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Another Week, Another Swipe at Ag


by Bev Berens

Published: Friday, October 4, 2019

Telling Your Story

This week's celebrity swipe at farmers and ranchers everywhere comes from talk show host, Ellen DeGeneres.

She sends this message out on Twitter: "Be neat, eat less meat. It's good for the planet, for the animals, and you."

Predictably, her words start a firestorm of outrage in the ag community.

And rightly so.

Farm bloggers were quick to respond about the nutritional benefits of meat, the heart of farmers and ranchers, the work ethic and how carefully livestock under our guardianship are cared for. They were passionate, righteous and all very true, from the heart messages sent back to DeGeneres, with many asking for airtime to rebut her damaging words.

There was one topic in the responses that seemed missing, at least to the point of not being backed by facts, figures and numbers. That topic was the carbon footprint left by animal agriculture. And since Climate Change week for 2019 was just last week, farting cows and manure lagoons must have been the celebrity easy target pick for the week.

Wherever you stand on climate change, the fact is, carbon emission is real. The fact that there are also carbon sinks—places where carbon is caught and trapped, is also just as real.

A little research into agriculture's carbon footprint led me to Iowa State University Extension for answers. Working off EPA's own data—yes, our own government's data—greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) emissions were broken down by economic category. Electric and power generation accounted for a third at 33.5 percent. Transportation came in at just over a quarter of emissions at 27.7 percent. Industry ranked third with 18.6 percent. Now we drop into single digits, and oh, wait; agriculture comes in fourth with only 8.2 percent of total contribution of greenhouse gas emissions. That is ALL of agriculture combined. Commercial sources come in at 5.9 percent followed by residential at 5.2 percent and other sources contributing .8 percent. The article is dated 2008 which seems like old news. However, further research found that current publications by NRCS are using the exact same data gathered between 1990-2005.

Breaking down the 8.2 percent further, one would guess that cattle and manure top the list of agricultural offenders. Wrong. Accounting for 61 percent of ag's greenhouse gas emissions is agriculture soil management. The microbial process of nitrification and denitrification in the soil produces the byproduct, nitrous oxide.

Yes, increases in nitrogen use in corn is a factor in increasing nitrous oxide emission into the environment. But technology is exploding with ways to decrease its use and target application.

Next up are those pesky cattle, belching and farting all the time. How dare they? Enteric fermentation most certainly does emit methane gas into the atmosphere—at a whopping rate of 18 percent of agriculture's 8.2 percent contribution to the situation. I would do the math on that, but Heaven help me, it's been a long day and math isn't my best attribute anyway.

A sink catches and sequesters carbon emissions, holding it in another form. Underground coal and oil formations are carbon sinks. Know what else is an excellent carbon sink?

Trees.

Trees process carbon through photosynthesis. As the tree grows and gains biomass both above and below ground, enormous amounts of carbon is sequestered in the wood. In fact, as long as the wood doesn't decompose or burn, the carbon is held for decades in the wood, even if the wood is turned to lumber and used for building material.

The greenhouse gas sink created by trees is 9.6 percent. It is in fact, more than enough to offset the 8.2 percent of greenhouse gas emission created by agriculture. Increases in no-till and cover cropping practices, and grazing are not even figured in the total, yet they add to the total carbon sink created through agriculture practices.

Here you go, Ellen DeGeneres. If you are listening, agriculture is good for the environment. Meat is good for people, and the people that produce meat are good folks just trying to make a living and a life like everyone else.

And Ellen? One more thing. I'm neat because I eat meat.

Now, I think I will go and grill a nice, juicy steak. After that, I might just plant some trees.

Bev Berens is a mom to 4-H and FFA members in Michigan. Do you have a story to share? Email her at uphillfarm494@yahoo.com.

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