Meeting a ‘generational challenge’: Feeding the world and doing it sustainably

With the launch of the Center for Stewardship Agriculture and Food Security, the School of Veterinary Medicine is working ‘to make animal agriculture part of a solution to a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable future.’

corn stalks on left, road on right
Leveraging expertise in veterinary medicine, animal welfare, and science, Penn Vet’s newly launched Center for Stewardship Agriculture and Food Security aims to find new approaches to meeting the twin challenges of feeding the world while minimizing the environmental impact of livestock agriculture.

Productive farms and a healthy environment should not be mutually exclusive ends. Yet sometimes they seem that way.

On the one hand, the need for more food production is unrelenting. The human population is expected to approach 10 billion by 2050 and malnutrition is rampant, particularly in the Global South.

“There’s this huge discrepancy around the world when it comes to caloric intake and malnutrition and studies show that one of the best ways to reverse those unwanted conditions is providing access to animal protein,” says Thomas Parsons, a professor of animal welfare and ethics at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “That’s the backdrop against which we are working.”

On the other hand, we know that livestock agriculture is a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for 11.2% of U.S. emissions and 10-12% of global emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, respectively. These emissions arise mainly from fertilizer application, manure management, and direct release from cattle. Further, land conversions for agriculture promote deforestation, a major contributor to climate change and biodiversity loss.

At Penn Vet, the newly launched Center for Stewardship Agriculture and Food Security (CSAFS) is taking on what Parsons, its director, calls “a generational challenge.”

“There is a tension between two pressures that agriculture faces,” he says. “One is to be more environmentally friendly. Two is to go and feed the world. Our Center will be one of the few that is focusing on both of these directives at the same time.”

tom parsons holding a piglet
Thomas Parsons (left), the Center’s inaugural director, is leading a research community that will delve into ways that agriculture can be part of the solution to the climate crisis rather than a contributor. (Image: Eric Sucar)

A working vision statement for the Center, Parsons says, is “to make animal agriculture part of the solution to a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable future.” The Center views stewardship agriculture as a vehicle to promote the responsible use of resources that are entrusted to farmers to make food, including air, water, land, animals, and people.

While attending to animal health, productivity, and welfare—longtime strengths of Penn Vet—the new Center will support and forge connections with a robust research community focused on the relationships between animal agriculture and ecosystem and public health, soil science, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.

“If you look at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” says Andrew Hoffman, the Gilbert S. Kahn Dean of Penn Vet, “it’s clear that agriculture impacts every one of them. The way we conduct agriculture, the ‘inputs and outputs’ as farmers like to say, everything we do in terms of the actual practice and policies around markets—these all impact sustainability goals.”

As experts in animal health and welfare, veterinarians and veterinary scientists are uniquely positioned to find solutions that help farmers feed the world, and do it sustainably.

“Simply put, we have a climate crisis and we have a food security crisis,” says Hoffman, “and we will only succeed if we adapt and innovate to address both.”

Evolving agriculture

Innovation is nothing new at New Bolton Center, a campus rich with expertise and a track record of fostering advancements in dairy production, swine welfare, and poultry health, among other fields. Increasingly, those advancements arise out of collaborations that leverage veterinary science together with expertise from other fields, such as engineering, finance, sociology, energy policy, and epidemiology.

Five members of CSAFS standing in a stable with cows.
Penn Vet’s Zhengxia Dou, Laurel Redding, Meghann Pierdon, and Dipti Pitta, together with Parsons, will help lead work in five areas related to the Center’s mission: Animal Welfare, Regenerative Agriculture, Food Security, Climate Mitigation, and Human Health Interfaces. (Image: Penn Vet)

The CSAFS will serve as a nexus for these necessarily cross-disciplinary insights and projects, bringing together the people and resources that can turn nascent ideas into tested, on-the-ground solutions that can be translated and scaled to reach producers across Pennsylvania, the United States, and beyond.

To push these ideas forward, the Center encompasses five “clusters of excellence,” each focused on a distinct branch of the mission: Animal Welfare, Regenerative Agriculture, Food Security, Climate Mitigation, and Human Health Interfaces. Guided by expert faculty leads, the five overlapping domains will support research, training, and outreach to ensure Penn Vet’s innovations reach farmers where they are.

