‘GHG Guru’ talks about cows as key to ‘climate neutrality’

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Innovation in the face of disruption, that was one of the themes of the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience last week. In fact, Alltech CEO and president Dr. Mark Lyons talked about how innovation has been the driving force behind 35 years of the annual “ideas conference”.

This year, due to COVID-19 preventing the conference from happening in-person, innovation turned the ONE conference into a virtual experience for the first time with participation by over 23,000 people from 144 countries.

“We live in a time of great opportunity, we have younger people asking questions, and when farmers get those questions, they should answer them and not defer,” said Dr. Frank Mitloehner. Friday’s ONE keynote speaker.

Dr. Mitloehner is a University of California-Davis animal science professor and air quality specialist as well as world renown greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions expert. He talked on his favorite subject: “Clearing the air: Debunking the myths of agriculture.”

Mitloehner is a foremost authority on air quality emissions and how to mitigate them within the context of livestock and agriculture, and he is an integral part of a benchmarking project for the environmental footprint for livestock.

The project he deems most important of his career is “getting animal agriculture to a place where we consider it climate neutral,” he said, adding that climate was top-of-mind before COVID-19, and will be again. “There’s a lot of interest in this.”

But the path to climate neutrality begins with proper accounting for methane and how it behaves in the biogenic cycle.

“The one missing entity is the media on this,” said Mitloehner. “We are seeing a major new narrative about animal agriculture and the accurate quantifying of methane, but it is problematic that media are not reporting about it.”

Despite lack of media coverage, Mitloehner expects the new narrative to take hold.

He gave a vivid example of why accurate measurement is needed. Speaking in Ireland recently, he compared photos of the Emerald Isle to photos of Los Angeles to photos of a coal-fired power plant in Europe.

Ireland is so green, with pastures, hedges and forages everywhere, he said. But the way carbon is conventionally quantified, Ireland would have the largest carbon footprint of the three examples.

“But the change in how we perceive GHG is materializing as we speak. We have to think about methane not just produced but also degraded, and how GHG is sequestered,” Mitloehner explained.

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In the old way of quantifying carbon by looking at methane budgets (left side of graphic), not only are methane’s short-lived properties as a ‘flow gas’ ignored, but also the sequestration (shown on the right side) provided by agriculture and forestry as part of a biogenic cycle. Screenshot from Friday’s keynote presentation by Dr. Frank Mitloehner during Alltech’s ONE Virtual Conference.

Using the old way, “They don’t think of sectors like forestry and agriculture serving as a sink for GHG,” he said, comparing the three GHGs — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — in terms of their heat trapping capacity.

“So they look at methane and translate it to a CO2 equivalent. That’s what people have been doing since 1990,” he said. “At that time, scientists had several footnotes and caveats, but they were cut off and people ran with the slides without the footnotes. That is a dangerous situation that has gotten animal agriculture into a lot of trouble actually.”

He explained that CO2 is a long-lived climate pollutant, whereas methane is short lived. Methane is different. Unfortunately, when methane emissions are calculated globally for sectors each year, they don’t consider the whole picture.

“If we don’t get this question right, and the livestock moves, then we have ‘leakage,’” he said. “Most people add it up and stop discussion there, but they shouldn’t. On the right side of the graph are these sinks, and they amount to a respectable total, so the net methane per year is a fraction of the total number they are using.”

Another difference is the life span of these gases. CO2 lives 1000 years, nitrous oxide hundreds of years, methane 10 years, Mitloehner explained. “The methane our cows put out will be gone after 10 years, it is produced and destroyed.”

Dr. Mark Lyons brought up all the talk about “planetary diets” and the “spin and marketing” of eating for you and the planet.

Mitloehner said “the inference of diet on environment is greatly overplayed for PR purposes. The impacts are much lower than some people say who want to sell their alternatives. If and when comparing food groups, it must be done fairly. A pound of beef has a different footprint than a pound of lettuce, but it also has a vastly different nutritional profile.”

Another example he gave was dairy vs. almond juice. “Using the old way of assessing the impact of dairy milk, it is 10 times greater, but almond juice has a 17 times greater water footprint. You can make any food shine, but drill into it and there is no silver bullet. People will continue to eat animal sourced foods and the sound argument is to allow us to produce what people need and crave in the lowest impact possible and that is the route we are going.”

The good news, he said, is that for every one vegan, there are five former vegans. The retention is not good.

