Reducing agricultural carbon emissions will be good for the planet and our stomachs

“If the Green New Deal takes an appropriately broad approach, it has the potential to massively improve environmental sustainability and social equity in farming. “

From soil microbes to factory farming, the Green New Deal could radically improve our food system

carrots and leeks
Marché aux Fleurs, Nice, France

For any group activity to be successful—whether it’s a school field-trip or a country’s entire economy—people must be well fed. Our health and well-being depend on quality food, which is why food security is so closely linked to success and prosperity, on both a local and national scale. But as world populations grow, agriculture has become heavily industrialized. This has led to amazing food availability, but has also hurt the environment—impacting not only local water and land resources, but also contributing to the global climate crisis.

The Green New Deal has gained widespread public support and, unlike previous attempts at climate change legislation, it takes a holistic view of industry in society, including the need for good jobs. But agriculture alone will be a tough industry to tackle.

In conversations about agricultural emissions, the elephant in the room is a cow. Emissions from cattle farms make up around 40 percent of agricultural methane pollution. A recent study suggests that to forestall climate catastrophe, global production and consumption of red meat will need to be cut by about 50 percent. The Canadian government recently released a Food Guide that encourages people to eat less meat, and it’s true that a big swing in consumer preferences would indirectly cause changes in how we farm. But the Green New Deal could target farmers directly with initiatives intended to change agricultural practices, shifting from raising meat to growing crops.

That said, even crop-growing farms have many and varied sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Microbial respiration in soil naturally produces CO2 and nitrous gases—but when plants grow, they take up carbon dioxide from the air and nitrogen from the soil, balancing the cycle. When farmers convert land from forest to farm, biodiversity among animals, plants, and microbes is lost, and this normal processes of biomass recycling get interrupted. When ground is left bare between crops, or turned over during tilling, soil erodes. This limits the land’s ability to hold water, and releases further greenhouse gases.

But there are alternative land management practices, like no-till farming, that may help reduce these kinds of emissions. (Although there is still some controversy regarding the effect of no-till on carbon emissions, there is at least strong evidence that it’s good for soil and therefore good for farmers).

Although still short on policy details, advocates of the Green New Deal suggest that it should focus on the use of ‘green’ approaches in agriculture. As others have noted, this should include abolishing the factory farming of animals and encouraging investment in more efficient infrastructure that improves land and water footprints. For example, financial incentives could help encourage a mixed crop-livestock model, where a single farm both rears animals and grows crops. Manure from the animals can be used to fertilize the fields, and plant waste from the harvest can be used for animal bedding and bioenergy generation. If the animals are also given feed produced on-site, there’s a built-in cycling of biological material (and the carbon it contains), and very little need to import organic or synthetic fertilizers onto the farm. This idea of “circular agriculture” eventually improves the quality of the manure the animals produce, and therefore the soil fertility as well. Legislation in the Green New Deal could help promote this kind of farming by establishing legal limits on chemical fertilizer, either by acre of farmland, or by the amount of crops produced. MORE

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