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A proposed set of legislative goals released by a pair of Democratic freshmen members of Congress mentions getting fewer emissions from “farting cows,” but they want to work with farmers, too. The Green New Deal was released on Feb. 7 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and aims to eliminate greenhouse gas emission while revamping the U.S. economy.

The Green New Deal has been drawing some attention because it would drastically change how many facets of the economy operate in an effort to address climate change. Components of the Green New Deal – that tries to fashion itself similar to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – focuses on utilizing renewable energy, cutting fossil fuels, overhauling health care and addressing the wealth divide.

The Green New Deal also contains mention of “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”

The initiative aims to support family farmers, invest in sustainable agriculture practices to increase soil health and building a sustainable food system that ensures access to healthy food.

While the legislation doesn’t have much more in details about the role agriculture will play in this effort, a FAQ sheet released with the Green New Deal does paint a different picture.

In a section of the FAQ sheet asking about the difference between the goal of going “100% clean and renewable” versus “100% renewable” there is a call out about methane emissions in cattle.

“We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast, but we think we can ramp up renewable manufacturing and power production, retrofit every building in America, build the smart grid, overhaul transportation and agriculture, plant lots of trees and restore our ecosystem to get to net-zero,” the FAQ sheet reads.

Voices From Agriculture

The mention of “farting cows” drew concerns from groups representing agriculture and farmers on social media.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has been working to address sustainability through efforts like the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). Also, NCBA recently released a Cost/Benefit Principles that serves as a guide for decision-making on various policy proposals regarding climate change.

“Despite all the progress we’ve made on the environmental front in recent decades, some policymakers still seem to think targeting U.S. beef producers and consumers will make a huge impact on global emissions,” says Colin Woodall, NCBA senior vice president of government affairs. “That’s why we drafted our Principles – to give the folks who are proposing new public policies the opportunity to outline the specific costs and estimated benefits of their proposals.”

Research and Statistics Shows Improvement on “Farting Cows”

While much of what is suggested for agriculture is already being handled through programs funded in the farm bill, the mention of “farting cows” shows a divide between rural and urban America.

According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), direct greenhouse gas emissions that come from cattle and their manure represents 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, or less than 0.4% of global emissions.

Research by Virginia Tech and USDA-ARS determined that if all livestock were eliminated from production agriculture it would only reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6% or 0.36% globally. However, the shift would cause changes in dietary needs as people would not be able to receive enough of several different essential dietary nutrients without animal proteins. There would be deficiencies in calcium, vitamins A and B12 and some important fatty acids. Ultimately, resulting in higher caloric diets.

“A take-home message from the study was that we need to expand the way we think about food production to account for the complex consequences of changing any individual piece within the wider food system,” says Robin R. White, a professor of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech.

The announcement of the Green New Deal is something that Sara Place, NCBA’s senior director of sustainable beef production research, hopes will serve as starting off point for a conversation between the politicians supporting it and livestock producers.

“I think it highlights the large divide between people that are interacting with the environment and growing food every day, and those that are concerned about environmental issues, but ignorant,” Place says.

The U.S. has become one of the most efficient producers of both beef and dairy in the world during the past few decades, helping curtail the amount of emissions.

Since 1977, the U.S. beef cattle herd has decreased by 33% and the same amount of beef is being produced. A Journal of Animal Science study by Dr. Jude Capper showed that comparing 1977 versus 2007 to produce 1 kg of beef it took 69.9% of the animals, 81.4% of feedstuffs, 87.9% of the water, and only 67.0% of the land required. Modern beef systems produce 81.9% of the manure, 82.3% CH4, and 88.0% N2O per billion kilograms of beef compared with production systems in 1977.

Dairy has seen wide improvements as well. A study published in the Journal of Animal Science (Capper et al., 2009) showed that modern dairy production has become much more efficient. Comparing 1944 versus 2007 it takes 21% fewer cows, 35% less water and 10% less land produce 1 billion kg of milk. All while emitting 37% less of a carbon footprint. Other greenhouse gas impacts included a reduction of 24% for manure, 43% for CH4, and 56% for N2O per billion kg of milk compared with equivalent milk from historical dairying.

Even with these gains in recent history to curtail greenhouse gas emissions in beef and dairy production there still appears to be a need to share that information with political leaders.

“Reprinted by permission of Farm Journal media, February 2019”

Editor's note: Public furor over the accompanying FAQ document forced Ocasio-Cortez to pull it off of her congressional website, but not before claiming there were "doctored" versions of the FAQ circulating around the internet.

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