Agriculture as a Cause and a Cure of Climate Change: Consumer Choices that Mitigate Global Warming – Part 2 by Gretchen Kurtenacker, MS, MLS(ASCP), MT(AMT), NTP(NTA)

Part II: The Solutions

Figure 1. Farmers Market Table, (Growing Washington, 2016)

In 1994 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created. It challenged countries to halt ever increasing greenhouse gases (GHGs) in order to slow climate change in time to ensure that ecosystems could adapt, food security could be maintained, and to achieve sustainable economic development, (United Nations [UN], n.d.; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC], n.d.-a).  The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an extension of the UNFCCC, tasked participant countries to adhere to international emission standards and developed countries, which are the main cause, to accept the lion’s share of the responsibility, (UN, n.d.; UNFCCC, n.d.-b). With the 2015 Paris Agreement, another extension of the UNFCCC, signers agreed to surpass all previously stated climate change goals in an effort to keep the planet from exceeding the 1.5-degree Celsius increase, (UN, n.d.; UNFCCC, 2018)

Agricultural Solutions to Combat Climate Change

A UN report in 2014 revealed that agriculture, forestry, and other land use was responsible for nearly a quarter of anthropogenic GHG emissions, (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2014). Per the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, (FAO), one means of combating climate change is through converting from industrialized farming, to agroecology. Industrial agriculture places emphasis on higher yields, resulting in deforestation, degraded soils, dependence on chemical inputs, desertification, water shortages, species loss, and high GHG emissions. Agroecology or regenerative farming as it is often called, puts emphasis on building robust soils, protecting diverse ecosystems which results in healthier crops, less chemical inputs, all while addressing climate change, (UN, 2019; Fish and Agriculture Organization [FAO], n.d.). Agroecology is an integrative food security system that uses the principles of ecology and societal justice to transform global hunger and poverty through food sovereignty while assuring food security. It acknowledges that these principles were the core of small family farm practices. A hallmark of agroecology is that it must be tailored specifically to the region: local soil, local crops, and local farmers with generations of farming wisdom. Agroecology improves soil health and combats climate change by increasing biomass or soil organic matter, which sequesters carbon. 

In researching his book “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life”, author D. Montgomery (2019) traveled the globe interacting with farmers who turned to agroecology and were able to restore soil fertility.  He noted that they converted to no-till, began using cover crops, diversified their crops and began a varied system of crop rotations which created robust soil microbiomes to enhance nutrient cycling between the plants and the soil. The healthy soils retained water better and enriching soil organic matter (SOM) increased carbon sequestration. Many also included planned intensive rotational grazing to put animals to work restoring grasslands. These practices not only benefitted soil health, they reduced the need for costly fertilizers and pesticides which restored pollinators, increased yields, and best of all for the farmers, increased profits, (Montgomery, 2019). 

Soil as a carbon sink. The amount of carbon the Earth’s soils can hold is approximately 2500 gigatons (Gt) (giga = 1 billion). This is 3.3 times the amount the atmosphere holds and 4.5 times the amount in all living things. Thus, soil is, and should be, a vital part of the solution to reducing CO2 emissions, (Lal, 2004). 

Prairies, forests and other undisturbed ecosystems maintain a balance of carbon loss to carbon sunk into soil as organic matter decays. However, upon conversion to agriculture much carbon is lost to the atmosphere. It is estimated that the amount of land converted globally released 50 to 100 billion tons of carbon by the early 21st century, (Jarecki & Lal, 2003).

While there are recommended management practices (RMPs) that will restore SOM, it takes years for the restoration and restoration rates vary greatly with soil properties such as texture, aggregate size, rain, as well as the type of farming employed, (Lal, 2004). The RMPs are designed to mimic natural ecosystem processes where carbon input and release is balanced. These RMPs encourage soil organic carbon (SOC) deposition by building healthy SOM. Strategies include conservation tillage and no tillage systems (low-till & no-till), cover crops, crop residues, crop rotation, diversity, halting and reversing deforestation. Additionally, using planned intensive grazing systems for livestock provides a vital food source, income, and combats climate change by restoring grasslands, (Jarecki & Lal, 2003; Lal, 2004; Stout, Lal, & Monger, 2016). 

