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Can regenerative agriculture utilize cows to save the environment?

From an emissions standpoint, cow belches are no joke. But cows could potentially be a sustainable force. Cue regenerative farming.

Austin Wang

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It has become a fairly common fun-fact that emissions from cows contribute heavily to global warming. Unfortunately, when you consider that the livestock industry is about as polluting as the natural gas industry, cow belches are no joke. Under the right circumstances, however, cows may be a sustainable force. Cue regenerative farming.

What is Regenerative Farming?

Regenerative agriculture aims to restore the natural resources used in agriculture. By improving soil and water health, regenerative agriculture can improve resource efficiency and make food production more sustainable. Regenerative farming essentially creates sustainable long-term agricultural ecosystems.

All sustainable agriculture starts with soil. Unfortunately, the decline of arable soil is a huge problem in the U.S. Over the next decade, food production could drop over 30% due to degraded soil. Healthy soil also plays a big role in capturing carbon to reduce climate change.

That’s where regenerative farming brings in cows to save the day.

Cows Can Play a Role In Regenerative Farming

By placing livestock in more natural grazing environments, regenerative agriculture practices allow cows to help restore the soil. As they graze, cows trample over vegetation and push nutrients into the soil. Cow manure also acts as a natural fertilizer. Thus, cows can actually reduce the need for unsustainable tilling practices and dangerous synthetic fertilizers.

Other animals including chickens and pigs can have similar effects on the soil. However, 80% of all meat is raised in cramped feedlots rather than open grazing fields. That’s why some studies suggest meat consumption must be reduced by around 90% to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Regenerative Farming is No Silver Bullet

While moving livestock to more open pastures may negate some of their environmental impacts, it’s inconclusive whether large populations of livestock will ever be carbon neutral. There may simply be too much livestock for regenerative farming to be effective. After all, there are diminishing marginal returns to having hundreds of cows trampling a single pasture.

Furthermore, there is a lack of evidence supporting the benefits of regenerative grazing. Some studies argue that, by over-grazing on plants and roots, cows can actually reduce soil health. After all, plants and plant roots are essential for preventing erosion and helping soil capture carbon. While there are some environmental benefits to regenerative grazing, a study by the Food Climate Research Network finds that regenerative grazing won’t make livestock carbon neutral.

Moderation is Crucial

In all likelihood, regenerative farming, as with most things, is best used in moderation. Reducing meat consumption and livestock populations will likely slow climate change. As wonderful as cows may be, having too many of them will almost certainly be a burden on the environment.

Movements towards vegetarianism and meat substitute products may help reduce livestock populations to a sustainable level. The advent of regenerative farming may then allow small populations of livestock to be powerful forces in improving soil health.

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Sustainability

Australian farmers’ group calls for an urgent national climate strategy

Rich Bowden

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Farmers’ lobby group Farmers for Climate Action (FCA) has called on the Australian federal government to introduce a coordinated national climate strategy. The group formed in 2015 amid discontent over government inaction on curbing emissions, claiming farmers lack support to deal with the climate emergency and associated drought.

The FCA says while action was being taken by individual farmers to protect their land against the effects of rising temperatures, an overarching plan at the federal government level to combat emissions was needed.

Activists speak up, urging the government to form a climate strategy

“What we still don’t have in the year 2019 is a national strategy on climate change in agriculture,” CEO Verity Morgan-Schmidt said in an FCA statement. “There’s still no actual framework to help farmers manage these risks and implement solutions. That’s why we’re calling for a fully-funded national strategy on climate change and agriculture.”

The FCA is pushing for a wider response than just monetary relief to the current severe drought gripping most of the nation. The group wants to see tangible government recognition of climate change. It also calls for a policy that delivers support to farmers who are often the first to be struck by changes due to rising temperatures. 

“We urgently need a fully-funded and implemented a national strategy for climate change and agriculture, to minimize climate change risks and take advantage of the opportunities it presents,” said Morgan-Schmidt.

Farmers criticize government inaction as it relates to the drought

Charlie Prell, sheep farmer and deputy chair of FCA, has been one of those who have criticized the federal government for its inaction on climate change.

“Australian farmers are currently tackling the worst drought in history, and we need to balance short term relief with long term resilience planning,” he said. “As farmers, we take seriously our role as custodians of the land. We need support adapting to climate change in a way that preserves our natural environment and the viability of our farm businesses.

“It’s critical, however, the Federal Government also addresses the factors driving climate change. Without this action, droughts like the one we’re currently experiencing are likely to get more frequent and more severe — and harder and more expensive to respond to.

“With farmers already grappling with extreme drought, we have no more time to waste,” he said.

The call comes in the wake of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which calls on global governments to reduce emissions from all sectors, including food and land. The panel warned that global average temperature rises will not be kept below two degrees without significant action in these sectors. 

Climate change will only exacerbate farming conditions

Farmers are realizing they are at the frontline of climate change, with changing weather patterns meaning their methods are no longer viable in many regions. It is this unpredictability of temperatures that is of most concern to them, says Prell.

“It’s important to understand that the problem isn’t just temperatures getting hotter, it’s the volatility of the climate,” he says. “We’re seeing hotter summers and winters, but we’re also getting massive fluctuations with frost. Any plant is highly susceptible to frost and they’re happening out of season, which is seriously impacting on the productivity of grain growers, for example.”

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Could this novel vaccine finally make animal agriculture sustainable?

Madeline Barone

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Meat is a staple protein in homes worldwide. Although plant-based alternatives to meat are on the rise, meat consumption still contributes about 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Animal agriculture notoriously generates nitrous oxide from fertilizers and waste into soil, carbon dioxide, and a large amount of methane.

