micronutrients like vitamins and fatty acids, so although there might be some benefits or perceived benefits in terms of the total amount of food we have some really serious concerns about nutrient deficiencies we were also really surprised to learn that when we remove animals from agriculture we experience only a 2 to 3 percent reduction in agriculture in total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States for most people that's not enough of a change to incentivize these potentially disastrous health impacts of shifting away from a food supply that includes important micronutrients. [00:04:52] So the moral of that story is that a livestock do have a fairly substantial environmental impact but if we want to address that environmental impact it's probably not as simple as getting rid of livestock. So that's a bit like the Hokie game last night it's kind of a downer. [00:05:10] So let's turn things around and talk about the bright side of livestock, Ok, ruminant livestock in particular those are animals like cows and sheep have that incredible ability to convert inedible feed so forages and grasses into high quality human animal foods and they can do this in all of these different environments which means that they're able to harvest land that we wouldn't otherwise be able to utilize for food production. [00:05:40] They're able to do that again because of this really unique ability to up cycle inedible products into these really quality protein sources like meat and milk, now it's somewhat ironic that it's actually that process that also is responsible for animals major environmental impacts in that it's that fermentation that produces methane so we really can't talk about animal agriculture without talking about the environment and we can't really talk about the environment without talking about animal agriculture. [00:06:12] So what should we do if we're not going to just stop eating animal products? How do we improve the environmental impact of animal agriculture? and I'm not a very inventive scientist I'll admit that, so I like to look at what other industries have done successfully. And a great example is in the car industry, right, so maybe the question we should be asking is how do we create the hybrid cows of the future ,right, we have hybrid cars they've been very successful in changing the carbon footprint of the transportation industry; Can we do the same thing with cows? [00:06:48] Now what does a hybrid cow look like, right, and if we think of some parallels between hybrid technology and cows, hybrid technology changes and it changes fuel; So how can we leverage technology to try and change the fuel that we provide to cows? That means how can we provide better fuel? [00:07:08] Of course here we're talking about the feed that the animals consume because that is in fact their fuel. How can we improve the efficiency with which animals utilize that fuel, how do we build a better engine right or a digestive system in our case? Excuse the shameless joke, right, how do we get better gas mileage? [00:07:31] I would be remiss not to use that opportunity to explain to you all that it is not actually cow flatulence that is the major contributor to methane it's their eructations or their burps. But, humor sometimes is a nice way to help people remember that. So what are the challenges of the cow's internal combustion engine or their their digestive system, right? [00:07:56] As you can imagine that the digestive system of the cow is is very difficult to access ,right, we can't really get in there and experiment on it the way we might want to the cow determines what gets into its digestive system not the scientist; The system is also anaerobic which means that there is no oxygen in it so anything we do that introduces oxygen into the system is going to change the way it functions therefore we're not really studying the system in it's true form. [00:08:23] Finally there's these really complex micro environments that we think occur and we think that there really critical to this role that animals have in upcycling nutrients, so we have a really challenging system to study and how do we go about doing that? In a lot of ways studying the real moon is like studying Mars, right, it's a foreign environment it's difficult to access so we can look again at some innovations that other scientists have used to study these types of environments, Ok, the Mars rover is one such innovation that was really successful in enabling us to understand this foreign environment much better than we had using traditional techniques so what our group is trying to do is harness technology to understand fuel for cows or to understand their internal combustion engine so we're building robotic sensors that sample the environment and they have capacity to wirelessly transfer power. [00:09:21] So they can run long term and they have a unique approach to navigation many of you probably are not familiar with the digestive tract of cows but it's not a very nice place. There's a fair it's much like sludge you know it's very difficult to navigate through and if you want to sample those micro-climates we need to be able to find innovative ways to get around that system so my engineering colleagues have looked to nature for some solutions and have created a bio inspired robot so they looked for organisms in nature that are able to navigate through this type of material and came upon the Millipede So we are planting our robot on a millipede platform so that it can swim and crawl through the room an environment autonomously to be able to sample that environment. [00:10:12] So what can we really learn from that we're going to be able to improve the precision with which we study this system which can in turn revolutionize the way that we feed animals because we have a better understanding of the system in its native form not in the way that we influence it we can go ahead and do a better job of characterizing individuals and get back to matching the needs of an individual animal or of the microorganisms within that animal again to try and improve our gas mileage. [00:10:41] The long term hope of that is that we can take these types of projections and make them look a little bit more favorable, right, so we can work to improve the efficiency of production of our products and reduce the environmental impact with the broader societal benefit of trying to meet this growing global demand for animal protein products so hopefully that's a nice little reprieve from our sadness associated with the Hokies I'm happy to take any questions. [00:11:17] Yeah great question so, the current prototype is about the size of a soda can and that's not yet going into cows what the engineers are working on is how to create that wanted to know wave motion of how the millipedes legs kind of roll so we got that working pretty well in the next step is to downscale it with the ultimate goal of making it about the volume of half a pencil. [00:11:51] Poultry are what's called monogastric animals so they have very similar digestive characteristics to humans which means that by default they are more competitive with people for food. Once again ,though, the types of foods that we feed to poultry would not work well in human diets so that that idea of competition between livestock and humans is somewhat a fallacy when you start to look at the actual nutrient profiles going in and coming out of the system poultry products in general have lower environmental impacts than ruminant animal products so meat is is certainly preferable. [00:12:34] Poultry meat would be preferable to pork and beef in terms of a carbon footprint, eggs would be a little bit higher than products like milk but much lower than meat products does that address your question? Certainly sir. Great question, so do we have cows with windows into the digestive track this is what we call them commonly, yes, so they're called fistulated or cannulated animals we have who probably twelve are somewhere between twelve and twenty here at the university and we still use those regularly as a part of our research programs. [00:13:17] And actually when we test out the prototype room and robots we will be doing them in these animals so that we can actually confirm the measurements being made by the robot, the challenge that we see with cannulated animals from a research standpoint is that by creating that hole into the animal's digestive tract we actually introduce oxygen into the system and so we don't know what impact that has on what is supposed to be an anaerobic fermentation so we hope to learn. [00:13:59] Yeah, great question, so what's the difference in environmental impact between grass and grain fed animals? This is another common misconception, our grain fed animals are actually substantially more environmentally efficient than grass fed animals. And the reason behind that is that grass fed animals spend lot more time getting up to the weight that we harvest them at. [00:14:25] Anything we can do in those systems to get those animals to grow faster so that we can harvest them at a younger age will make them more competitive with our grain fed animals, but the increased environmental impact associated with grain production and transportation is actually very substantially offset by the amount of time those grass fed animals take to reach a finishing weight. [00:14:47] Thank you so much!