Conservation tillage and no tillage systems. Conservation tillage (low-till) is a term used to describe any planting systems that tills the soil, but wherein 30% or more of the ground surface is covered with plant residue such as mulch, wood chips, etc. This aids water retention rather than evaporation off the soil as well as reduces erosion by both wind and water run-off, (Jarecki & Lal, 2003). Typically, tilling the land breaks up aggregates, and releases carbon. The oxygen exposure alters the microbiome of the soil which drives more carbon release and conversion to carbon dioxide (CO2), (Barker & Pollan, 2015) this can reduce water retention as well as the availability of nitrogen in addition to carbon which will affect natural biological cycling of crops. Conservation tillage systems minimizes this loss of SOC and other soil nutrients, minimizes erosion, and increases water utilization. No tillage (no-till) systems are best at keeping carbon in the ground, however, may not reach full efficacy for 5-10 years and provide less yield for the first few years.  In 2000 the FAO estimated there were 1.5 billion hectares of global cropland, little of which is employing no-till or low-till, thus there is a huge avenue for soil carbon sequestration via this method, (Jarecki & Lal, 2003).

Cover crops. Cover crops are crops grown to protect the soil and seedlings. They may be grown with crops, in-between crops, or in-between crop growing seasons. They may also be used in orchards and vineyards. The benefit is that they keep soil covered, the plants absorb carbon and transfer some of it to the soil, and their roots aid in soil texture, soil microbiome, and water absorption. Some cover crops can be sold for additional income while others can be used to make “green manure”, which is green plant material left on the field as crop residue and then tilled under to a shallow depth just prior to planting. (Jarecki, & Lal, 2003).

Crop residues. Crop residues are biomass that is left over after harvest or grazing; things such as stems, leaves, roots, chaff, etc. These residues are the main source of SOM and decompose to fuel the next life cycle. Some residues decompose faster than others which can affect crop yields. Generally, the more crop residues that are left or spread over the field, the greater the SOM. The greater the SOM, the more carbon is sequestered in the soil and the greater the yields.  Crop residues can reduce soil erosion, aid water retention, increase the microbiome diversity, and alter soil temperature. The placement and incorporation of the crop residues are determined by the management system chosen for the land area. Low-till and no-till apply the residue to the surface to act as a blanket. Whereas tillage systems incorporate the residue into the soil. In either system, the residue acts as a source of carbon to feed plants, microbes, and earthworms, enriching the soil health, (Jarecki & Lal, 2003; Srivastava, Kumar, Behera, Sharma, & Singh, 2012).

Crop rotation. While crop rotation studies can provide mixed results just as all aspects of agricultural research, when utilizing native plants and increasing diversity, crop rotation aids in soil restoration which goes hand in hand with carbon sequestration. Layering other regenerative farming practices, enhances the results such as no-till or low-till systems. The amount of carbon already built up in the soil can affect results as there is a limit to how much carbon soil can hold, but generally, crop rotations that increase production and SOM also increase SOC, (Jarecki & Lal, 2003). 

Legumes are frequently featured in crop rotation as they not only fix nitrogen in the soil, they improve the structure and aeration of the soil while minimizing erosion. Subsequent crops of corn or sorghum will have better yields following a round of legumes. The increase in crop yields can be significant, for example, in one study wheat following legumes produced yield increases of 40-50% and canola by 20%, (Angus et al., 2001 as cited by Jarecki & Lal, 2003). Other examples of how crop rotation can benefit yields and soil health include various root structures. According to Jarecki & Lal (2003) narrow leaf lupin has a root structure so strong that it acts a “biological plow” in hard compacted soil which increases subsequent wheat yields. Other’s roots alter soil pore size such as Bahiagrass which can double cotton yields by altering soil pore size in compacted soil, (Jarecki & Lal, 2003) Again, it should be stressed that crop rotation must be individualized to the area, climate, soil, and major crop.

