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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Harvesting Emissions

Air Date: Week of

Agroforestry—combining trees and shrubs with crop and livestock production—is important for smallholder farming in Nepal. (Photo: Sajal Sthapit)

The world's farmers bring us food, clothes, and increasingly - greenhouse gas emissions. Through crop and livestock production and land clearing, the world's agricultural sector is a bigger contributor to global warming than the transportation sector. Economist Sara Scherr, CEO of Ecoagriculture Parters, says it’s time to start looking at farmers as environmental stewards, not just food producers. She speaks with Steve Curwood about techniques that help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change.


CURWOOD: It’s an encore edition of Living on Earth – I’m Steve Curwood. Agriculture is responsible for about a THIRD of the world's greenhouse gas emissions-- more than the transportation sector. About half of those emissions come directly from crop and livestock production, and much of the rest from land clearing and degradation for food production.

Sara Scherr is an economist and head of Ecoagriculture Partners. She wrote an article on agriculture and climate change in this year’s State of the World book by the Worldwatch Institute. Ms. Scherr says changing the way we farm could be one of the least painful and most effective ways of cutting emissions.

Sara Scherr

SCHERR: One of the most interesting tidbits of knowledge that I learned in the past year is that if you take a cow and a calf in beef production in one of our intensive feedlot systems here in the U.S., that that pair of animals actually emits more in a year than a midsized car in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

CURWOOD: So, you could either drive an electric car or quit eating meat. Is that what you're telling me?

SCHERR: Well quit eating meat or make sure that you eat meat from kind of a sustainable live stock production system.

CURWOOD: How could one make a sustainable meat production that wouldn't add to climate change?

SCHERR: Well, so much of the world's annual crop production is used to feed cattle. And a lot of that could be substituted for by returning to having animals instead graze on pasture. And if you have perennial pastures, long lived grasses, you can actually produce very high levels of meat and dairy production without having to depend upon the use of a lot of grain. Apart from what they eat, one of the big problems for livestock is actually the gases that they produce in their stomach and the manure and waste that they produce because those are very full of a particularly powerful greenhouse gas called methane. So there's a number of approaches that are being used to try to reduce those. One of them is trying to use the manure in clever ways, by actually using the manures and the other wastes from livestock as a source of biogas. So we have a lot of really – you know thousands and thousands of farms around the world heating their buildings with the waste that came out of their live stock production.

CURWOOD: How does tilling the soil increase CO2 emissions and what is no till agriculture anyway?

SCHERR: Well, if you look at all the different places that carbon is stored in the world, it turns out that the third most important sink is actually the world's soils. And the process of conventional agricultural tillage, where you take a plow or other implements and turn the soil around at the beginning of the cropping season – actually every time you do that, you release a large amount of carbon from the soils. So one of the things that's been developed in modern agricultural systems over the last couple of decades is something that's called minimum tillage or even no till systems that really try to not turn the soil around very much. They manage soil quality and they manage the weed problem through other kinds of methods that don't require turning that soil around.

CURWOOD: How does no till agriculture affect crop production? I mean, we've got more and more people coming into the world. Obviously that means more and more mouths to feed. The way that we farm, we do this –right – because we want bigger and better harvests. How can we do that with no till agriculture?

SCHERR: Well, I think this is the exciting thing about what's going on right now in terms of the reconsideration of how we do agricultural production, because actually a lot of the things that we do, that cost money and cause environmental damage actually don't contribute that much to agricultural production. So a lot of the no till systems and low till systems farmers like a great deal because they can produce just as food with them for a lot less cost. So it's a win for the environment, a win for farmers and a win for food production.

CURWOOD: Of course climate change is not only affected by agriculture. It works the other way around. I mean climate change is gonna have a big effect on agriculture. So, how do the techniques that you're talking about help farmers prepare for the warmer temperatures that are coming?

SCHERR: One of the advantages of the approaches for mitigating climate, which is to get more organic matter in your soils, is that those kinds of activities actually make the farming system much more resilient. High organic matter soils actually hold water better.

Agroforestry—combining trees and shrubs with crop and livestock production—is important for smallholder farming in Nepal. (Photo: Sajal Sthapit)

So that if you start having much more erratic rainfall they're going to be less susceptible to loss of the harvest. The other things is you're gonna have more diversity within the farming system, in terms of different kinds of plants and different kinds of products. And that's going to reduce the risks to farmers of climate that can't be predicted.

CURWOOD: So how then does the world encourage these agricultural techniques?

SCHERR: Most of us think about farmers as producing food, which of course, is the major thing we want them to do. But more and more we realize that farmers are actually the major stewards of our ecosystems around the world, by far - far more than public protected areas or other kinds of local lands. The farmers are the stewards. And we need to be thinking about them and their role, not only as producers of food, but also as producers of ecosystem services. So, I think, we need to be rethinking everything from our public subsidies and what do we subsidize farmers to do and increasingly we need to subsidize them not for producing food we don't want, but for producing the ecosystem services that we need.

CURWOOD: Sara Scherr is president and CEO of Eco Agriculture Partners, one of the organizations that contributed to this year's State of the World study by the Worldwatch Institute. Thank you so much, Sara.

SCHERR: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to be here.



Ecoagriculture Partners


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