Quantcast

Latest Agriculture Emissions Data Show Rise of Factory Farms

Animals
PxHere

By Ben Lilliston

New data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows a steady increase in agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, much of it linked to industrial systems of crop production and the rise of factory farm systems of animal production. The annually updated GHG data is designed to track U.S. emissions related to the Paris Climate Agreement and to inform national and state-level climate policy.


The EPA's Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2017 charts GHG emissions both by type and by sector using formats and methodologies established through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Total U.S. GHG emissions have increased just 1.6 percent since 1990 (with emissions decreasing slightly in recent years), at least partially due to cuts in coal production and growth in renewable energy use. Despite these modest declines, the U.S. is off track to reach its Paris climate commitments, and according to Climate Action Tracker, a series of Trump administration regulatory rollbacks threaten to slow progress further.

While emissions in many sectors are declining, those from the agriculture sector have increased more than 10 percent since 1990, according to the EPA. The agency found that agriculture accounted for 8.4 percent of U.S. emissions in 2017. That percentage does not include on-farm energy and fuel use (counted in the energy section of the inventory), nor does it count emissions related to shifts in cropland (counted in the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry section), the production of ammonia fertilizer (included in the Industrial Processes section of the report), nor other elements of the food system related to transport, processing and waste.

Via EPA Draft Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks 1990-2017

Within the agriculture sector, carbon dioxide emissions increased by 16.2 percent, methane emissions by 14.4 percent and nitrous oxide emissions by 7.3 percent since 1990, the EPA reported. Methane is 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times as potent.

The increase in methane emissions mirrors the rapid expansion of factory farms in the U.S. over the last two decades, where thousands of animals are raised in confined spaces and include massive manure lagoons. Ruminant animals like cattle are the major source of agricultural methane emissions because of their unique digestive systems. Enteric fermentation emissions, primarily from beef and dairy cattle, have risen 6.9 percent since 1990. "This increase in [methane] emissions from 1990 to 2017 generally follows the increasing trends in cattle populations," found the EPA.

Emissions related to manure management rose 66 percent since 1990. The EPA reported, "The majority of this increase is due to swine and dairy cow manure, where emissions increased 29 and 134 percent, respectively." The EPA pointed out that "the shift toward larger dairy cattle and swine facilities since 1990 has translated into an increasing use of liquid manure management systems, which have higher potential CH4 (methane) emissions than dry systems."

Manure management is also a source of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, both directly and through the application of manure on fields as fertilizer. N2O emissions related to manure increased 34 percent from 1990 to 2017 — once again mostly associated with the rise of large-scale operations, which produce massive amounts of concentrated waste that is often over-applied as fertilizer.

Nitrous oxide emissions related to agricultural soil management, including synthetic fertilizer application and tillage practices, increased by six percent from 1990. The increase in the use of synthetic fertilizers explains part of the increase. The EPA reported, "Direct N2O emissions from croplands occur throughout all of the cropland regions but tend to be high in the Midwestern Corn Belt Region (Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and eastern Nebraska), where a large portion of the land is used for growing highly fertilized corn and N-fixing soybean crops."

The EPA also noted a 109 percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions related to the application of urea fertilizer, a form of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. And, the EPA's land use chapter documented the loss of more than 10 million hectares of cropland since 1990, largely due to development. This decrease in cropland resulted in a loss in the rate of carbon storage of about 44 percent since 1990. "This decline is largely due to lower sequestration rates and less annual cropland enrolled in the CRP (the set aside Conservation Reserve Program)," said the report.

A noticeable gap in the data is the evaluation of diverse types of farming systems, including agroecological systems which incorporate more types of crop rotations and soil health-building practices like the use of perennials or cover crops. Systems focused on building soil health can better withstand weather extremes like intense rains or drought, according to the USDA. Recent research indicates that regenerative organic systems, and sustainably managed, pasture-based systems can actually sequester more GHGs than they produce.

The methodology for tracking GHG emissions is evolving, and this is particularly true for the agriculture sector where farming systems can result in dramatically different emission levels. The latest EPA data indicate that the increases in agriculture GHGs are linked primarily to the expansion of industrial systems of production for crops and animals. As policymakers develop future climate policy, it will be critical that they differentiate between industrial, factory farm systems and regenerative systems of production that can help respond to climate change.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

"Take the pledge today." Screenshot / StopFoodWasteDay.com

Did you know that more than a third of food is wasted or thrown away every year? And that only 25 percent of it would be enough to feed the 795 million undernourished people in the world? That's why today is Stop Food Waste Day, a chance to reflect on what you can do to waste less of the food you buy.

Stop Food Waste Day is an initiative of food service company Compass Group. It was launched first in the U.S, in 2017 and went global the year after, making today it's second worldwide celebration.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Berries are among the healthiest foods you can eat.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15 in Paris, France. Veronique de Viguerie / Getty Images

When Paris's Notre Dame caught fire on April 15, the flames threatened more than eight centuries of culture and history. The fire evoked shock, horror and grief worldwide. While the cathedral burned, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed determination to rebuild what the French regard as a sacred site.

Read More Show Less
An artist's impression of NASA's InSight lander on Mars. NASA / JPL-CALTECH

Scientists have likely detected a so-called marsquake — an earthquake on Mars — for the first time, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced on Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
Hero Images / Getty Images

Across the political aisle, a majority of American parents support teaching climate change in schools even though most teachers currently do not.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Priit Siimon / flickr / cc

By Andrea Germanos

Lawyer and visionary thinker Polly Higgins, who campaigned for ecocide to be internationally recognized as a crime on par with genocide and war crimes, died Sunday at the age of 50.

She had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer last month and given just weeks to live.

Read More Show Less
Pixabay

An E. coli outbreak linked to ground beef has spread to 10 states and infected at least 156 people, CNN reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
The Anopheles stephensi mosquito, which carries malaria. CDC / Jim Gathany

The world's first malaria vaccine was launched in Malawi on Tuesday, NPR reported. It's an important day in health history. Not only is it the first malaria vaccine, it's the first vaccine to target any human parasite.

Read More Show Less