Diversity. Modern agriculture focuses on a small number of hybrid crops whose traits where chosen for sturdiness, resistance to bruising, and longer shelf life. Animals too have been hybridized for optimal production traits. The FAO states that just three cereals provide close to 50% of all calories consumed, (FAO, n.d.) Agroecology stresses diversity, a very different position from the massive monocultures of industrial agriculture. According to Srivastava, et al. (2012) it is well accepted that high diversity ecosystems sequester more carbon. Diversity supports species and genetic pools and applies to all levels of life from the soil microbiome, crops, livestock, local wildlife, to forests. Terms may include polyculture or intercropping where complementary species support each other, repel pests and disease, and increase yield and soil health. Adding layers of diversity to a farm can create new income streams to maintain financial resilience to adversity. For example, creating forested areas can generate wood for building farm structures. The same principles apply to animals; adding layers of animal diversity such as following grazing ruminants with poultry, increases soil health and decreases disease and parasites in the animals, (FAO, n.d.; Natural Resources SA Murray-Darling Basin, 2017). Adding a variety of animals can shore up income in the face of climate change when crop failures may occur. Diverse, local species of animals are better adapted to their environment and fare better than the common commercial breeds just as local variety crops are better suited to adverse conditions. Also, returning to local and wild variety crops as opposed to the limited commercial varieties can, in many cases, increase the nutrient content of the food. The FAO (n.d.) gives an example of restoring a local variety of banana in Indonesia whose orange flesh offered 50 times the beta carotene of the commercial yellow skinned, white flesh banana that is grown tropically and shipped worldwide. 

Halting and reversing deforestation. Since the industrial revolution, human activities, burning fossil fuels predominantly, have added about 300 billion tons of carbon to the air, (Tutton, 2019). Swiss researchers have estimated that restoring degraded forests globally would capture two thirds of the CO2 that humans have generated, (Le Quéré et al., 2018 as cited by Tutton, 2019). Scientists believe that Earth could comfortably add 1 to 1.2 trillion trees globally which would increase forested area by one third, (Tutton, 2019; Yale E360, 2019) and absorb a decade’s worth of CO2 emissions, (Yale E360, 2019). Currently it is estimated that there are three trillion trees on Earth storing 400 gigatons of CO2, (Yale E360, 2019). 

Many are fighting climate change via tree planting. Countries committed to planting millions of trees include Ethiopia, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Pakistan, and China, (African Union Development Agency-Nepad, 2019; Te Uru Rakau, 2019; Thornhill, 2019; Brent, 2019; Gul, 2018; Al Jazeera, 2018; Stanway, 2018). In 2016, Norway became the first country to ban deforestation, which means that no government contracts will be granted to companies that perform clear cutting rather than sustainable forestry, (Fawzy, 2016). Companies too, are heeding the call. Timberland Shoe Company hopes to plant 50 million trees by 2025, (Peters, Sept 5, 2019). Apple, rather than planting trees, has invested in protecting a 27,000-acre Mangrove forest. Mangroves can capture 10 times the amount of CO2 as trees that grow on land and destruction of Mangrove forests has contributed 6% to global emissions, (Peters, April 22, 2019). Teenager Felix Finkbeiner began his tree mission when he was nine years old. His global network, Plant for the Planet, has planted a billion trees, (Plant for the Planet, 2019).  

The push for re-forestation is urgent. Trees take a long time to grow and it is estimated that due to global warming, our ability to successfully plant trees will fall off by one fifth by 2050, (Tutton, 2019). 

Livestock Solutions to Combat Climate Change

After the release of the 2006 UN report entitled, “Livestock’s Long Shadow” (LLS) where they estimated livestock GHG emissions to be 18% which was greater than the transportation sector, many articles promoted reduced meat consumption to combat climate change. Rancher, environmental lawyer, and vegetarian, Nicolette Hahn Niman wrote a book in response to LLS called, “Defending Beef”, (LeVaux, 2015). In it she exposes the flaws in the study and explains that properly managed cattle fuel biodiversity. Both Niman and agroecological farmer Joel Salatin state that properly managed cattle improve soil health and sequester carbon. Indeed, the Savory Institute uses livestock as a means of restoring arable land that has undergone desertification, (TED, 2013). 

Conflicting reports on GHGs of livestock. In calculating the GHG emissions for livestock for the Livestock’s Long Shadow report, the statisticians included clearing tropical forests to make grazelands, but this is frequently not the case. They also included the emissions of producing the feed, fertilizer, farm equipment, processing, packaging, shipping, storage, (Tran, 2013; FAO, 2013). Thus, the calculations depending on location and farming methods, could be greatly overestimated. This same intensive approach to estimating life-cycle GHG emissions was not done when calculating the transportation sector’s contribution. Therefore, the argument that livestock are worse than cars, is a non sequitur. The UN FAO later admitted the overestimation and lowered it to 14.5% (Bryce, 2013; Jamieson, 2010; FAO, 2013). The report attributed 45% of emissions to feed production and processing, 39% to digestive emissions of cows, and 10% to manure degradation with the remainder from processing and transportation of the finished products. In that same corrected report, the FAO stated that livestock GHG emissions could be cut by around 30% with the adoption of best practice standards. This 30% reduction would come about by addressing several key areas such as better feed practices which increase digestibility and reduces methane production, better animal health, genetic selection to improve animal performance, improve grazing and grassland management, and fostering of energy savings at every step of the production chain, (FAO, 2013).