While all greenhouse gases are crucial, methane is 25 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Additionally, methane accounts for more than one-third of the total emissions from agriculture. The average ruminant produces 66-132 gallons of methane a day. Livestock emits the methane equivalent of 3.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually. 

What is the solution?

Going vegan is the best solution to combating animal agriculture-based greenhouse gases. However, eliminating meat completely from every individual worldwide is a difficult feat. Luckily, scientific studies have discovered that there may be ways to reduce methane emissions from cattle, allowing for a more sustainable meat-eating process.

New Zealand’s farming science research institute, AgResearch, has been conducting studies on a new vaccine meant to counter certain gut microbes that are responsible for digestion-produced methane.

The main goal of AgResearch is to create a variety of solutions to the environmental impact of cattle, including this vaccine. These solutions aim to allow meat and dairy consumption while lessening the environmental impact of the livestock industry. 

Sinead Leahy, a microbiologist at AgResearch, has been working on this approach. As per Leahy, the methane produced by ruminants comes from 3% of the microbes that live in the first section of the gut. These microbes decompose and ferment plant materials through enteric fermentation. This is what causes methane production. 

“Understanding what makes these microbes different from other types that are also important for ruminant digestion is essential,” Leahy said. “Through our research, we were able to look across the different types of gene sequence and pick out targets…for the development of a vaccine.”

As of now, only a small number of cows and sheep have been given the vaccine in trials. However, the trials have shown that vaccinated animals are actually making the antibody. AgResearch is now trying to reveal that this actually suppresses methane production. 

There are more solutions than just one

The vaccine is not the only solution in the works. Ermias Kebreab, at The University of California, Davis, is also working on reducing methane emissions through what cows are fed. These studies are working on the reduction of enteric fermentation through the consumption of seaweed. 

These experiments have shown that one type of seaweed can reduce enteric methane by over 50%. Since domestic livestock in the United States alone contribute 36% of human-caused methane, this is a huge success. One study at UC Davis estimated that it may be possible to reduce global methane emissions from cows by 15%, just from a diet change. Seaweed could be the additive that’s needed. 

What’s next?

With science constantly improving, it’s important to realize what an individual’s choices could contribute to overall environmental impact. Consumers are influencing sectors like industrial farming, and if consumers demand less meat or less methane-producing meat, large-scale change can happen.

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Saving the planet comes at a cost: four environmental activists murdered each week

Ari Kelo

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Extinction Rebellion organizes environmental advocacy.

Between 2002 and 2017, an average of four environmental activists were murdered each week. This number doubled during that 15 year period, amounting to 1,558 people from 50 countries. To put it into perspective, fatalities equal almost half the number of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. And it’s over double the number of soldiers from the United Kingdom and Australia combined who have died on active duty during the same period. So why is it so dangerous to advocate for the environment? Corruption and weak rule of law may be the culprits, according to a recent study.

Who is in danger?

While these murders occur across the globe, Central and South America are the most dangerous regions for environmental activists. According to a study published by Nature Sustainability, 68% of these deaths happened in Central and South America. Another 31% occurred in Asia.

These deaths include environmental defenders of any kind — community advocates, lawyers, journalists, indigenous people, park rangers, agrarian reformers, and more.

While activists protesting mining and agribusiness account for the most deaths, protesting anything from poaching to water dams can put you at risk.

But disregarding all other factors, indigenous peoples die in the highest numbers. They account for up to 40% of overall murders, depending on the year. For indigenous peoples, the two most deadly countries are the Philippines and Colombia.

What’s more? Only 10% of these murders lead to a conviction.

This number is alarmingly low, compared to 43% of all global homicides. So with little judicial consequences, justice rarely comes for perpetrators of these murders.

Why are environmental activists at risk?

Overall, the source of these murders often comes down to conflict over resources. For example, indigenous peoples manage or have the tenure right for about a quarter of the Earth’s land surface. But a refusal to respect these land rights and poor governmental protection cause violence against these communities. Instead of consulting with local indigenous groups and environmental activists, governments and corporations tend to violently silence them, criminalize them, and even send death threats.

These risks are only compounded in countries with high levels of corruption and weak rule of law.

A case from Pará, a northern Brazilian state, exemplifies the issue at hand. In 2011, the environmental activist, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva (nicknamed Zé Cláudio), and his wife were killed in an ambush attack. Zé Cláudio had fought against log-cutting and the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. For this work, he received countless death threats. Ultimately, the threats followed through.

Cláudio’s name had been on a death threat watch list for a decade before his murder. Despite this, the Pará government insisted they knew nothing about the threats. “How could we? The police are neither omnipresent nor omniscient,” said the official conducting the investigation, José Humberto Melo.

“In Brazil, given the current political circumstances, many Indigenous people feel that the government has put a target on their heads,” one of the study’s authors, Mary Menton said. She added that “[the government] created an atmosphere where people feel free to kill, threaten, or otherwise harm Indigenous peoples.”

Without governmental protection, cases such as Zé Cláudio’s are scarily common.

In Peru, a criminal gang shot dead six farmers in an attempt to seize their farms for a palm oil trade deal. Indeed, weak rule of law makes it even more dangerous. 32 deaths occurred in Colombia following a 2015 peace deal that led to the destruction of lands previously protected by the left-wing guerrilla opposition. And when Rodrigo Duterte — who doesn’t hesitate to kill indigenous environmental defenders — became the President of the Philippines in 2016, the death rate rose 71%.

An NPR interview with Leon Dulce, a leading environmental activist from the Philippines, reveals the sad truth. “Safety is no longer in the vocabulary of environmental defenders,” he said, referring to the grave threat activists faces under Duterte’s rule.

“It’s a situation where you can always – you will always fear for your life,” he continued. Yet despite the risks, to Dulce the work is necessary. “If you’re not going to do the work you do, who else will do it?”

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