Farmers are part of the climate change solution, not the problem

Aug 11, 2022

The United States Senate recently passed an energy spending bill that would, in part, funnel a great deal of money toward agriculture in an effort to address greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and soil tillage. The goal of this legislation is to bring the U.S. in line with its promised GHG emissions reduction target of 50 percent by 2030.

Agriculture contributes just 11 percent of the total GHG emissions in the U.S., making it the smallest GHG emissions contributor of any sector tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency. Of the 11 percent of GHG emissions from agriculture, research indicates approximately 3 percent of agricultural GHG emissions come from livestock.

The Senate’s passage of the bill is in line with a global push to target agriculture.

Protests in the Netherlands have gone on for months after the government there announced a GHG emissions reduction target that would force farmers to significantly reduce the numbers of pigs, cattle, and chickens on their farms. Ireland also recently announced agricultural GHG emissions reduction goals that have farmers fearful of significant herd reductions.

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The Irish government heard from two prominent researchers with expertise in climate change and agriculture before deciding about their GHG emissions reduction goal. Dr. Frank Mitloehner, UC-Davis, and Dr. Myles Allen, Oxford University, were both called upon to answer questions from the Irish parliamentary committee. Each had differing responses on the matter.

Dr. Mitloehner’s message emphasized alternatives that allow farmers to retain their herds: “A constant source of methane does not add to warming. If you decrease methane like we have in California, this reduction of methane leads to a reduction of warming. Methane is only a problem if we ignore it, if we manage it, we can be part of the solution.”

Dr. Allen’s approach tried to assuage the fears of Irish farmers, emphasizing the good they would be doing for the environment: “If you reduce a herd, it has the same impact on reducing global temperature as planting a lot of trees, by actively taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. If these reductions were acknowledged, it might go a long way to diffusing farmers’ concerns.”

In the U.S., the Senate’s answer to the question of GHG emissions reduction is to impose new taxes and increase spending on projects they say address climate change. The spending includes $40 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Half of those funds would find their way into existing conservation programs like Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP -- $8.45 billion), Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP -- $6.75 billion), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP -- $3.25 billion), and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP -- $1.4 billion).

A better answer to climate change and ag would be fewer taxes and more options for farmers and ranchers to do things differently. 

For example, research being done at UC-Davis shows methane emissions from cattle were significantly reduced when seaweed is added to their feed. Results showed that just 3 ounces of seaweed added to the daily diet of both beef and dairy cattle decreased methane emissions by 82 percent without effecting the taste of the meat or milk.

California’s dairies are also cashing in via public-private partnerships by capturing methane and turning it into energy. Dairies are selling their manure to oil companies rather than storing it in anerobic digester tanks which emit methane. By selling the manure for processing in a methane capture tank, both the dairies and oil companies receive credit for carbon off-sets and reduce methane emissions.

It is also worth noting that agriculture should be given more credit than it is. Researchers working with farmers in the U.S. on tracking carbon sequestration in the soil and looking at other ways that agriculture contributes positively to the climate change discussion are starting to stand up for their friends in agriculture.

Dr. Kaiyu Guan, a climate and agriculture researcher at the University of Illinois was quoted as saying, “I think farmers shouldn’t be blamed, they actually should be incentivized. Not only are they doing this to be part of the solution to help the climate, they are doing this to help their land.”

Climate and agriculture may seem like unlikely bed fellows at a casual glance, but they are inexorably linked. As our communities continue to be focused on climate change, it is critically important to remember what agriculture already does to positively contribute to our ever-changing climate and look into what it is doing to improve its practices for the future. If feed additives that reduce methane emissions and public-private partnerships to capture what methane emissions do occur are the first steps toward improving agriculture’s carbon footprint, then it is fair to say, farmers are headed in the right direction.