In the U.S., livestock contributions to GHGs is much less, as agriculture, including livestock, is estimated at 9%. Mitloehner (n.d.) from UC Davis states the EPA calculates livestock emissions in the U.S. at 4.2%, (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Percent of U.S. livestock annual greenhouse gas emissions, (Mitloehner, n.d.)

Planned intensive rotational grazing. Continuous grazing is the conventional method where livestock are free to graze in a single field until going off to feedlots (FL) to be fattened and finished on grains for the few months prior to slaughter. The issue with continuous grazing is that the animals eat what they want, and like us, will eat what they love first and skip certain areas. In this model, the pasture is not clipped short at the same time and the plants are in different stages of maturity. The manure is spread inconsistently and is greater in areas of their favorite plants. A better system is planned intensive rotational grazing (IRGS). Rotational grazing consists of small paddocks wherein the animals forage for a short time. In small paddocks, they eat the field down evenly and spread manure more evenly somewhat working it into the soil with their hooves. They are moved daily to another small paddock where the cycle repeats. They rotate through multiple paddocks so that a paddock is repeated only after the forage is at an intermediate growth stage where the cattle will again mow it down, (Bosch, Stephenson, Groover, Hutchins, 2008; Natural Resources SA Murray-Darling Basin, 2017). This stimulates plant growth and sturdiness, and in the cow, this intermediate stage of growth, results in less eructation (belching) and therefore less GHG emissions, (Boadi, Benchaar, Chiquette, & Masse, 2003). Typically, after the cattle, fowl are brought to the paddock to eat insects from the cow manure and further work the manure into the ground. This increases the SOM and therefore carbon sequestration by the soil, (Natural Resources SA Murray-Darling Basin, 2017). IRGS does require initial outlay as one would need portable fencing (Figure 3) and portable water. The benefits are better soil, plant, and cow health, less erosion, less water run-off, and better water penetration in the soils. Better quality soils with more organic matter mean increased carbon sequestration on top of the reduced methane emission from intermediate growth forage. Also, of benefit is that there is less additional feed required since the cows will be eating grass most of the year and less feed means less GHG emissions in the growing, harvesting, processing, and the transport of the feed, (Bosch et al., 2008). 

Figure 3. Farmer Mathew Miller moving his herd to fresh paddock via portable electric fencing.(Green Bow Farm, 2016)

Combating ruminant methane emissions. One of the often-cited complaints about ruminant livestock is the methane emissions from eructation. All ruminants burp methane which has 25 time the global warming potential of CO2, (Smartt, Brye, & Norman, 2018). Ruminants are herbivores with a four chambered stomach wherein they slowly digest their plant-based diet through fermentation by billions of microbes which produces hydrogen and carbon dioxide. A group of bacteria known as methanogens convert the hydrogen and carbon dioxide to methane in the first chamber known as the rumen which is then belched out to the atmosphere.  Cows are ruminant animals as are sheep (lamb), goats, buffalo and camels, (Wei-Haas, 2015). Various strategies have been investigated in attempts to reduce the methane emissions of ruminants, however, ideas that make the most sense are those that are good for the animal’s health such as adding seaweed to the diet which has been done since ancient times. Researchers at UC Davis have shown that using Asparagopsis reduced methane emissions by 58%. The seaweed blocks the binding of carbon and hydrogen and thus the formation of methane. While mass adoption would require farming of the seaweed, Mernit (2018) notes that in the process of cultivation, the seaweed absorbs “excess nitrogen and dissolved carbon dioxide from ocean waters”. An Australian government funded research group has already created a seaweed feed additive called FutureFeed which they claim reduces enteric emissions by 80%, (CSIRO, 2019). 

Methane production is often used as an argument for reducing or eliminating this important food source, yet rice is another big methane producer in agriculture. Again, best practice standards are being introduced to reduce methane emissions in rice farming, but the point is that while people are quick to point the finger at animals, they don’t seem to judge rice by that same standard, (Tsiboe et al., 2018; Scialabba & Muller-Lindenlauf, 2010).   

