The planet is warming. That’s no longer up for debate. What might be up for debate is the cause, and what (if anything) should be done about it. Regardless of where you might fall on this issue, it’s becoming something that an increasing number of Americans care about. As stewards of the land, there’s no group of people alive that understand this issue better than farmers.
Don’t waste too much time stopping to smell the “Farting Cows” nonsense that’s been in the news lately. And don’t write off the Green New Deal too quickly either. New research shows that a warming climate may have more adverse affects in the Midwest than what was previously known. A lot of positive changes are already evident as more data and research become available. Greenhouse gas emission rates (GHG) from milk production have already dropped significantly across the globe due to productivity improvments. Eating less meat isn’t necessarily better for the environment, and eating lab-grown “meat” might not be any better either. Sustainable and efficient food production just makes sense- and US farmers are already leading the way in that endeavor.
Green New Deal Ridiculed By Trump
A proposal in Congress called the Green New Deal that was spearheaded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has been openly criticized and ridiculed by many all over the internet, and even by President Trump. Wyatt Bechtel of Dairy Herd reported on the story.
Trump believes the GND would cause a lot of problems.
“I really don’t like their policy of taking away your car, of taking away your airplane flights, of ‘Let’s hop a train to California,’ of you’re not allowed to own cows anymore,” Trump says.
Trump’s reference to cows comes from the now infamous FAQ sheet about the deal.
The FAQ sheet says, “We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast, but we think we can ramp up renewable manufacturing and power production, retrofit every building in America, build the smart grid, overhaul transportation and agriculture, plant lots of trees and restore our ecosystem to get to net-zero.”
GND Plan is to Work With Farmers and Ranchers
Ocasio-Cortez spokesman Corbin Trent says the statement was meant to be ironic. Whatever. It’s a stupid place for a joke. But if we can move past the controversy it’s important to note that the GND proposes to work with farmers and ranchers. The goal is,
“To remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”
There are many aspects of the GND that are totally impractical and next to impossible, but at least it’s an effort. It could be an opportunity for Republicans to shape the conversation and lead the way with data, facts, and common sense. However, the GND has essentially zero chance of passing through the Senate, as it would require 60 votes to do so. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says he’s going to let it come forward in the Senate anyway.
“I’ve noted with great interest the Green New Deal, and we’re going to be voting on that in the Senate,” McConnell says. “I’ll give everybody an opportunity to go on record and see how they feel about the Green New Deal.”
Midwest Vulnerable to Climate Change
Seeing the big picture is important. And it probably goes without saying that most farmers really understand that. A new study performed by Cornell University shows that Midwest agriculture is more and more vulnerable to climate change because of the region’s reliance on growing rain-fed crops. David Nutt covered the story in his recent article in Progressive Forage titled, “Big Picture Look at Climate Change Impact on US Agriculture: Midwest at Risk.”
The study was led by Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, a Cornell University assistant professor of applied economics and management, and CoBank/Farm Credit East Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in Production Economics and Sustainability. He wanted to assess the impact that extreme weather is having on US agricultural productivity. There have been many previous studies that were similar, but none factored in livestock, and none also looked at the nationwide picture.
“We’re trying to get a big picture idea of what is going on,” says Ortiz-Bobea. “The data captures every state’s agriculture over the past 50 years. If you see in the aggregate data that something big is happening, this really captures massive processes that are affecting many people at the same time.”
As Global Temps Rose, Productivity Declined
His paper, “Growing Climatic Sensitivity of U.S. Agriculture Linked to Technological Change and Regional Specialization,” is published in Science Advances. The research used state-level measures of agricultural productivity that capture how inputs are converted to outputs. The put that information together with 50 years of climate data, and the results show increased climate sensitivities in the Midwest over two time periods.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a 2ºC rise in temperature during the summer resulted in an 11 percent drop in productivity. After 1983, however, the same rise in temperature caused productivity to drop 29 percent.
Crop damaging summer conditions only happen 6% of the time, but 1 degree Celsius of warming would more than quadruple that frequency to once every four years.
“Losing almost half your profit every four years? That’s a big loss,” says Ortiz-Bobea.
Specialized Crop Production Risky
One reason the Midwest is more vulnerable to climate change is because the agriculture industry there is becoming more and more specialized in crop production.
“Most of the agriculture in the Midwest is corn and soybeans. And that’s even more true today than it was 40 years ago,” Ortiz-Bobea says. “That has implications for the resilience to climate of that region, because they’re basically putting all their eggs in one basket, and that basket is getting more sensitive.”
“You want regions that are more productive in a particular activity to specialize in those activities, but that could make the overall system more risky. So you have to think about risk-sharing across different regions in the U.S.”
Ortiz-Bobea also looked into the higher corn yields that resulted from the widespread use of genetically modified seeds- a practice that started in the 1990’s. He wondered whether a similar drastic change will be necessary in order to offset projected yield losses from climate change. The answer is yes.
His analysis with Jesse Tack of Kansas State University, was published last month in Environmental Research Letters.
“If these things materialize like the climate models are saying, you would need to have a sustained growth in yields that will need to exceed the historical rates we’ve seen over the past several decades,” Ortiz-Bobea says. “Otherwise you would have to increase more inputs – more fertilizer, more land – in order to have the supply to meet the demand of our rising population. Because the changes are coming – changes in temperature, changes in precipitation, and at a different magnitude than what we’ve seen.”
