The Facts About Farming And Climate Change
While climate has always changed, we do have more dramatic events now, and more often. There is no doubt there is climate change. There’s no doubt that if we, as an industry, don’t take part in the conversation to bring about voluntary change, we will lose out on being part of the solution.
Farmers don’t want to be told what to do. If they are part of the problem they want to be part of the solution and not have somebody tell them that we’ve made a decision for you, or have regulation forced on them from people who have never gotten their boots muddy.
Farmers have been good at voluntarily adopting environmentally sound best practice options for producing but we all know we can get better.
We’ve added a lot of new words to our vocabulary in the past five years: 100-year floods, 100-year droughts, warmest winter ever, polar vortex, bomb cyclones, etc.
Extreme weather is a growing problem – literally. Even so, weather’s impact on our daily life is hard to pin down. We need a real understanding of the trade-offs between food production and GHG emissions so we can then lay out a path toward a more climate-friendly future.
Globally, the World Resources Institute says agriculture emits 25% of GHG when you combine food production with practices like land clearing (deforestation) and ploughing, but that 25% has been called into question by several noted climate experts.
It’s possible many of us in rich countries over consume not just animal protein but carpets, curtains, cappuccinos and cocktails! On the other hand, 10% of the world lives on $2 a day. That’s 700 million people, mainly in Africa and Asia. When they are able to make more money, they upgrade diets to add animal protein.
Imagine telling them they should stick with vegetarian diets.
Oxfam’s new report, ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality,’ based on research conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute assesses the consumption emissions of different income groups between 1990 and 2015 – 25 years when humanity doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It found:
- The richest 10 per cent accounted for over half (52 per cent) of the emissions added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015. The richest one per cent was responsible for 15 per cent of emissions during this time – more than all the citizens of the EU and more than twice that of the poorest half of humanity (7 per cent).
- Annual emissions grew by 60 per cent between 1990 and 2015. The richest 5 per cent were responsible for over a third (37 per cent) of this growth. The total increase in emissions of the richest one per cent was three times more than that of the poorest 50 per cent.
One big offender – and life giver - is synthetic nitrogen fertilizer production, which hits the atmosphere twice: first in manufacturing where it requires fossil fuel energy, then again when some fertilizer inevitably escapes in the application process.
Industrially-produced fertilizer is a $212 billion industry that is claimed to be responsible for 3% of greenhouse gas. More than one percent of the world’s total energy production goes to produce nitrogen fertilizer. Developed countries contend with waterways polluted from leaching nitrogen, while adequate fertilizer is often inaccessible or too expensive for farmers in developing countries.
Raising organic matter unlocks soil’s potential to provide nutrients to crops, which in theory reduces your fertilizer bill. The easiest move is simply fertilizing for maximum economic return, not just yield.
Too many farmers apply more fertilizer than plants can use, which is not intended as a criticism of the inevitable occasional loss of N to the environment due to unforeseen weather or other uncontrolled event. Criticism, if any is due, should be limited to situations of excessive use outside of commonly understood best practice.
Let’s be clear: humankind made a conscious decision to engineer the land to produce food. We introduced strategies around soil health, water and fertilizer, to make sure we have food security. We made a careful determination to scale up production methods so that most everyone could afford to eat and go on to become doctors, teachers, artists and plumbers.
This was not a difficult call. Mother Nature could rest easy if not restore itself if we decided at some point not to feed humans. In a democracy the constituency demanding “a hair shirt and a cold shower” is not great and unlikely to ever approach a workable majority.
Even so, we as farmers, partners and parents must admit what we’re doing is not always perfect. Arguably even dedicated vegan’s cycling to protest declining water quality and melting ice shelves would struggle to demonstrate environmental perfection, if only because the nuts and mung beans powering their trip caused some disruption in production and supply!
We will get some nitrogen runoff even with our best practices. It’s not possible to keep every ounce of nitrogen in a field, and farming does consume a lot of energy in the form of fossil fuels.
The impediment to a rational debate is that people forget to weigh the food security provided by production agriculture against its environmental impacts. They want a perfectly natural New Zealand and a full belly and simply ignore the fact that the 2 outcomes are mutually exclusive.
Greenhouse gas emissions are another problem. If you’re really serious about climate change and all you’re doing is justifying what we already do to someone it’s not solving the problem.
Critics find it easy to lump all greenhouse gas emissions together, including those coming from ruminants. But they are not all the same.
CO2 and Nitrous oxide (N2O) are considered ‘long-lived climate pollutants’ while methane from cattle is a ‘short-lived’ pollutant. Methane’s half-life is just 10 years, so it degrades in the atmosphere relatively quickly. CO2’s half-life? 1,000 years! Because it lives for so long it accumulates, and that build-up of warming continues to grow as long as we’re emitting CO2. Nitrous oxide’s half-life is 110 years.
The methane that our cows and other livestock put out today will be gone after 10 years.
Plants need carbon and water. Carbon as CO2 in the atmosphere is taken in by plants; that carbon is made into carbohydrates such as cellulose starch, or components in feed, eaten by cows, which then goes into the ruminant’s stomach and there some is converted into methane. So the carbon from methane originates in the atmosphere, goes through plants, then into animals, is then emitted, and becomes atmospheric CO2.
This is a biogenic cycle. It’s an important distinction.
Oxford University research makes it clear that biogenic methane is not the same as fossil-fuel derived methane. It is the same chemically, but the origin and fate are drastically different.
Fossil-fuel based carbon originates from oil, coal and gas, ancient forests and animals that died a million years ago and got stored in the ground. We extract it and burn it in factories, cars, planes, ships - and by doing so, put it in the atmosphere.
Instead of a cycle, this is a one-way street. The amount of CO2 we put in the atmosphere by far overpowers the potential sinks that take up CO2, like oceans and plants.
This is the main culprit of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. I have yet to see a climate scientist say it’s the cows who are the primary culprit.
If countries want accurate and realistic greenhouse gas reduction goals, they should separate biogenic methane emissions from others.
Otherwise, we assign an incorrect blame to livestock, and we get rid of part of it or we regulate them out of business. Then the only thing that will happen is that they will go someplace else.
It’s important for farmers to understand the greenhouse gas issue. Be able to discuss policy and solutions with anyone, but it’s also important to tell our success stories in a way that resonates with consumers.
We need a message that tells the process of farming and do it in a united way, to show the world how we produce feed and food so everyone can understand why we do what we do.”
There’s a load of factual data being produced on how agriculture can lower its carbon footprint and though few of these “expert” sources have ever even stepped foot on a farm, they may still be worth reading and digesting.
Let’s face it: data can make eyes glaze over but people pay attention to stories.
Without a clearly understood story straight from the farmer’s mouth, one that connects consumers with your values, we risk pressure from them that could hamstring agriculture efficiency and profitability.
Firstly we must ensure that we are using the best practicable options for production in our farming operations and then we must learn to combine science with storytelling. We need people to hear and understand that there are trade-offs to be made in farming, in the same way that the well off have to weigh the GHG cost of flying to Queenstown for a skiing holiday. There is no such thing as a free emission any more than there are free flights, free ski passes and free hospital care for broken limbs. Someone has to pay. When it comes to the environment its deciding who that’s the hard part!
Just shouting facts won’t do it, we need to be committed to best practicable options for production, high quality research, science and communication to bring clarity to the relationship between agriculture, the environment, and our daily lives.