Livestock to combat desertification. Desertification refers to very poor condition soils. They do not actually look like a desert they are not sandy and barren; sparse is more descriptive. These unhealthy soils do not absorb rain, so it evaporates off the land. Sparsity of plants results in carbon loss to the air. This can be caused by over-grazing, but can be reversed with IRGS. Allan Savory (TED, 2013) explains that grasslands originally formed with massive numbers of ruminants who stuck together to avoid predation from big predators. Packed together they urinated and defecated on their food which kept the heard moving to fresh pasture every day. The waste, which the hooves trampled into the dirt, added nutrients while the trampled grass covered the soil, locking in carbon, nutrients, and rain. The entrapped rain is then able to sit on the soil under the trampled grass and be absorbed into the earth. In lands without intensive grazing, the grasses cannot break down on their own; rather collapse and oxidize which smothers the soils resulting in desertification. Desertification threatens a huge portion of the earth and contributes to climate change. Savory believes that if we could reverse desertification on half of the global grasslands by using intensive rotational grazing in harmony with the wild animals already there, it could take us back to pre-industrial levels of GHGs. Not only would it help battle global warming, but it would provide a cheap easy way to feed the world as many of the desertified areas are unfit for food growth other than animals, especially in parts of Northern Africa, the Middle East including Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Northern China and Mongolia. Savory (TED, 2013) states that instituting planned grazing management has provided example after example of lands in Africa and Mexico that have been returned to health and productivity. 

Pasture finished vs. feedlot finished beef. According to Ellison, Brooks, & Mieno (2017) consumers today are becoming very interested in how their food is produced. They want animals to be raised humanely without growth hormones or GMO inputs, (Ellison et al., 2017). One has only to drive by a feedlot in Central Washington to see cattle crowded together with no grass, standing deep in their own waste in 110-degree Fahrenheit weather with no escape from the relentless sun, to get a sense of the inhumane conditions of feedlot finished beef. (Also known as CAFOs for concentrated animal feeding operations). Another obvious issue driving consumers away from industrial animal agriculture are the wholly undesirable waste lagoons of factory raised animals. Thus, it is easy to see why people are demanding better treatment of animals and/or animal alternatives. Livestock reared in traditional ways in harmony with natural ecosystems are not only more appealing, as we have seen they are beneficial to the soil, and plant diversity as well as carbon sequestration. 

In the U.S. 97% of cattle are feedlot finished whereas 3% are grass finished (GF), (Stanley, Rowntree, Beede, DeLonge, & Hamm, 2018). Most research showed that feedlot (FL) finished cattle emit less GHG predominantly due to shorter times to reach slaughter weight, (Capper, 2012), however, there are several issues with these studies. One is that when looking at the GF beef, the studies looked at continuous grazing rather than IRGS. Another is that by altering forage species and implementing IRGS, GF beef can be brought to slaughter weight more quickly than continuous grazed cattle which were used in these studies. In FL studies, they fail to include soil erosion which is significant not just as loss of topsoil, but for our purposes, the loss of carbon. About one third of the grain grown goes to feed livestock, so soil erosion in grain crops used to feed livestock should also be included in the life-cycle analysis when comparing FL to GF beef.  Additionally, most studies did not account for the increased ability to sequester carbon in managed grassland as in IRGS, (Stanley et al, 2018). Studies that compare all life-cycle analysis of feedlot beef with those on IRGS show that IRGS beef are comparable to feedlot beef in GHG emissions while creating more SOM for carbon sequestration and without the unnatural living conditions of feedlots, (Stanley et al., 2018). To sum it up, ruminants on IRGS will still produce GHGs, but they fortify the soil and feed the chickens in the process. Healthier soils absorb more carbon. 

Further, grain fed and feedlot beef have a higher fat content and an altered fatty acid profile due to the consumption of non-species appropriate food. GF has a more desirable fatty acid profile. Table 1 shows results obtained from multiple studies, which despite the variation, reveal more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), as well as more omega 3 fatty acids including the essential fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and lower omega 6 fatty acids in GF beef. This is important as high ratios of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids drives inflammation in humans, (DiNicolantonio & O’Keefe, 2018). Inflammation is thought to be the basis of the chronic diseases that afflict mankind today, (Hunter, 2012). The grain-based feed drives up the omega 6 content of the meat and thus, the omega 6 to 3 ratio in the humans consuming the beef.