Healthy environment, healthy herd, healthy farms

Promoting health is a priority woven through every cluster in the Center, but is a particular focus of the Human Health Interfaces and Food Security clusters, headed by Laurel Redding and Meghann Pierdon, respectively.

By now One Health is a concept that all within the veterinary field—and many beyond it—know well: the inextricable relationships between human, animal, and environmental health. Redding, whose own National Institutes of Health-funded research has focused on the use of antibiotics and the impact of harmful and helpful microbes on livestock, pet, and human health, will be exploring all of those components in a few projects with tight links to the Center, in collaboration with the Perelman School of Medicine, the School of Dental Medicine, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

disease survey map
Pierdon has worked with farmers across Pennsylvania to track disease outbreaks and help keep herds healthy. Through the Center, she and others will continue and expand these collaborations, considering new factors, such as wildlife disease transmission, to answer questions about farm biosecurity and, more broadly, public health. (Image: Penn Vet)

One involves a feeding trial in cows and pigs to see how high levels of dietary zinc, an essential trace element fed to livestock, may alter the likelihood that the animals’ guts carry Clostridioides difficile, a bacterium associated with diarrhea in animals—and a cause of severe illness in people.

“It’s an open question as to whether animals are a carrier,” Redding says. “They might constitute a reservoir for farmers, farm workers, or potentially even people consuming the associated meat or other animal products from these infected pigs or cows.”

Another study, which will start in companion animals but may later extend to farm animals, will touch upon what’s known as the “hygiene hypothesis.” “We’ve all heard that kids who grew up on farms have less problems with allergies and asthma,” Redding says. “We’re expecting to see that people who have pets and have close contact with their pets will have less disrupted gut microbiota after taking antibiotics and will have a more rapid recovery after completing their course of antibiotics.”

Pierdon, meanwhile, has carved a research niche in agricultural biosecurity, tracing outbreaks of diseases on farms in Pennsylvania, thus arming farmers with the information they need to keep their herds safe from contagious illnesses. She’s hopeful that the Center’s collaborative nature will help her in developing a broader picture of disease threats and prevention strategies, looking at variables not traditionally considered in her modeling to date.

“We are trying to think more about the relationship between wildlife and farm animals,” she says. “We want to build collaborations that help farming have less of a negative impact on wildlife and think about ways of approaching wildlife management that will protect the health of our farm animals.” The Wildlife Futures program, a partnership between Penn Vet and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, will be a major asset in this work, Pierdon says, as will the Institute for Zoonotic Infectious Diseases and the arm of the tripartite Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostics Lab based at New Bolton.

Simply put, we have a climate crisis and we have a food security crisis, and we will only succeed if we adapt and innovate to address both. Penn Vet Dean Andrew Hoffman

Building on disease surveillance work she has led for a decade, Pierdon is experimenting with new ways of mining the data she and others collect from and share with farmers.

With a recent outbreak of infectious coryza in poultry, for example, she is looking for connections between diseases hot spots to try to identify common risk factors.

“We’re starting to think about what this data can tell us, not just using it to alert producers that a case is present,” she says. To that end, she’s working toward a master’s degree in applied science and epidemiology for public health “to ask those deeper questions.”

She sees the Center as a way to get “a big picture view of what we mean by productivity and efficiency” when it comes to food production, a view that wraps in both animal welfare and disease risk. “We can sometimes produce ourselves into a corner,” she says. “It’s not that if a 5,000 sow farm is good then a 10,000 sow farm is better. We need to think carefully about how we can enhance the systems we have to be productive and efficient and also good for the animals at the same time.”

Reducing agriculture’s environmental and carbon footprint

This kind of holistic approach is guiding work in another one of the clusters, Regenerative Agriculture. Farmers have long understood that their livelihoods are tied up with the health of the environment. Weather patterns, soil health, water management, and pollinator populations—all are crucial elements to the success of a farm.

Sponsored by Penn’s Environmental Innovations Initiative, Parsons is leading a research community in turning a focus to regenerative agriculture. He has tapped scholars in soil science, carbon capture, landscape architecture, and engineering to come together and consider how agriculture and agricultural lands can be used to be part of the solution to climate change. Working closely with researchers in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, the School of Arts & Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, this alliance will “create a space,” Parsons says, “to think about soil health, about carbon sequestration, about ecological practices, and so on, to find models for agriculture that are truly sustainable.”

