New research shows higher yield agriculture could lower UK farming emissions

Those concerned with climate change have for years promoted the benefits of energy efficiency. It makes obvious sense: the more electricity or transportation you can get per unit of energy, the less climate damage that would result. Everyone agrees that energy efficiency is an essential part of tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

But what about agricultural efficiency? Estimates vary, but greenhouse gas emissions from world farming are estimated to be as much as a quarter of the global total. Many of these sources are difficult to reach: how do you stop cattle belching or rice paddies from emitting methane? By comparison, switching coal-fired power to clean energy sources like wind or nuclear looks easy.

Agricultural emissions are also rising rapidly and apparently inexorably, driven by world population growth and changing diets (with higher meat consumption in developing countries), in particular. Increasing agricultural efficiency in terms of crop productivity per unit of land area and animal feed conversion to meat and dairy is a critical—though often overlooked—aspect of the overall picture.

For the full article, see the Cornell Alliance for Science blog.

7 Comments

  1. Scott

    Mark,
    As usual, your post sounds good, but has a few fundamental flaws arising from your epistemological hedonism.

    First of all your premise that higher yield agriculture could lower UK farming emissions is true. It could. But of course that depends on exactly how you intend to increase yields. It could also actually increase emissions too, particularly if what you are talking about involves haber process ammonium nitrate which is fossil fuel derived. Later in your post you attack the very tool most capable of increasing yields, lowering emissions, and actually mitigating AGW by sequestering carbon in the soil, organic methods. Now of course not all organic methods do this. Just as there is more extensive conventional ag and more intensive conventional ag, same goes for organic. There are extensive organic systems and intensive organic systems. The biggest advantage of many intensive organic systems with respect to AGW is that they are a net sink rather than a net emissions source. Even those that are still weak emissions sources, universally are dramatically lower than conventional intensive systems.

    Then you said, “Many of these sources are difficult to reach: how do you stop cattle belching or rice paddies from emitting methane? By comparison, switching coal-fired power to clean energy sources like wind or nuclear looks easy.”

    While I agree that it hasn’t been easy. It has been accomplished. Well, cows will belch, and rice paddies do emit methane, but the net has been totally eliminated for cattle and turned it into an actual net sink, and emissions from rice paddies has been dramatically reduced. Both or these serious problems by integrating the most modern science based organic methodology into production models. Yields dramatically increased as well. That same “organic” you ignorantly attack due to your epistemological hedonism.

    Lets start with rice. There is a rice methodology called SRI which either completely eliminates the need for haber process nitrogen or dramatically reduces it. Sometimes in transition there is some chemical fertilisers needed, but gradually as chemical fertilisers are reduced, yields increase. As chemical fertilisers drop to zero or nearly eliminated, record breaking yields can be obtained. And like all organic methodology, what emissions remain are offset by rising carbon content in the soil.
    http://sri.cals.cornell.edu/conferences/IRC2014/booth/SRI_climate_smart_rice_production_%20handout_2014.pdf

    You also mentioned livestock. You made several errors here as well. In order to reach your 20% claim, you must include the emissions from growing grain used for livestock production in an intensive CAFO (confinement or feedlot) production model. This is where your argument fails. Once again modern science based organic methodology has a solution that conventional agriculture is incapable of solving. In order to accomplish this a different sort of intensive is required called Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing. MIRG https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Managed_intensive_rotational_grazing starts by completely eliminating all the emissions associated from grain production. This is replaced instead by very specific protocol for grazing which increases biomass production. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1097378.pdf Side benefits can include wildlife. http://learningstore.uwex.edu/assets/pdfs/A3715.pdf But there is more. While this type of grazing management does increase harvested biomass by 2 tons per acre or more, most of a perennial pasture plant is below the ground in the soil. About 9 tons per acre of biomass is increased in the soil A-horizon between roots and root exudates, not to mention an additional 2 tons of biomass on the soil surface in the O-horizon from decaying plant leaves, not including manure which is also significant. Much of which eventually turns to stable humus, sequestering carbon for thousands of years or more. All this biomass feeds a huge population of soil organisms in what is termed the soil food web. One of those types of organisms is called a Methanotroph. The interesting thing about upland soil methanotrophs is they eat methane as their food source. They also do this at lower methane concentrations than atmospheric methane. That increase in methanotroph populations not only reduce the methane emissions from plant material, because it is at a lower concentration than atmospheric methane, by Fick’s laws of diffusion methane from a higher concentration will move to the lower concentration. Of course only in the aerobic layers of the soil. However, that’s where the methanotrophs thrive. What this all means is that this system viewed as a whole can be seen as a net methane sink rather than an emissions source. Cow belches solved. Yield increased. AGW mitigated.

    http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fmicb.2013.00225/full

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11706799

    https://dspace.library.colostate.edu/bitstream/handle/10217/47280/Judd_colostate_0053N_10443.pdf?sequence=1

    “Grasslands and their soils can be considered sinks for atmospheric CO2, CH4, and water vapor, and their Cenozoic evolution a contribution to long-term global climatic cooling.”-Gregory J. Retallack

    Last you made a comment, “So let’s hear it for vegans and vegetarians—you are already doing far more than most to save the planet!” Well…I have no problem with vegetarians, but lets be honest. The only time it is helpful is if the vegetarian eats organic vegetables. Eating vegetables produced with fossil fuel derived haber process ammonium nitrate means they are not helping at all except in comparison to consumers of an omnivore diet also produced by haber process nitrogen. Vegans even worse, because they even exclude the use of animal manures. Without animal manure or haber process nitrogen, huge yield losses are typical.

