How corn farmers and cows can help avert the climate crisis


To mock the severity of climate change, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other naysayers like to make jokes about cow farts, a source of greenhouse gas emissions. But the climate crisis is no joke, and no one knows that better than farmers and ranchers, who have been among the first Americans to suffer its impacts.

To treat the climate crisis like a crisis, we must do everything we can to slash greenhouse gas, or GHG, emissions. That means rapidly accelerating the transition to renewable energy, already underway. The share of electricity from renewables has doubled in the past decade, and thanks to advances in storage battery technology, production of wind and solar power is growing dramatically.

{mosads}Agriculture has a crucial role to play in the clean energy revolution. Many farmers already generate renewable energy to power their own farms and sell energy back to the grid. But just as important, we must change how we grow corn, most of which is fed to cows.

Applying fertilizer increases emissions of nitrous oxide, which is 300 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Small changes in the type, and the amount, timing, and method of applying chemical fertilizer can make a big difference: A Department of Agriculture study found that such changes could cut nitrous oxide emissions by as much as 80 percent. 

Many farmers are already making these changes. But unlike energy efficiency standards for cars and appliances, nitrogen efficiency standards for corn farmers do not exist. How can we persuade more farmers to make these changes?

USDA gives farmers more than $5 billion every year through voluntary conservation programs to tackle environmental problems.  But as Environmental Working Group has documented, much of the conservation funding provided by the USDA is wasted or diverted to less urgent priorities. We know which farm practices reduce GHG emissions, but we’re not paying enough farmers to adopt them. Between 2009 and 2016, we gave farmers twice as much conservation funding to install pipelines and pumping plants than to improve fertilizer applications.

The 2018 Farm Bill created an opportunity to fix this problem. It’s a minor miracle that Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, tucked a $15 million-a-year soil health pilot project into the Farm Bill. But this represents less than a tenth of a percent of USDA conservation spending. Other reforms – such as increasing payment rates for the best practices funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and restoring trees and grasses through the Conservation Reserve Program – could significantly reduce fertilizer emissions and store carbon in the ground right away.

We must also change how we raise livestock. Over the next 30 years, worldwide demand for meat and dairy is expected to increase by up to 70 percent. Globally, livestock now accounts for almost 15 percent of greenhouse gases, and livestock’s share of GHG emissions is likely to grow.

Beef and dairy production alone produce more than 60 percent of these emissions. The main contributors are production of corn and other feed crops and the livestock digestive process of enteric fermentation. Meat production is a primary source of emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

In the U.S., methane emissions from livestock are greater than from natural gas and petroleum systems combined. Although U.S. methane emissions have fallen overall, emissions from agriculture have increased. Yet, as with incentives for reducing fertilizer emissions, reducing emissions from animals has so far been a low priority for USDA.

The climate crisis is reason enough to address the impacts of corn and cows. But the pollution of drinking water from farming, and the cost of additional water treatment in rural communities, is an equally strong reason. Happily, many of the same practices that reduce GHG emissions, such as planting tree buffers along streams, also protect drinking water.

Changes in farming practices to fight global warming are not just for the future good of the planet. They’re in farmers’ immediate self-interest. Cow farts make good laugh lines, but the climate crisis is no laughing matter.

Scott Faber is senior vice president for government affairs at Environmental Working Group. Colin O’Neil is EWG’s legislative director.  

Tags Climate change Debbie Stabenow Farms Greenhouse gas emissions Mitch McConnell

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