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Opportunities exist for ag in climate change discussion

Senate Agriculture Committee hearing features positive role farmers can play in mitigating climate variability.

Jacqui Fatka

May 21, 2019

5 Min Read
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In a climate change discussion fueled by partisanship and finger pointing, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a bipartisan hearing Tuesday morning to discuss many opportunities that exist in helping farmers find solutions to the issues they face from changing climate and weather variability.

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) stated that it is important for those in agriculture not to be defensive in this spirited debate but to instead be on offense and speak from the standpoint of leadership and opportunity. “Reality is that agriculture can be leaders in solving this pollution crisis,” Stabenow said.

In opening remarks, Stabenow noted that proposals to confront this problem must be bipartisan and must meet two goals: “They must increase global agricultural production to feed the billions of people who need food, and they must support modern farming, ranching and forestry practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep more carbon in our soils and trees.”

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) added that the issue does not have one silver-bullet solution but, rather, a recipe that includes many ingredients: biotechnology, precision agriculture, voluntary conservation practices such as no-till farming, veterinary care, livestock nutrition and genetics, all of which help U.S. producers improve environmental sustainability.

“If farmers are hindered from utilizing existing technologies and research, or if unsound regulatory decisions are made today on emerging technologies such as genome editing, we can expect an economic result that is at the least more costly and at worst unsustainable for our farmers and ranchers,” Roberts said.

Tom Vilsack, former secretary of agriculture and current chief executive officer and president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, made the economic, competitive and environmental case to continue to look at ways for U.S. agriculture to capitalize on opportunities that open up new revenue streams as well as reduce the environmental footprint of the industry. As domestic and international consumers increasingly demand food products to be sustainably produced, willing partners are needed from the government and food sector to drive and encourage those changes.

“Many producers are already implementing practices to reduce their environmental footprint, and even more seek to do so but are constrained financially,” Vilsack explained.

He said significant partnerships are needed not just with the government but with the private sector as well in order to encourage adoption from farmers. “They want to do it; they just need partnerships to be able to do it,” he said of farmers' ability to make the changes needed.

He encouraged the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in coordination with land-grant universities and private companies, to focus on many of the existing, already-funded programs and target resources to create pilot programs that examine all of the existing technologies in real-world applications and measure, quantify and verify revenue products for U.S. agriculture.

In response to the Green New Deal proposal, Vilsack said the focus should not be about whether industries should be eliminated but instead on figuring out ways for those industries to create new opportunities. His testimony also focused on the dairy industry’s Net Zero Project with the goal of minimizing the industry’s climate impact to net zero.

“Agriculture, in particular, has a unique position to play,” Vilsack said. “If we can prove the case to get to net zero, with additional revenue streams, it will be easier for farmers to do what they already want to do.”

Livestock contribution

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor of animal science and air quality specialist in cooperative extension with the University of California-Davis department of animal science, shared that he often debunks the myth that animal agriculture posses the greatest environmental threat to the planet.

During questioning, he also stated that the methane gas life cycle is 10 years, whereas carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide take thousands of years to break down.

He pointed out that total direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from U.S. livestock have declined 11.3% since 1961, even though livestock production has more than doubled. This massive increase in efficiency and decrease in emissions are due to the technological, genetic and management changes that have taken place in U.S. agriculture since World War II. Specifically, these include: efficiencies in reproduction; better health, brought about, in part, by vaccinations and advances in health care; the application of “high-merit” genetics, and more energy-dense diets.

For example, in 1950, there were 25 million dairy cows in the U.S. Today, there are 9 million cows, but today’s herd produces 60% more milk than the cows in 1950 did. “Put another way, the carbon footprint of a glass of milk is two-thirds smaller today than it was 70 years ago,” Mitloehner testified.

Other animal species have followed suit.

In 1970, there were 140 million head of beef cattle in the U.S., and while there are just 90 million today, they are nevertheless producing the same amount of beef. In the swine industry, the pig crop has tripled, but there has been a concurrent 76% reduction in land use, a 25% reduction in water use and a nearly 8% reduction in GHG emissions since 1960.

Increased productivity, improving genetics and veterinary systems that prevent animals from getting sick as well as feeding a well-balanced diet create a combination that optimizes the performance of animals and lowers the environmental impacts to “rates we’ve never seen before,” Mitloehner said.

He also tackled the notion that Meatless Mondays, or totally eliminating animal production, would improve the environment. Mitloehner testified that, in 2017, professors Robin White and Mary Beth Hall, imagining for a moment that Americans eliminated all animal protein from their diets, demonstrated that such a scenario would lead to a reduction of a mere 2.6% in GHGs throughout the U.S. Subscribing to Meatless Mondays would bring about only a 0.3% decrease in GHG emissions -- “a measurable difference, to be sure, but far from a major one,” he said.

In addition, an all plant-based diet would produce more calories, but it would be lacking in terms of nutritional value.

Debbie Lyons-Blythe, a cattle rancher from Kansas and a member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn., also noted that cattle contribute only 2% of total U.S. emissions. In addition, cattle’s ability to maintain grasslands is an important part of the climate discussion, as grasslands are typically marginal cropland that can’t be used for other production. Further, cattle can “upcycle” other waste products such as distillers grains.

Lyons-Blythe made a simple request to Congress: Do not support any climate policy that unfairly targets cattle producers.

“Cattle have a positive role in a healthy, sustainable food system. The cattle industry takes very seriously its obligation to protect the environment with a safe and affordable food supply,” she said.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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