    So in conclusion Mark, time to rethink your position yet again. Once you advocated organic for all the wrong reasons. Now you oppose organic for all the wrong reasons. Time to educate yourself and develop a more subtile and refined position based on new understandings of the biological sciences.

    Reply
  2. Clyde Davies

    On the subject of rice:
    “SUSIBA2 cut methane emissions to around 10 per cent of control levels before flowering, and almost to zero at 28 days after flowering,” say the scientists behind the new research, led by Chuanxin Sun, from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden, writing in the journal Nature.

    According to a press release, the new type of rice preferentially stores photosynthetically derived sugars in parts of the plant that are above rather than below ground, and has fewer methanogens – methane producing areas — around the roots.”
    http://sciencenordic.com/new-type-rice-produces-more-food-and-cuts-methane-emissions
    There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

    Reply
    1. Scott

      Clyde,
      That is interesting. Presumably one could combine that with SRI and eliminate emissions completely, assuming it also still produces tillers.

    2. Clyde Davies

      Yes, you probably could. But there’s a danger of us getting hung up on agricultural emissions. Methane may be a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 but it doesn’t hang around for very long. It gets chewed up by various processes in the atmosphere.
      I’d suggest that one route to reducing CO2 emissions quickly would be encouraging biomass as a fuel. It’s carbon neutral, and would encourage the planting of more woodland. Which would act as a carbon sink.

    3. Scott

      I am not with you on cutting forests to burn as fuel, maybe waste scrap wood, but even that is probably better recycled or composted or turned into biochar.

      However, you are right about that type of emissions. The biomass itself is carbon in the active cycle/fraction. That means it has minimal effect on AGW. What matters is the net flux from stable to active carbon cycles. Basically we are talking the stable soil carbon fraction and fossil fuels as the stable pools, and the rest of the carbon that cycles actively is just part of life. There are frozen methane clathrates in the ocean and permafrost that can be a concern should they melt rapidly, but that’s more of a feedback concern, if we fail to get the other pools stabilized. More of a symptom that magnifies, not an initial cause. This is one of the things, that if it happens, will dramatically amplify the seriousness of AGW.

      Any agriculture of any type that increases the stable carbon pool in the soil is not creating AGW, but rather is helping mitigate AGW. So the answer is not giving up foods, but rather using agricultural methods that increase soil carbon at a higher rate than they use fossil fuels, for a net reduction in atmospheric greenhouse gasses back into the stable pools.

      Rice has for thousands of years has been a net source. This really is a big deal. Between the new methodology and the new genetic strains, we for the first time in human history may have potentially solved this one!

  3. Mark Allery

    Hello Mark,

    I heard your interview on the recent Radio 4 – Farming Today and it prompted me to search out your website/blog and hopefully the sources for your statements.

    I don’t know if it was the editing on the program but you seem to be somewhat negative of organic farming and somewhat positive regarding increasing yields farming conventionally (chemically). Maybe I got the wrong impression – I am a woodsman rather than a farmer as such.

    Unyet in the same programme Yeo Valley stated their milk yield from their organic friesians is 7500litres – very close to the current average milk yield of the national dairy herd.

    You were not specific in your argument that organic methods necessarily produce significantly lower yields. Given that there was credible evidence on the programme that this need not be the case I wonder why you think that improving the performance of organic farming should not be equally an option ?

    cheers

    Reply
    1. Scott

      Mark,
      Mark Lynas has gone on record multiple times as being against organic methodology. You were not reading him wrong.

      BTW For the best example of how modern organic methodology can actually beat conventional production, here is an interesting link since you mentioned milk:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLDKRXPyOh4
      That was produced in conjunction with USDA-SARE and more info can be found on the USDA website.

      Notice Tom has not used ANY chemical fertilizers or pesticides in over 21 years. His cows are healthier, the milk is healthier, the soil is healthier.

      We can go down the list of agricultural products if you wish, but organic methodology is vastly superior in terms of AGW mitigation, and usually if the most modern methods are used, even has higher yields.

      The problem where Mark fails, is in understanding the difference between modern science based organic methodology, and old fashioned traditional style farming that is “organic” only nominally and in name only.

      The reason for his confusion is “organic” was originally a supply driven movement, but with the advent of certification boards became consumer driven. The end product is the same whether traditional chemical free methods are used, or modern science based methods are used. So from the consumer POV traditional, subsistence, and modern science based methodologies all are “organic” as the products are all chemical free. But from a producers POV they hardly even resemble each other and yield quite differently.

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