He talked the virtual ONE attendees through the process of where carbon comes from and where it ends up. This is why GHG from livestock are significantly different from other sources such as fossil fuel.

Plants need sunlight, carbon in the form of CO2, which is made into carbohydrate, cellulose or starch, ingested by the cow into the rumen where some of it is converted into methane. And after a decade, that methane is converted back into CO2 needed by the plants to make carbohydrate.

“The carbon from our methane originates in the atmosphere, goes through plants, to animals, to air, and again, on repeat,” said Mitloehner.

In this biogenic cycle, if there are constant livestock herds, “then you are not adding carbon to the atmosphere, it is all recycled,” he explained. “What I’m saying here doesn’t mean methane doesn’t matter, but the question really is: Do our livestock herds add to additional methane for additional warming, and the answer is NO.”

This is a total change in the narrative around livestock, and it will be the narrative in the years to come, according to Mitloehner. Because dairy and beef herds have declined so much since the 1950s and 1970s — producing more animal protein at the same time, “We have not caused an increasing amount of carbon in the atmosphere but have decreased the amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere,” said Mitloehner.

The difference between animal agriculture and fossil fuels is a cycle vs. a one-way street.

“Each time you drive to work, you put CO2 into the atmosphere that lasts 1000 years, and it is a stock gas that adds up each day,” Mitloener said. “Everytime we put it in the atmosphere we add to the existing stock. This is why the curve always goes up, because it is a long-lived climate pollutant. Methane on the other hand is flow gas. Cows can put in the air Monday, but on Tuesday a similar amount that is put in is also being taken out. By having a constant number of cows, you are not adding methane into the atmosphere. The only time you add is throughout the first 10 years of its existence or by increasing herd size.”

He quoted researchers from Oxford University who are also communicating this science and technical papers to the public. But again, the media in general are ignoring it.

What really gets Mitloehner energized are the concepts like biogas and use of it as a renewable fuel in vehicles, for example, and other technologies where dairy and livestock operations can take their climate neutrality and turn it into a cooling effect by counteracting the warming caused by other sectors.

“The current way of accounting for it is a flawed way of looking at it, because it does not account for the fact that keeping methane stable, the amount of warming added is actually zero,” he said. And this is where to build incentive to make up for other sectors that are actively adding to the warming.

“If we were to reduce methane, we could induce cooling,” he said. “We have the ability to do that. This is how agriculture, especially animal agriculture, can be the solution to the warming caused by other sectors of the economy and life.”

Mitloehner measures to quantify the impact of mitigation technologies to see if we can get to that point of reducing other emissions. He talked about California law mandating reduction of methane by 40% by 2030.

“They’ve reduced by 20%, using the carrot instead of the stick. The state incentivizes the financing of technologies that mitigate,” said Mitloehner. “We are now at 25% of the 40% total reduction. If we can do it here, it can be done in other parts of the country and the world… and it means our livestock sector will be on the path of climate neutrality.”

If you have a ‘beef’ with GHG reporting, contact Dr. Mitloehner on Twitter. You can follow him there @GHGGuru. He urges farmers to get involved, get engaged.

— By Sherry Bunting

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A world without cattle?

By Sherry Bunting, published April 22 Register-Star (Greene Media)

A world without cattle would be no world at all.

GL45-Earth Day(Bunting).jpgThe health of the dairy and livestock economies are harbingers of the economic health of rural America … and of the planet itself. Here’s some food for thought as we celebrate Earth Day and as climate change discussions are in the news and as researchers increasingly uncover proof that dietary animal protein and fat are healthy for the planet and its people.

How many of us still believe the long refuted 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, which stated that 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, worldwide, come from livestock, and mostly from cattle?

This number continues to show up in climate-change policy discussion even though it has been thoroughly refuted and dismissed by climate-change experts and biologists, worldwide.

A more complete 2006 study, by the top global-warming evaluators, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stated that the greenhouse gas emissions from all of agriculture, worldwide, is just 10 to 12 percent. This includes not only livestock emissions, but also those from tractors, tillage, and production of petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Hence, the UN Environmental Program disputed the UN FAO assertion to state the percentage of emissions from total agriculture, worldwide, is just 11%, and that cattle — as a portion of that total — are responsible for a tiny percentage of that 11%. While cattle contribute a little over 2% of the methane gas via their digestive system as ruminants (like deer, elk, bison, antelope, sheep and goats), they also groom grasslands that cover over one-quarter of the Earth’s total land base, and in so doing, they facilitate removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to be tied up in renewable grazing plant material above and below the ground — just like forests do!