GHG Emissions from Milk Production Improving
Temperatures are warming, and agriculture in the Midwest could be particularly challenged by that. But it’s worth noting that there’s a lot of new evidence out there that farming is becoming more efficient, and has a smaller carbon footprint than ever before.
A study performed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has found that between the years of 2005 and 2015, GHG emissions from the dairy sector have decreased across the globe. Chris McCullough from Agri-View broke the news.
GHG emissions from milk production have dropped 11%- from 2.8 kilograms to 2.5 kilograms carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram of product produced. During the same period, global dairy production has grown by 30%. Due to the increased global output of dairy, absolute emissions increased 18%, however, if the efficiency improvements weren’t made, absolute emissions would have increased to 38%. Carolyn Opio was the lead author of the report.
“The analysis quantifies the progress of the sector in improving the efficiency of production. The report also recognizes there is more for the sector to do to play their part in mitigating climate change. We encourage the dairy sector to build on the progress to date to identify and implement appropriate and sustainable solutions that provide nutritious food for the growing world population.”
The value of dairy for nutritional and socio-economic outcomes should be balanced with the need for improved environmental outcomes. It’s possible to provide high quality nutrition that respects the environment, farmers, and the animals. Donald Moore, executive director of the Global Dairy Platform and chairman of the Dairy Sustainability Framework that commissioned the study, said,
“More than 6 billion people around the world regularly consume milk and dairy foods as an affordable, accessible nutrient-rich food, supplying energy and significant amounts of high-quality protein and micronutrients.
“The dairy sector recognizes the responsibility it has to continuously improve its performance. We are on the right track, but there is still more to do and the importance of timely quality data to help track and manage performance cannot be under-estimated.”
Eating Less Meat Isn’t Necessarily Better for Environment
Hannah Thompson-Weeman of Animal Agriculture Alliance argues that it’s time to share the facts about climate and food. An article she wrote on the topic appeared in Capital Press. She begins the article by pointing out a recent report from the Lancet medical journal that called for people to drastically reduce their meat and dairy consumption in order to reduce GHG emissions. The report was little more than a sensational headline. EAT-Lancet’s own analysis shows that their recommended diet has almost no environmental benefit over a continuation down the same path. Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., professor and air quality extension specialist at the University of California-Davis weighs in.
“While EAT-Lancet claims its reference diet would decrease greenhouse gas emissions, the commission’s fundamentally flawed data fail to account for methane reduction that occurs naturally, as methane remains in the atmosphere for only 10 years. The carbon emissions from all the flights required for the commission’s global launch tour will have a much longer impact than that of methane from livestock animals.”
Sharable Facts About Agriculture
The Alliance provides some handy facts about agriculture that farmers and ranchers can use to help mitigate the influence that this report is having. It’s important that consumers are aware that animal agriculture is committed to making improvements and strives for both sustainable and nutritious food supply. Here’s a short list:
- Animal agriculture is responsible for just 4% of total US GHG emissions.
- Animal agriculture is responsible for less than half of total agriculture emissions.
- Since 1944, US dairy farming has reduced the carbon footprint of every gallon of milk produced by two-thirds. We now produce 60% more milk with 60% fewer cows.
- Vitamin B12- a nutrient that is essential for brain health- is only found naturally in animal-based foods.
You can contribute to the Alliance thread by going to #ClimateFoodFacts.
Lab-Grown “Meat” Not Necessarily Better for the Environment
So, there’s evidence that animal agriculture isn’t responsible for a large amount of the world’s GHG emissions. There’s also new research out that shows how lab-grown “meat” may not be any better alternative than traditionally produced meat when it comes to GHG emissions.
Matt McGrath contributed an article to Dairy Business called, “Cultured Lab Meat May Make Climate Change Worse.” McGrath says there’s increasing worry about meat consumption’s impact on the planet- so scientists have been trying to grow meat in labs in order to quell the environmental effects.
He points out a study from the Oxford Martin School, which looked at the long-term climate impact of cultured meat versus meat from cattle. Results of the study were published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
The research says that most other studies on the subject have a major flaw because they looked at cow emissions and wrongly converted them to their carbon dioxide equivalent. However, methane and nitrous oxide have vastly different effects on the environment.
“Per tonne emitted, methane has a much larger warming impact than carbon dioxide. However, it only remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide persists and accumulates for millennia,” said co-author Prof Raymond Pierrehumbert.
“This means methane’s impact on long-term warming is not cumulative and is impacted greatly if emissions increase or decrease over time.”
Keeping this in mind, it’s possible that in some circumstances over the long-term, the growth of lab meat might make a much bigger contribution to the warming of the planet than traditionally produced meat. It depends on how energy-intensive it is to produce the lab meat.
But it’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions. Lab meat is still in its infancy, as is our general understanding about climate change and how it should be addressed.
Don’t let all of the farting cows nonsense allow you to easily dismiss the Green New Deal (GND). New research shows that climate change is putting the Midwest at risk. Farmers care deeply about the environment, and it’s important to think about the challenges that future generations may face. It’s true that agriculture has had more than their share of scrutiny and blame for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and for having a heavy carbon footprint. A lot of that just plain isn’t true. Modern agriculture is becoming highly efficient and is more sustainable than it ever has been. New evidence shows that US agriculture is ahead of the curve when it comes to climate change- not behind.