Agriculture, particularly the livestock sector, often gets a bad rap in discussions about climate change, but ranchers and farmers recently told a U.S. Senate committee they have an intimate stake in environmental sustainability and have welcomed advancements that lighten their environmental impact.
Agriculture’s role and government support in combating climate change was the focus of a hearing by the Senate Agriculture Committee on May 21.
“I believe agriculture, and American farmers and ranchers who live by the concept of continuous improvement and voluntary-based conservation, can be a model for other industries and other countries,…” committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said.
Matt Rezac, a fourth-generation farmer in Weston, Neb., said he knew he had to change his farming practices to stay in business. He now relies on technology to practice precision agriculture that focuses on soil health.
Farmers might not talk about their practices to maintain soil health and water quality and quantity and control erosion as a climate issue, but those goals help provide climate solutions, he said.
“Every day, farmers like me make stewardship decisions that impact more than 1.4 billion acres of rural land … making a positive difference and leading the way on climate solutions,” he said.
Farmers are embracing technology, and working together they can continue to lead the way on stewardship. A lot of their conservation efforts are paid for and carried out voluntarily, but it is critical that climate solutions make economic sense for farmers, he said.
Providing market and policy incentives that complement farmers’ stewardship goals will be “vitally important,” he said.
Debbie Lyons-Blythe, who runs a fifth-generation cattle operation with her husband and their five children in the Flint Hills of Kansas, said producers graze cattle on nearly one-third of the U.S. land mass.
Grass, pasture and rangeland for cattle sequester carbon in the soil, aiding the climate. Being good stewards of the land not only makes good environmental sense, it is fundamental for the cattle industry to remain strong, she said.
Open spaces are also critical to wildlife and pollinator habitat, and cattle are able to utilize byproducts of other industries that would otherwise end up in landfills, generating additional greenhouse gases, she said.
“Climate change policies that unfairly target cattle producers fail to recognize the positive role of cattle and beef in a healthy, sustainable food system, and misguided policies can threaten the viability of our industry,” she said.
Cattle producers also use various technologies to increase animal efficiency, mitigating the environmental impact. The industry produces the same amount of beef today as in the 1970s with 33% fewer animals, she said.
According to a 2016 EPA report, agriculture contributes 9% to total U.S. greenhouse gases.
Food waste — the majority occurring at the consumer level — is the largest contributor to agriculture’s carbon footprint, with 40% of food produced in the U.S. ending up in landfills, Frank Mitloehner, animal science and air quality specialist at the University of California, said.