There is a common misperception that agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gases.
“That’s just not the story here in the United States,” said John Newton, former chief economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “And that’s because of our investment in technology, our investment in new seed technology, our precision agricultural technologies that allow us to do more with less and thus lower our per-unit greenhouse gas emissions.”
Newton was one of the speakers at a series of virtual workshops on farm sustainability that were sponsored by Indiana Farm Bureau.
Elsewhere in the world, agriculture represents 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, Newton said.
But in the U.S., agricultural emissions account for about 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with the livestock sector alone accounting for less than 4%.
“The fact that livestock emissions from dairy and beef production and pork production represent less than 4% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is not a statistic that’s very well known on Capitol Hill,” he said.
Transportation is the top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., accounting for 28.9% of all emissions. Second at 25.2% is electric power generation, and third at 22.8% is industry. Agriculture ranks fourth overall, Newton said.
It is true, he noted, that ag emissions have increased by 12% over the past three decades, but at the same time, the data shows that through land management, agriculture is and can continue to be a major part of the effort to reduce carbon emissions.
“Through the management of grasslands, through the management of wetlands, through the management of over 700 million acres of forest in the United States, through the management of cropland, we’re able to capture in the soil more than 700 million metric tons of carbon a year,” he said. Areas that can absorb carbon dioxide are called "carbon sinks," and the carbon absorbed by agriculture and forestry's carbon sinks represents about 12% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, Newton said.
"We're able to sink carbon in the soil, and that's a positive story when we think about climate," he added.
“And it also shows that agriculture and forestry are uniquely positioned, through their ability to trap carbon in the soil, to be part of the solution as this administration considers their climate goals,” he said.
Two years ago, AFBF launched an initiative called Farmers for a Sustainable Future. In addition to AFBF, the group brings together many different segments of the farming industry including sugar beets, corn, beef, rice, peanuts, dairy and pork, with the goal of sharing the positive story of U.S. agriculture.
That effort has accelerated over the past year, Newton said, and now includes specific policy recommendations with the goal of ensuring that any policy discussions on Capitol Hill or within the administration recognize what agriculture is already doing.
“We want to tell people what we’ve been doing and also make sure that anything that happens remains voluntary and incentive-based. I think that’s the key,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re at the table very early on in this conversation, to make sure that our voice is heard, that farmers and ranchers have a seat at the table as we try to shape this country’s and this administration’s climate goals.”