Video: How Beef Farmers Can Reduce Their Carbon Footprint
By Daisy Dunne and Tom Prater
Eating less meat is one way to cut beef emissions. However, scientists have also started to look at ways that farmers can reduce the carbon footprint of beef before it reaches the plate.
Making a Meal
The beef industry contributes to climate change in several ways.
Cows are ruminants, meaning that their stomachs contain specialized bacteria capable of digesting tough and fibrous material such as grass. The digestive process causes cows to belch out methane—a greenhouse gas that is around 25 times more potent at trapping heat than CO2.
Beef production is the leading cause of deforestation in many regions, accounting for 60 percent of forest loss across Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea in 2011. The removal of trees causes CO2 to be released into the atmosphere.
In addition, grazing cattle need plentiful supplies of grass—meaning farmers often use nitrogen fertilizer on their fields to stimulate plant growth. The production of nitrogen fertilizer causes the release of CO2 and the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O).
In total, emissions from livestock account for around 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, with beef production accounting for just under half of this figure, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Carbon footprints of meat productionChart by Rosamund Pearce. Data source: FAO
In Devon, a county in south-west England, agricultural scientists at Rothamsted Research farm are exploring various avenues that could be taken to reduce this figure.
In a recent study, published in Journal of Cleaner Production, the researchers studied whether cow feed can influence the size of the animals' carbon footprints.
The unique 60-hectare beef farm is akin to a giant scientific experiment, with researchers closely monitoring all of the "inputs" and "outputs" of the farm system.
The inputs include cow feed, while outputs include manure, the amount of weight gained by the animals and the run-off of nutrients, such as nitrogen. The region's uniquely chalky soils prevent liquid from seeping into the earth—making it possible for the scientists to collect nutrient run-off using a network of pipes.
This close monitoring allows the researchers to keep a record of the carbon footprint of each animal reared on the farm, explained Graham McAuliffe, a Ph.D. student at the farm and the University of Bristol. He told Carbon Brief:
"Usually, when you calculate a carbon footprint, it's based on an average statistic from either a herd, a regional level or a national level, but what we're able to do here at the farm platform is to calculate that carbon footprint on a timescale—so, every two weeks—but also on an individual animal basis."
The farm is split into three equally sized plots, known as "farmlets." The plots represent three typical farming systems used for beef production, McAuliffe said:
"Our first system is 'permanent pasture'—which is, essentially, 'business as usual.' It doesn't get reseeded, it doesn't get ploughed and it gets conventional nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizer applications.
"Our second system is 'white clover,' which is a pseudo-organic system. Because clover has nitrogen-fixing nodes in its roots, we're able to minimize or avoid inorganic nitrogen fertilizer on the soil."
The third plot used is a pure grass system, which was also treated with nitrogen fertilizer, he added.
Bird's-eye view of Rothamsted Research farm in Devon, showing three experimental pasture systemsMap by Tom Prater. Data source: McAuliffe et al. (2018)
For six years, the researchers collected data from cows grazing on each farmlet. Each autumn, 30 calves (Charolais x Hereford-Friesian breed) entered each farmlet at the point of weaning.
The chart below shows the carbon footprint (in CO2 equivalent) for the average cow grazed on the permanent (left), white clover (middle) and pure grass (right) plots. The chart also shows the carbon footprint of the "best" and "worst" performing animals on each farmlet.
Carbon footprints (CO2e) of the average, "best" and "worst" cows grazing on permanent pasture (left), white clover (middle) and pure grass (right)Source: McAuliffe et al. (2018)
The results show that cows fed on white clover tend to have the smallest carbon footprints, while cows from the permanent pasture and pure grass plots have the largest.
This is because the white clover system did not require the use of nitrogen fertilizer, McAuliffe said:
"The white clover system can have a lower carbon footprint because we don't put nitrogen on it. That not only avoids the emissions associated with applying nitrogen fertilizer, but it also means that the upstream emissions from the production of nitrogen fertilizer are also avoided."
However, even within each farmlet, some cows had larger carbon footprints than others, the results show.
The cows with the largest carbon footprints, known as "poor performers," take longer to gain weight than others, McAuliffe said. Because of this, these cows must spend longer on the farm before they are sent to slaughter—meaning they spend more time emitting methane.
It is still not clear why some cows are lower performers than others, McAuliffe said. However, it is likely that genetics play a role in the differences between animals, he added:
"I would say a lot of it has to do with the environment, it has to do with genetics, it could be animal health—an animal might be poorly so it's not consuming enough grass."