Table 1

Fatty Acids of Conventional vs. Grass Fed Beef, (Daley, Abbott, Doyle, Nader, & Larsen, 2010) 

Fatty Acid (FA) Conventional Study Ranges Grass Fed Study Ranges
Omega 3 FA g/10g lipid 0.19-63.3 1.07-97.6
Omega 6 FA g/10g lipid 2.58-253.8 2.30-191.6
CLA g/10g lipid 0.48- 16.1 0.53-14.3
EPA g/10g lipid 0.08-13.1 0.31-24.5
DHA g/10g lipid 0.05-3.7 0.17-4.2

To meat or not to meat? So how can this research guide us?  Should we give up meat or eat less beef? According to Burgener (2019) giving up meat to save the planet is focusing on the wrong issue; the real problem is our modern industrial agriculture and its destructive methods. These destructive methods are financially motivated such as growing grain as cattle feed when their native diet is grass, clearing forest to grow feed, clearing forests to raise cattle, all unsustainable ideas that can be addressed by adopting agroecological farming. Burgener states that one should not compare conventional beef with grass-based cattle who regenerate grasslands. Further, he states that thinking of plant-based items as planet saving is faulty logic. We cannot possibly think that almond milk from, “fossil-fuel dependent, pesticide-driven farming that has resulted in the death of everything from bees to topsoil and water is a green food item.” Burgener stresses that we should be supporting food that is grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, routine antibiotics, deforestation, or water contamination. Curry, (2019) quoted UC Davis physics professor Mitloehner, as saying that if Americans skipped meat one time per week, it would reduce GHG’s only 0.5%. Further, livestock is sometimes the only food that can be grown in many places and terrains. 

It is also important to consider the nutrient density of meat. In a study by Drenowski et al. (2015) sweets and grains were found to have the lowest GHG emission per 100 gram, however, they are nutrient poor and energy rich; a recipe for obesity, inflammation, and diabetes. Grass fed meat on the other hand, has important nutrients, some Americans are typically deficient in such as B vitamins, Vitamin D, omega 3 fats, potassium, magnesium, selenium, and zinc, (Drake, 2017; EWG.org, 2019). Table 2 compares the nutrition profile of bulgur wheat, long grain brown rice, pastured chicken, and grass-fed beef. The grains in this chart are in their whole from, while most people eat them refined and so would get less nutrition than represented in the table. This comparison illustrates that GHG emissions alone cannot be the only deciding factor where meat is concerned. 

Table 2 

Nutrient Comparison of Serving of Wheat, Rice, Chicken, and Beef (WHFoods.org, 2019)

Nutrient Wheat, bulgur

1c (182g)

Rice, brown

1c (195g)

Chicken, pastured

4 oz (113.4g)

Beef, grass fed

4oz (113.4g)

B3 niacin (milligrams) 1.82 2.98 15.55 7.60
*B6 pyroxidine (milligrams) 0.15 0.28 0.68 0.74
B12 cobalamin (micrograms) 0.00 0.00 0.39 1.44
Folate (micrograms) 32.76 7.8 4.54 14.74
D (IUs) 0.00 0.00 5.67 6.0*
Omega 3 fatty acids (grams) 0.01 0.03 0.08 1.10
Potassium (milligrams) 123.76 83.85 290.30 387.82
Magnesium (milligrams) 58.24 83.85 32.89 26.08
Selenium (micrograms) 1.09 19.11 31.30 23.93
Zinc (milligrams) 1.04 0.23 1.13 4.09
Iron (milligrams) 1.75 0.82 1.18 2.04
Calories 151.06 216.45 187.11 175
Protein (grams) 5.61 5.03 35.18 16.16

*Not grass fed- USDA

Consumer Choices that can Mitigate Climate change

Local vs. Global Food Acquisition. When comparing life-cycle GHG emissions of food production versus average long-distance food miles the majority are coming from the production stage, (Weber & Mathews, 2008). According to studies from the University of Michigan, (2018) food consumption in the average U.S. household emits 8.1 metric tons of CO2-eq each year of which 83% is due to food consumption and 11% due to transportation of said food. Choosing organic, is not only better for the soil, but also requires about 30-50% less energy to produce, (University of Michigan [UMich], 2018). Eating fresh unprocessed foods requires less energy than processed foods. When buying processed, we should look for minimal packaging as waste generates GHGs, (UMich, 2018). Some manufacturers are including the carbon footprint of their products on their label or website so consumers may compare and make the least detrimental choices, (UMich, 2018).  One can even look up the impact of certain foods on a food carbon footprint calculator https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46459714 