Think about this for a moment. The UN Environmental Program and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are in agreement that cattle and other livestock are not the problem the anti-meat and anti-animal-ag folks would have us believe. In fact, they are in many ways a major solution.

Think about the fact that man’s most necessary endeavor on planet Earth — the ongoing production of food — comes from the agriculture sector that in total accounts for just 11 percent of emissions!

Why, then, are major environmental groups and anti-animal groups so fixated on agriculture, particularly animal agriculture, when it comes to telling consumers to eat less meat and dairy as a beneficial way to help the planet? Why, then, has the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Council pushed that agenda in its preliminary report to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, that somehow the Earth will be better sustained if we eat less meat?

They ignore the sound science of the benefits livestock provide to the Earth. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say what Nicolette Niman has written in her widely acclaimed book “Defending Beef” that, “Cattle are necessary to the restoration and future health of the planet and its people.”

Niman is a trained biologist and former environmental attorney as well as the wife of rancher Bill Niman. She has gathered the data to overturn the myths that continue to persist falsely in the climate-change debate, and her book is loaded with indisputable facts and figures that debunk the “sacred cows” of the anti-animal agenda:

  • Eating meat causes world hunger. Not true. In fact, livestock are not only a nutrient dense food source replacing much more acreage of vegetation for the same nutritive value, livestock are deemed a “critical food” that provides “critical cash” for one billion of the planet’s poorest people — many of whom live where plant crops cannot be grown.
  • Eating meat causes deforestation. Not true. Forests, especially in Brazil, are cleared primarily for soybean production. Approximately 85 percent of the global soybean supply is crushed resulting in soybean oil used to make soy products for human consumption and soybean meal for animal consumption. A two-fer.
  • Eating meat, eggs and full-fat dairy products are the cause of cardiovascular disease. Not true. Researchers are re-looking at this failed advice that has shaped 40-years of American dietary policy. Its source was the 1953 Keys study, which actually showed no causative link! Meanwhile, excessive dietary carbohydrates have replaced fats in the diet, which turn to more dangerous forms of fat as we metabolize them than if we had consumed the natural saturated fats themselves. When healthy fats from nutrient-dense animal proteins are removed from the diet, additional sugars and carbs are added and these have led us down the road to increased body mass and diabetes.
  • Cattle overgrazing has ruined the western prairies. Not true. While improper grazing can have a localized detrimental effect, the larger issue is the pervasive negative effect that is largely coming from not grazing enough cattle. Higher stocking densities that are rotated actually improve the health of grasslands. Large herds provide the activity that loosens, aerates and disperses moisture along with the nutrients the cattle return to the soil — for more vigorous grass growth and soil retention — much as 30 million buffalo and antelope groomed the prairies two centuries ago. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management has favored controlled burns over grazing and is taking away land rights our federal government once shared with ranchers. BLM reductions in allowable stocking densities have initiated a land-grabbing cycle of ranchers losing their land and livelihoods while the land is robbed of its benefits.

The anti-animal agenda continues — groundless, yet powerful. Rural economies, farm families, consumers and the Earth pay the price.

The majority of the lifecycle of supermarket beef and dairy products is rooted in grooming the grasslands and forage croplands that are vital to the Earth and its atmosphere. In addition, farmers and ranchers reduce tillage by planting winter cattle forage to hold soil in place, improve its organic matter and moisture-holding capacity, provide habitat for wildlife while providing temporary weed canopy between major crop plantings. Not only do cattle eat these harvested winter forages, they dine on crop residues and a host of other food byproducts that would otherwise go to waste.

Our planet needs livestock and the farmers and ranchers who care for them. They not only feed us — with more high quality dietary protein, calcium, zinc, and iron per serving than plant-based sources — they also feed the planet by providing necessary environmental benefits.

Enjoy your meat and dairy products without fear — certainly without guilt — and with gratefulness and appreciation for the gift of life given by the animals and because of the hard work and care they have been given by the men and women who work daily caring for the land and its animals. This Earth Day, we are grateful for the circle of life and the farmers and ranchers and their cattle, which sustain our existence, our economies, and our environment.

A former newspaper editor, Sherry Bunting has been writing about dairy, livestock and crop production for over 30 years. Before that, she milked cows. She can be reached at agrite@ptd.net.

Learn more about the latest research to measure emissions due to the dairy and livestock industries.

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Images by Sherry Bunting