Following their results, the researchers plan to carry out an experiment to see if genetic selection could be used to produce cows with lower-than-average carbon footprints.
Selective breeding is a common technique in agriculture and involves breeding two animals with desirable characteristics (two cows with high milk yields, for example). If the trait has a genetic basis, there is a higher chance that the offspring will inherit it.
Though more research is needed, it is possible that breeding cows with a lower climate impact could help beef farmers to cut their emissions, McAuliffe said:
"If you've got a farm that's got a lot of animals that are performing really poorly and replace them with animals that don't require a lot of time on the farm to get to a finishing weight, I think it's fair to say that the farm would be able to reduce its overall carbon footprint."
Chewing the Fat
The findings offer promise for cutting emissions from beef production, said Dr. Tara Garnett, a scientist from the University of Oxford's Food Climate Research Network, who was not involved in the study.
However, cutting emissions from beef production "can only take us so far," she said. Last year, Garnett published a report finding that cutting down on global meat consumption would be the best way to tackle emissions. She told Carbon Brief:
"There are things to do on the production side to moderate greenhouse gas emissions from the farming sector, but they will only get you so far. High-consuming individuals and countries need to be cutting back on the amount of meat that they consume."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.
By Oliver Milman
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Hamstrung by coronavirus lockdowns, frustrated school strikers have spent months staging digital protests against world leaders failing to act urgently on climate change.
Pandemic Stalls Protests<p>Last November, the head of the UN Environment Program was among the public and scientific figures to warn that 2020 offered a last chance to cut emissions. Then, few could have suspected this deadline would coincide with an unprecedented public health emergency.</p><p>The pandemic has <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/tough-times-ahead-for-climate-protesters-during-corona-pandemic/a-52978469" target="_blank">dealt climate activism a blow</a>. Niedeggen says that as a movement demanding that the world act on scientific advice, the school strikers took lockdown restrictions extremely seriously, halted public protests immediately and took their activism online.</p><p>On April 24, Fridays for Future organized a "digital strike," with Niedeggen hosting a that racked up close to a quarter of a million views. "We were not physically standing together, but we were all fighting together," she says.</p><p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-strikers-get-inventive-during-the-covid-19-crisis-fridays-for-future/a-53229262" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Activists also gathered thousands of placards</a> from across Germany to lay out in front of the German Bundestag around the central slogan: "Fight every crisis."</p>
Opportunity for a New Normal<p>Last September's Global Climate Strike drew young and old protestors around the world, with organizers estimating a global turnout of 7.6 million, including an estimated 270,000 people in Berlin. Activists have adjusted this year's event to account for social distancing and different levels of coronavirus restrictions in cities taking part.</p><p>They say COVID-19 also presents opportunities.</p><p>"The pandemic shows that we can change our normal daily life, and we are very able to adjust to a situation of crisis," she says. The key question is how economies get back on their feet: "We have the possibility to build a new normal, to build a renewable world order, and an environmentally just, climate-just normal for everybody."</p><p>In July, Jeng was among 20 female Fridays for Future activists from the Global South to sign an open letter to G20 finance ministers warning that their decisions in "exclusive backrooms" over stimulus packages and corporate bailouts would "lock in development pathways for decades."</p><p>"The system is not broken, it was built to be unjust. We don't need recovery, we need a reboot," the letter reads, stressing that "black people, indigenous peoples and people of color," have been disproportionately hit by the economic, climate and coronavirus crises. </p>
Policy 'Not Quite There Yet'<p>Figures on stimulus spending do not suggest their words had much impact. The ministers were criticized for failing to relieve the debt of poorer countries, and according to <a href="https://www.energypolicytracker.org/region/g20/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Policy Tracker</a>, G20 countries by August had pledged $169 billion (142 billion euros) to fossil fuels since the beginning of the pandemic.</p><p>Katrin Uba, associate professor of political science at Uppsala University in Sweden, is researching Fridays for Future. She says that despite the movement raising awareness and gaining access to policymakers, real policy change "is not there yet."</p><p>Still, she stresses that social movements go through waves of mobilization as public attention on their core issues ebbs and flows. And perhaps one of Fridays for Future's biggest achievements is birthing a politically active generation that will keep the fight up long after corona becomes a memory. </p><p>"We know clearly from our research that many of the people who came to the streets hadn't done any protesting before in their lives," she told DW. "And we also know that if you do one protest, you are likely to do more."</p>
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This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
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