From the special report of the GGAA 2010 conference
How's this for an experiment?
Gather 400 scientists and other top minds in their field from nearly 40 countries.
Put them in one conference room for the better part of a week, to share progress and knowledge on one of the planet's most pressing challenges - greenhouse gas emissions.
Set the scene in a jewel of spectacular natural wonder, as both an invigorator for the mind and a fitting backdrop to the issues at stake.
What do you get? A powerful incubator of some excellent ideas.
Here's a rundown of ten key perspectives highlighted during the wrap-up session of the 4th International Greenhouse Gases and Animal Agriculture (GGAA) Conference, Oct. 3-8 in Banff, Alta., Canada.
These are just a few of many ideas discussed by the chairpersons of each of the six main GGAA sessions. They help to draw a roadmap from the progress showcased at Banff 2010 to the new advances targeted en route to the next GGAA conference planned for Dublin, Ireland, in 2013.
Dr. Elizabeth Pattey
1. Avoid one size fits all mindset. Science is driving the development of many new strategies and tools for livestock producers and their industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, summarized Dr. Elizabeth Pattey of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, who chaired a session on atmospheric emissions and biogas capture.
The options for manure management are one example where many approaches are coming into play, including a variety of housing, grazing, storage, and treatment application options. "The progress is exciting yet we must remember there is no one solution that fits all. Options are good but we need them presented in way that allows farmers to make decicions to best meet their individual needs."
Dr. Mark Powell
2. Use better measuring sticks in research. As a pioneering area of science, it's important that the field of greenhouse gases and animal agriculture continually improves and coordinates its approaches to measuring emissions, says Dr. Mark Powell of the USDA in Madison, Wisconsin, who chaired a session on measurement of emissions.
Powell identified several key questions. Among them: How do we mimic natural conditions? How do we make sense of the measurements that we make? And how do we reconcile and interpret results from individual animal studies and those involving herds and plots. "There's a need to agree on the most important reporting factors that will be useful for practical applications and also to guide research."
Dr. Michael Kreuzer
3. Look for 'win-wins.' Livestock industries are faced with a number of demands and it's important to emphasize strategies that are not too narrowly focused, says Dr. Michael Kreuzer of ETH in Zurich, Switzerland, who chaired a session on mitigation strategies for enteric methane.
One promising example of a 'win-win' approach is dietary strategies that incorporate oils or oilseeds to reduce emissions. A number of these may also improve the health value of resulting livestock products. "There is an incredible number of new studies and options emerging from this dietary area," he says. "One of the favorites that is holding up well is feeding linseed or flaxseed that contains oil. This has the additional advantage of increasing omega-3 fatty acids in milk and meat which is desirable from a human health perspective."
As many GGAA presenters emphasized, emissions reduction strategies that are not only effective at reducing emissions but also practical and economically feasible for producers are the most important 'win-win' of all.
Dr. Jamie Newbold
4. Anchor strategies in the rumen. "What produces methane is the microbial population in the rumen, so all of our strategies have got to have a clear anchoring in the rumen," says Dr. Jamie Newbold of Aberystwyth University, Wales. who chaired a session on microbial ecology.
There has been enormous progress in the technology to describe the rumen microbial ecology, he says, which is driving new approaches to mitigation. "One of the keys for further progress is to move toward describing the functional genomics of metabolic inhibitors. As we get into understanding that, our ability to design new mitigation methods will increase dramatically."
5. Take advantage of heritability. One of the standout new opportunities highlighted at the conference was the apparent heritability of methane production among animal phenotypes, says Newbold. "This is enormously exciting. I think we've got to drill down to that over the next three years. That's going to require collaboration between laboratories and very much between countries, as we try to get the data sets large enough to really make strong progress."
Dr. Odd Magne Harstad
6. Invest in modeling research to spur broad progress. Modelling livestock greenhouse gas emissions is an area of science focused on the complex task of understanding and replicating the sophisticated livestock emissions dynamic. It's also a lychpin that supports many areas of research and applied strategies, and needs to continue as a high priority area for future work, says Dr. Odd Magne Harstad of the Norweigan Institute of Life Sciences, Norway.
He kept his assessment brief and to the point. "Enteric methane is a very important source of greenhouse gas. It is therefore very important to model livestock greenhouse gas emissions as accurately as possible, and it is critical that this area of research continues as a high priority in the future."
Dr. Richard Eckard
7. Engage the developing world. A significant point made during the conference session on big picture issues was that the majority of livestock emissions come from developing countries that don't have the luxury of focusing on emissions mitigation strategies. Unfortunately, these countries are also typically not well represented in science forums such as GGAA.
"These are the countries where most of the population growth is predicted to occur over the next 40 years, and where additional food production will have to take place to meet their needs," says Dr. Richard Eckard, University of Melbourne, Australia, who chaired this session. "This is a challenge for us, because these are countries that are rightly more concerned about where their next meal will come from. We have a responsibility to engage more with these countries, to help them adopt the appropriate technologies and strategies as they become available."
8. Don't ignore the elephant in the room. One of the compelling issues discussed at the conference is how to achieve net reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, while more than doubling food production by 2050 to feed the world's population. "Most of us in research are fairly reticent in making statements on such issues," says Eckard. "It's a forum such as this that should be sending a message to our policy colleagues, not to expect net global reductions in emissions from agriculture by 2050, while we have to double food production in the same time.
"Many of the papers at this conference show that we can reduce emissions per unit of food produced, and we can improve efficiency, but doubling food production in the next 40 years will mean a net increase in emissions from agriculture. I don't think there's a way of avoiding that."
The world needs realistic targets and balanced strategies, he says. "We can't let this become the elephant in the room that we avoid confronting."
9. Fix the metrics. Another important message for scientists to deliver to policy makers is that benchmarks and targets for agriculture emissions shouldn't be measured on the same metrics as those used for the fossil fuel industry. "Agriculture is unique," says Eckard. "With fossil fuels, there are options to drive the adoption of alternatives. There is no alternative to food."
As one key presentation by Dr. Henry Janzen pointed out, the world needs to take into account the multiple and often unvalued benefits from livestock production systems and not focus in on single issues. "We need to develop different metrics for agriculture that are more appropriate to measure our progress towards more efficient food production, with less greenhouse gases than business as usual," says Eckard. Focusing just on emissions intensity or absolute emissions is not the solution."
10. Get aggressive at all levels. A major point emphasized throughout the conference was the need for the scientific community to ensure that policy makers are clear on realistic opportunities, challenges and timeframes for science-driven progress. "We need to be clear about what can be achieved and even what can't be achieved over the next 40 years," summarized Eckard. "We also need to be more ambitious in our research, applying experimental thinking, and to develop new ways of managing livestock to be more closely in tune to the needs and nuances of a re-greening earth. Tinkering at the edges with incremental gains will not get us there in 40 years' time."