Closely connected to this work is the Climate Mitigation cluster, co-led by faculty members Dipti Pitta and Zhengxia Dou, laser-focused on strategies to shave emissions linked with animal agriculture.

Cows, with their methane-producing belches, are especially culpable when it comes to greenhouse gases, contributing a quarter of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. But with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as private businesses, Pitta has evidence-based techniques to make significant reductions in those emissions. In one study, she’ll be testing and tracking how a particular feeding supplement affects the gut microbiome of cows, and, relatedly, the methane they produce. A second investigation involves tracking a herd of 30 cows using high-tech equipment at New Bolton Center’s Marshak Dairy designed to record the emissions generated by each individual animal.

dipti pitta at new bolton center
Both Dou and Pitta’s work has links to climate mitigation. Recently, they’ve each pursued studies testing new feeds for cows that may reduce the animals’ carbon footprint. (Image: Penn Vet)

“I’m trying to determine whether, by changing the animals’ diet, its timing or its composition, or the timing of lactation, how those variables impact whether a cow is more or less efficient in its rumination,” Pitta says. “Cows that have faster rumination tend to have a higher milk yield and produce less methane.”

Alongside these studies, Pitta’s group is at work in the lab, investigating how the gut microbiome a cow acquires at birth affects its rumination efficiency, as well as its impact on behavior via gut-brain connections.

“These are studies I have been hoping to do for a long time,” Pitta says. “Now with the support of the dean, our funders, and the Center, we have the opportunity and our projects are really taking off.”

A partner on some of those projects, Dou, trained as a soil scientist, has been working on the crop-animal interface to see how to minimize waste and increase food system efficiency, gaining insights that touch a variety of aspects of the new CSAFS.

“My work addresses food waste upcycling through animal feeding, it addresses natural resource issues, it addresses on-farm financial sustainability issues, it addresses water quality problems and it also addresses the need to reduce the carbon and nitrogen footprint on farms,” Dou says.

A recent feeding trial represents one way her work encompasses these diverse facets of sustainable agriculture. Dou obtained culled citrus fruits from a local processing center that were deemed not suitable for human consumption, and fed them to cows, replacing some of the standard ingredients in their diet, such as corn and protein feedstuffs.

“The result was that the cows fed this fruit material actually milked more,” Dou says. “We were able to turn the culled citrus that would otherwise have been discarded into an inexpensive feed source that made cows more productive.”

Following up on this study and with the support of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, Dou is now determining whether fermenting fruit and vegetable wastes with crop residues—materials like corn stalks or wheat straw left over after a harvest—could increase nutritional value and offer another opportunity to turn would-be waste into feed for animals, and then milk for people.

Developing, synthesizing, and translating knowledge

Effectively communicating and translating insights such as these to the larger public, especially agricultural producers, is a core aim of the CSAFS.

Continuing on a tradition of exchange and support of the Pennsylvania livestock industry, the CSAFS will offer a central hub for producers to turn to for new innovations and best practices. And on a global scale, the Center will support existing programs like the Gambia Goat Dairy as well as projects in Botswana working to make animal proteins affordable and sustainable in those and other locales.

The intellectual embers of the CSAFS date back to a virtual symposium jointly hosted during the pandemic with the Weitzman School, “The Farm of the Future.” Penn Vet will continue growing its profile across campus by holding the official CSAFS launch event during the University’s Climate Week in October. Two new faculty positions will soon augment the Center’s work, perhaps with dual appointments in schools beyond Penn Vet, eliciting new scholarly, interdisciplinary connections, always grounded in the deep connection between the veterinary field and farming.

“All good farming requires good veterinary care,” says Hoffman. “We really are integral to the health, sustainability, and resilience of that industry.”

Which means, he says, veterinarians have to be part of the work to sustain and steward the natural resources that make farming—and life on this planet—possible.

“Food production is one of the major drivers of the climate crisis, but new practices in agriculture offer important solutions. The bottom line is that the way that we move forward with producing food will have everything do with our success in addressing the climate crisis.”

cows in new bolton center pasture
(Homepage image) Cattle contribute a quarter of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet animal protein can be an invaluable source of nutrition and way of combatting malnutrition around the globe. The new Center’s work is stepping into this tension, says Parsons, to address “a generational challenge.” (Image: Penn Vet)