Witnesses at a Senate hearing Tuesday pushed back against an environmental narrative they say has demonized agriculture and overlooked farmers and ranchers’ efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Several witnesses and senators at a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee meeting alluded to congressional Democrats’ broad policy statement on climate change and income equality, the Green New Deal. They worried about potential federal mandates resulting from the statement’s call for the government to work with farmers and ranchers to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases as much as possible, and its request for sustainable farming and land use practices.
Debbie Lyons-Blythe, a Kansas rancher, and Matthew Rezac, a Nebraska corn and soybean grower, said they and others in agriculture already manage their lands to sequester carbon in grasslands and use technology to control erosion, protect water quality and reduce soil erosion. Lyons-Blythe and Rezac said agriculture is working to address climate change.
But Rezac said many in agriculture are struggling after five years of low prices and will be cautious about taking on new expenses.
“I know the weather is changing, but I try to control what I can control,” he said.
Rezac and Lyons-Blythe found a receptive audience. Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said agriculture is dealing with extreme swings in weather, drought and other climate change-related challenges.
Frank Mitloehner, a University of California-Davis professor and air quality expert, blamed a 2006 global study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization for the view among policy makers and the general public that livestock is a major source of greenhouse gases.
Mitloehner, who has worked on federal and international environmental projects on livestock and the food system, said the FAO study used different methods in measuring greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production and from cars, trucks and other modes of transportation. Researchers concluded livestock production worldwide accounted for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, exceeding transportation.
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency ranks agriculture as the fifth-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions at 9 percent. Mitloehner said 3.9 percent of that total comes from livestock. He said emissions have declined by 11.3 percent since 1961 as the number of U.S. dairy cows and beef cattle has fallen. In 1950, there were 25 million dairy cows, and today there are 9 million cows. Today’s beef cattle total 90 million heads, down from 140 million in 1970.
Mitloehner told the committee the study has made animal agriculture a target of climate change activists.
Tom Vilsack, Agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, said Congress should see climate change as an opportunity to invest in testing out technology and practices that will give farmers and ranchers tools to run their operations on a net-zero emission basis. Vilsack, president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, called for more funding of public agricultural research into products from farm and ranch waste that reduce emissions and provide farmers with ways to increase their incomes.
He also said the Agriculture Department needs to speed up regulatory reviews so U.S. farmers don’t fall behind international competitors developing ways to adapt to climate change. He cited an animal feed additive currently under review in the European Union that will reduce emissions of methane, a damaging greenhouse gas. The EU will likely finish its review in about a year while Vilsack said a similar review in the U.S. could take two or more years.