Energy & Environment

Climate report makes agri-business a target

A new climate report by the United Nations calls for a massive transition in land management and food consumption, putting the brunt of those changes primarily on the back of one group — farmers.

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for overhauling land use and even diets, with a shift away from meat-heavy meals toward ones that incorporate more plants, grains and nuts.

{mosads}Getting most Americans to give up meat seems unlikely, but agriculture has been identified as an industry where the U.S. can reduce and store its carbon pollution. Several Democratic presidential candidates have rolled out proposals that shine a spotlight on agriculture’s role in fighting climate change.

And if the U.N. report is acted on, there could be major ramifications for farming practices, such as shifting more land back to natural habitats and rebalancing the percentage of food production that requires cropland over pastures.

“The message is clear that as much as agriculture disrupted the environment, it’s probably the part of society most capable of solving the challenge,” said Benjamin Houlton, a professor and director of the University of California Davis John Muir Institute of the Environment who studies the intersection of agriculture and climate change.

Plants and soil absorb carbon and other harmful pollution from the atmosphere in order to grow — a useful feature for humans looking to reduce the planet’s heat-trapping gasses.

“It’s the only part of our world that can create negative emissions in a way that’s economically feasible and has co-benefits,” Houlton said.

And while agriculture accounts for just 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the IPCC report calls on the sector to reduce that figure while absorbing more pollution.

{mossecondads}That poses a challenge for U.S. farms, which vary in size from small family-run operations to large corporate ones. Some farms are dedicated to organic, sustainable practices, while others use pesticides and genetically modified seeds, and still others store animal waste in large, methane-emitting pits.

Those differences influence farms’ priorities and the extent to which each operation can reduce its carbon footprint.

“Farmers have known for a long time that shifting weather patterns and warmer average temperatures are making it more difficult to grow crops and raise livestock,” Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, one of the largest farmer advocacy groups, said in a statement to The Hill. 

“The IPCC is just the latest of many sobering reminders that, if left unchecked, climate change will irrevocably alter our global food systems, putting millions at risk of food insecurity,” he added. “From building soil health to bioenergy production, farmers are already working to mitigate and adapt to climate change — but there’s much more we can and must do.”

But not all farm groups are as supportive of the ideas laid out by the IPCC.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association pushed back against suggestions that Americans should move away from meat-based diets.

“In the face of a growing global population and changing climate, we need ruminant animals, like beef cattle, to help make more protein with less,” the group said in a statement to The Hill. 

“Environmentally, cattle play a unique role in our food system because they upgrade inedible plants to high-quality protein. … History and well-established research have consistently shown that science-based advancements and practical, balanced dietary patterns promote health and sustainability, not eliminating single foods, like beef.”

The push toward more environmentally friendly practices comes at a tough time for the industry. Extreme drought, heat and flooding have created financial challenges for farmers, and President Trump’s trade wars have destabilized a sector already known for its high expenses and small profit margins. 

“It’s not easy for farmers that are barely breaking even in some instances to think, ‘Now how can I help the world with greenhouse gasses?’ ” said Houlton.

The American Farm Bureau Federation noted that the industry has already made some contributions by producing biofuel and setting aside land for conservation.

The U.N. report, however, calls for a much larger return of farmland to natural habitat, as well as efforts to improve soil quality following decades of high emissions that have reduced the Earth’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gasses.

“Rural America can be a part of the answer,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who recently introduced a set of sustainable farming proposals she calls the Rural Green Partnership.

“Utilizing improved land use practices like no-till farming and cover crops to sequester more carbon and improve soil health are a major component of my proposal, and I’m glad the IPCC report included these solutions,” she said.

Houlton added that there are a variety of measures farmers can take, including powering livestock operations with the methane produced by farm animals.

That practice requires a significant investment in equipment, both to cover waste pits and then to burn the methane to create energy.

“Farmers are willing to try these things but they’re on the brink of breaking even each year. So when you say try something new, it’s overwhelming for them,” Houlton said, noting that major investments could cripple farms if they don’t help turn a profit quickly. “Farmers are basically saying, ‘I’ll try something new, and if it doesn’t work, that’s the end of my family’s lifestyle.’ That is huge for people.” 

The solution, he argued, is for the government to offer more financial incentives for farmers to invest in costly equipment.

“We need all levels of the ag production system to work together. Getting big corporations and individual farms to decide to take action would be huge for sending a signal,” Houlton said. “I think they need incentives to do it.”

Tags Agriculture Al Green Cheri Bustos Climate change Donald Trump farmers farming IPCC United Nations
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