Energy Conservation in Agriculture

Farms reduce ongoing climate change by exchanging fossil fuels for clean energy and increasing their awareness of land management. But only if everyone makes personal changes will the results be global.

| July 2016

Wind turbines and livestock

Harvesting wind power on farmland and using methane-emitting animal waste as a fuel alternative are just two of the ways farms can help conserve energy.

Photo by Fotolia/jpldesigns

The last decade has seen superstorms, forest fires, heat waves, and droughts, to the point where the effects of climate change have been impossible to ignore. And between greenhouse gas emissions, erosion, and crops and livestock in general, farms endlessly and (seemingly) unavoidably contribute to this changing climate. But there are solutions to reduce carbon emissions that farmers could employ. Joseph Romm has written an up-to-date, comprehensive examination of the science behind climate change, what these environmental issues mean for the future, and possible clean energy solutions. Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2015) is a presentation of how the changing environment will impact nations, families, and you. This quest to decrease global warming might begin on the farm, but, as Romm points out, it ends with the consumer, forcing everyone to step back and consider the morality issues at stake and the health of the world we live in.

What can the agricultural and livestock sector do to minimize climate change?

The agriculture and livestock sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. There are three basic ways that the sector can reduce emissions. First, it can cut its direct emis­sions of GHGs, including carbon dioxide released from the combustion of fossil fuels. Second, it can alter its practices so as to keep more carbon in the soil. Third, food providers can change what food they produce, because the production of some crops and livestock generate considerably more GHGs than others.

First, like most other sectors of the economy, the agricultural sector can cut CO2 emissions by using more efficient pieces of equipment and by using cleaner energy. Farmers have some options most others do not. For instance, because wind tur­bines are so tall, farmers have been able to put a large number of them on their land while still being able to farm underneath them. As a result, many farmers have been able to augment their earnings by harvesting the wind. In addition, farmers that raise livestock often have considerable animal waste that emits methane, which can also be harvested and used onsite for power and/or heat generation.

Second, some forms of agricultural land management prac­tices store and preserve more carbon in the soil than others. Modifying tillage practices has been shown in some instances to increase soil carbon storage, but more research needs to be done to identify the optimal strategies and exactly how much carbon could be stored. Similarly, biochar, which is animal and plant matter that has been transformed into charcoal to store carbon in the soil is another option that may be able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A 2012 report reviewed the literature on the subject, including 212 peer-reviewed studies. The authors point out that biochar would be an effec­tive carbon reduction strategy only if it were stable in the soil for a long time. Otherwise, it would decompose and release its stored carbon back into the air. Their review “found that the data do not yet exist to accurately estimate biochar stabil­ity over time” and so “it is too early to rely on biochar as an effective climate mitigation tool.” The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report reviewing the literature on mitigation found that biochar might be able to remove sub­stantial CO2 from the air—if there were enough available bio­mass and if further research and field validation were able to verify high levels of long-term biochar stability in the soil.

The U.S. Congressional Budget Office has identified a vari­ety of other practices that could increase the carbon stored in farmland. For instance, “as farmers rotate which crops they grow on which parts of their land from year to year, they can foster sequestration through frequent use of cover crops—particularly those, like hay, that do not require till­age and that fix carbon in the soil through their extensive root systems.” Other practices that could help store more carbon in farmland include preventing erosion by “planting grasses on the edges of cropland and streams.” Also, grazing man­agement strategies, which includes grazing areas rotation and improved plant species, can help reduce carbon loss on range­land and pasture.

Third, some crops and livestock produce lower amounts of total GHG emissions per calorie delivered than others. In particular, a December 2014 literature review by the Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs based in London, points out that “greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are estimated to account for 14.5 percent of the global total.” That means the full life-cycle GHG emissions of meat and dairy are comparable with the direct emissions from the global transport sector. Beef and dairy, which are the most emissions-intensive of livestock products, generate 65 percent of the total GHGs emitted by livestock. Globally, the GHG emissions from producing beef is on average more than a hundred times greater than those of soy products per unit of protein.

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