The ‘lightning rod issue’ of agriculture and climate change

There is a positive side to the story of agriculture 
and climate change. Why is it so hard getting anyone to listen?

“It’s not that livestock and poultry don’t have an impact. They do. But it’s important to quantify it and report it accurately. Only then can we have public policy for meaningful change.” – Frank Mitloehner

Glacier FarmMedia – The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) recently painted a picture of Canadian agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions that runs counter to commonly held public perceptions.

The CAPI paper said generally the sector has its house in order.

Canadian agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2005 and have remained steady at about 60 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) since, the CAPI paper says. Meanwhile, agriculture production has continued to increase since 2005, which means the carbon impact per unit of production has decreased.

A CAPI look at the actual numbers relating to enteric gas production (from livestock) and crop production showed that both have declined significantly over the past decade.

While there is still lots of twists and turns to the unfolding story about how humans are affecting climate change, much of the recent research is saying that agriculture, especially animal agriculture, has been unfairly maligned.

Why it matters: Specifically targeting animal agriculture because of its climate impact could result in changes that create more damaging outcomes, such as increased soil erosion and lower carbon sequestration.

Frank Mitloehner, a scientist at the University of California – Davis is one of the independent voices telling a broader story about animal agriculture and climate change than the popular storylines.

Frank Mitloehner. photo: John Greig

“It’s not that livestock and poultry don’t have an impact. They do. But it’s important to quantify it and report it accurately. Only then can we have public policy for meaningful change,” he said at the World Dairy Expo, where he was one of the speakers.

Mitloehner spends his time working to quantify the environmental impact of agriculture, especially dairy farming in California, where the state has legislated a 40 per cent decrease in methane emissions from 2013 levels by 2022. That will require changes in feed and the likely introduction of more methane digesters on farms.

“You may think California is nuts, and you might be right, but you need to pay attention because what is happening there will happen here too,” he said.

Setting targets and continuing to improve carbon use efficiency is nothing new for livestock farmers, Mitloehner says, and that’s a story that farmers haven’t told, especially those in North America.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — among the most trusted organizations doing climate research in the world — recently released a report on land use and climate change that includes a significant portion on the impact of agriculture. There are parts of the world where the efficiency of livestock production has decreased, but Mitloehner said the report also pointed out the dramatic decrease in carbon impact of dairy farming in North America — a story that wasn’t covered.

There are about 10 million dairy cattle in North America, down from close to 30 million in the 1950s.

The CAPI paper recently criticized the IPCC’s approach.

“The IPCC approach fails to acknowledge the important differences in emission intensity in production processes across various countries and regions, and that the Canadian agriculture sector has made significant progress in making the soils in crop and animal production a net carbon sink, as well as reducing emission intensity of animal agriculture,” the CAPI report says.

“It also lacks balance by focusing on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the exclusion of other kinds of environmental effects. This needs to be better understood so that the role of agriculture as a prospective solutions provider rather than a source of emissions can inform the policy debate around achieving Canada’s climate change goals.”

Mitloehner called on farmers to talk about what they do and about what the research on livestock and climate change really says.

Livestock belches get a bad reputation because methane has 28 times more climate impact immediately than carbon dioxide. But few people have talked about the fact that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 1,000 years, whereas methane degrades in 10, says Mitloehner. He also says methane is part of a defined carbon cycle, where plants absorb carbon dioxide (produced when methane degrades). The plants are then eaten by animals, which release methane into the air where it then is cycled back to be used by plants.

That compares to the fossil fuel carbon cycle where carbon dioxide is released from fossil fuels, which have taken hundreds of thousands of years to form.

Another researcher working to better explain the difference between methane and carbon dioxide is Michelle Cain at Oxford University. She’s conducted research that looks at how methane has moved around the world, especially accumulating in the Arctic. She argues that the Global Warming Potential numbers used by many around the world are inaccurate, as they don’t take into account the amount of time a particular gas spends in the atmosphere. She and Mitloehner can both be found making their arguments on Twitter.

The CAPI report says that the increasing precision and productivity of agriculture is behind the ability of the sector to have reduced its carbon footprint. In other words, taking better care of the soil and using fewer inputs, making a farm more efficient and therefore saving money, has contributed to reducing climate impact.

However, not all Canadian farmers are using more efficient processes such as precise cattle feeding and 4R principles when applying fertilizer, says CAPI and that means that Canada’s agriculture-related climate impact could yet be further improved. It could help continue to be a climate hero instead of a climate villain.

Farm organizations have such information in hand as well. Dairy Farmers of Canada now measures its sustainability. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association says that over the past 30 years cattle producers have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 15 per cent, while producing 32 per cent more beef.

Starting the discussion

With a good story to tell about reducing greenhouse gases, how does agriculture start the discussion, especially when the general assumption is that agriculture is a climate villain?

The environmental case against animal agriculture has also been embraced by the anti-meat movement, which further complicates the discussion.

Starting with all the convincing numbers doesn’t work. People connect with emotion, not facts, says Kelly Daynard, executive director of Farm & Food Care-Ontario. She’s spent years talking about farming to consumers and food influencers.

“We find that you can’t start with the science. You have to talk about why you love doing what you do, connecting on common values,” she says. “You build credibility and then you can have the more difficult conversation.”

That can be hard for farmers who see outdated or misinterpreted numbers and information float by in the media and on social media networks.

It’s where to start, though, says Daynard. She recounted how she recently took 40 food influencers to Warren Schneckenburger’s farm near Cornwall, Ont. His passion and ability to take the visitors to the field and show them what he does relating to soil health and climate change, helped it come to life, she said.

She says the questioning of especially animal agriculture when it comes to climate change is tied up in the fear-based marketing regularly used to get people to change their diets.

“Fear should never be used to sell food. And it is,” she says.

Animal agriculture and climate change: Fast facts

  • Animal agriculture has a significant impact on climate change – between two and four per cent.
  • The amount of climate impact from milk production in North America has decreased by two-thirds since the 1950s.
  • The greenhouse gas impact from beef production in Canada has been reduced by 15 per cent over the past 30 years.
  • The UN-FAO estimated that greenhouse emissions per unit protein worldwide averaged 290 kg carbon dioxide equivalent. For Canada, using beef protein yield, GHG emissions intensity was 119 kg.
  • Canadian agriculture stabilized its greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 and has increased production significantly since then.
  • There’s a massive global research underway to continue to decrease climate impact from ruminants.
  • The often-cited report that agriculture has a greater impact than transportation is “baloney,” says University of California – Davis researcher Frank Mitloehner. The number used in that report in the early 2000s did not compare agriculture and transportation similarly.
  • About 70 per cent of the land used for agriculture is not productive enough to be used for crops.

Sources: CAPI, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Frank Mitloehner

This article was originally published on Farmtario.

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