 Does this mean we should give up foods imported from faraway places? No, as there are small family farms and subsistence farmers that depend on our consumption of their goods to survive and feed their families. In some cases, it is even greener to buy items that traveled a long way than a closer item that uses a lot of energy and is destructive to the ecosystem. Molly Leavens states that flying a ton of food is nearly 70 times as carbon intensive as that same ton via ocean shipping, (2017). As example, she notes that a product flown from Chicago to Boston has a larger carbon footprint than one journeying 11,000 miles from China to California via cargo ship.  A good rule to follow is to purchase perishable items that would be air freighted, locally in season and purchase global products in moderation.

Certified foods. For globally sourced items, many are coming with certifications assuring ethical and sustainable sourcing. While some corporations have co-opted buzz words as “Fair Trade” and worked to weaken the organic standards, (Jaffe & Howard, 2010) such certifications are still our best bet to avoid contributing to illegal deforestation on critical lands harboring endangered species. Fair trade certifications, help support better farming methods and sustain livelihoods of indigenous small farms and farmers. So, while eating less meat might be better for the environment, so is eating less non-certified fad foods, (Martindale, 2017). 

To support this movement to regenerative farming, consumers should shop at local farm stores, farmers markets, and co-ops. Opt for fresh foods that are local and in season. These types of foods are usually free of packaging waste as well and typically haven’t travelled far minimizing fossil fuel emissions. Choose organic for even though the standards have been reduced, they still require fewer chemical inputs (thus less burning of fossil fuels) and typically embrace low-till and no-till systems, crop residues, cover crops, crop rotations, diversification, and re-forestation. When choosing meat, choose locally grown pasture raised and pasture finished animals where the ruminants follow planned intensive rotational grazing. Avoid fads which will result in overconsumption of a few nonlocal foods, which decimate wild forests and village economies. For individual health as well as the health of the planet, consuming a diverse diet following local seasonal patterns is important. When buying items at the grocery store, look for items with certified ingredients such as rainforest safe, orangutan safe, dolphin safe, sustainably harvested, etc. Support local government policy measures to curtail global warming, ban deforestation, promote re-forestation, and divestment of industrial agriculture in support of small local farms.

Summary

Agriculture can be both a source and a sink for CO2, CH4 and N2O depending on farming practices. Agroecological agriculture is the direction the UN and FAO is urging the world to move in, not just for healthier crops, better yields and disease resistance, less chemical inputs, robust soils, but also because basic principles of agroecology address GHG emissions from agriculture. Strategies as well as study results are difficult to generalize as they must be specifically tailored to the land, region, soil, crops, land size, climate, etc. Overall, agroecology, or regenerative farming, works within the local ecology to improve soil health by increasing soil organic matter which sequesters carbon. Simple changes in farming can go a long way toward this goal. Strategies such as conservation tillage or no-till systems, using cover crops to protect the soil and create “green manure”, planting diverse crops in fields rather than monocultures, utilizing optimal crop rotations, increasing diversity in soil microbes, plants, and animals, halting and reversing deforestation and desertification as well as instituting planned intensive rotational grazing of livestock with supplementation for ruminants to reduce methane emissions will all help reduce GHGs. Knowing these facts can steer the consumer to their local farmers markets where one can decrease transport emissions, packaging emissions, and encourage and support farmers working to increase carbon sequestration on their farms and for the world. While consumers may feel powerless, consumer choice IS what drives the market. Our choices can create the change we want to see, (Figure 4).

Figure 4.Make the impossible possible every damn day in the choices you make. The food you eat can either build healthy soil or it can deplete it. It can either sequester carbon or waste precious carbon traveling thousands of miles to your plate.”  Farmer Christina Miller (Green Bow Farm, 2020).

Gretchen Kurtenacker, MS, MLS(ASCP), MT(AMT), NTP(NTA)
is a Medical Laboratory Scientist who holds a B.S. from the University of Cincinnati in Clinical Laboratory Science, an M.S. in Health & Nutrition Education from Hawthorn University and is currently working on a D.Sc. in Holistic Nutrition, also from Hawthorn University. Her interests include food anthropology, food & the environment, and elder nourishment.

Gretchen lives in the First Hill neighborhood of Seattle where she enjoys the incredible selection of local, artisanal, sustainable foods available within walking distance of her home.


References for Part 2

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