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Agriculture, Livestock, and Climate Change

May 13, 2013

agriculture-impact-climate-change-photoClimate scientists observed last week that the world crossed an important milestone. For the first time in 3 million years, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million. The last time we were at this point, the world looked very different. It was the Pliocene Epoch, and global temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius warmer. Alligators and tapirs lived on islands off the coast of Greenland, and much of the world was covered by grasslands that looked a lot like the modern African savanna.

I’ve previously discussed the impact that climate change will likely have on the world’s agriculture in general and on California’s wine industry in particular.

But, as Laura Reynolds notes at Nourishing the Planet, agriculture will not just be affected by climate change; it is also an important contributor. Reynolds observes that,

In 2010, global greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector totaled 4.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO₂) equivalent, up 13 percent over 1990. Agriculture is the third largest contributor to global emissions by sector, following the burning of fossil fuels for power and heat, and transportation. In 2010, emissions from electricity and heat production reached 12.5 billion tons, and emissions from transport totaled 6.7 billion tons… According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, methane accounts for just under half of total agricultural emissions, nitrous oxide for 36 percent, and carbon dioxide for some 14 percent. The largest source of methane emissions is enteric fermentation, or the digestion of organic materials by livestock, predominantly beef cattle. This is also the largest source of agricultural emissions overall, contributing 37 percent of the total.

Livestock thus accounts for a large portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, and cattle are a particularly large contributor. India, home to an estimated 485 million head of cattle, goat, buffalo, and sheep, is the world’s second largest contributor of methane gas—behind only China.

SACHKWR Project- Dairy Cow and Dairy Goats Projects (21-0339-01)But reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock has been a challenge. The Indian government (in a move widely supported by a diverse array of developing countries) called for a differentiation between “survival” and “lifestyle” emissions in climate change negotiations, concluding that there should be a difference between the treatment of an Indian family with a single cow and the millions of cows in massive, industrial slaughterhouses, even if they emit the same amount of methane in total.

It’s certainly a complicated picture. Both are emitting methane and contributing to climate change, but on a per capita basis,

Cattle Feedlot in the United States

Cattle Feedlot in the United States

India’s emissions fall well behind those of the United States and other developed countries. But collectively, all contribute to climate change. Efforts to address agricultural-related greenhouse gas emissions have been stalled for more than a year. And while Reynolds and the staff at the Worldwatch Institute have developed an interesting plan to promote climate-friendly food production, broader structural changes appear to be further off.

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8 Comments
  1. fantastic stuff in your updates;hanks for all the work–wayne roberts

  2. Interesting post. While I do agree that cattle raised in the industrial system are an environmental concern (for many reasons, not just CO2 and methane), reducing cattle and beef consumption may not be the best solution. Cattle raised on properly managed pastures actually produce less methane than those raised in feedlots because of their healthier, more natural diet. They also do more for soil health than any amount of synthetic fertilizer. Healthy soil means more healthy plants and more healthy plants are our best hope for controlling CO2.

    • You’re right. And pasture raised (grass-fed) beef also produces considerably less methane than industrial (corn-fed) cattle. The main point I was trying to make was that we should stop trying to blame India and China for their diets until we get our own house in order.

      Thanks for reading!

      • I absolutely agree with that! Yes, the produce far more pollution than we do, but on a per capita level, we in the west are the worst offenders. Let’s focus on our own short comings before pointing fingers at the rest of the world.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Global Fisheries and Climate Change | Global Food Politics
  2. Climate Change and Your Morning Joe | Global Food Politics

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