Forcing us to eat veggie-burgers won’t save the Earth

One of the first methane digesters in the Northern San Joaquin Valley was at Fiscalini Farms in Modesto, installed in 2015. This year, more than 40 other dairy farms have gotten grants to install them.
One of the first methane digesters in the Northern San Joaquin Valley was at Fiscalini Farms in Modesto, installed in 2015. This year, more than 40 other dairy farms have gotten grants to install them. aalfaro@modbee.com

There has been no shortage of scientific papers this year outlining the “best” paths forward on climate change and public health. All demand that farmers and consumers change their polluting ways, but each one has overlooked one crucial factor – agricultural ingenuity.

It’s everywhere you look on farms up and down California’s Central Valley. This ingenuity assures us that the dire predictions contained in those papers needn’t come true, and makes their draconian recommendations unnecessary at best and likely counterproductive.

Consider “The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change,” commissioned for the British medical journal Lancet. It describes how a broken “international economic order” is swaying the public’s preference for environmentally unfriendly diets heavy with red meat, ultra-processed foods and sugary beverages. Another Lancet article, “The 21st-Century Great Food Transformation,” said “civilization is in crisis” and that our ability to feed the world’s population is “stretching Earth to its limits and threatening human and other species’ sustained existence.” Sounds dire.

Their recommendations? Forcing farmers to double fruit, nut, legume and vegetable production while simultaneously halving consumption of red meat and sugar. Oh, and putting a moratorium on developing more land for farming.

These ideas are, or should be, nonstarters.

It’s entirely true that most Americans don’t consume enough vegetables. And we could probably make a dent in obesity numbers if every man, woman and child ate more carrots and spinach. It’s true, too, that red meat production creates the bulk of ag emissions. But forcing such changes on people simply won’t work, and they won’t do much to address the impacts of climate change, either.

Livestock makes up roughly 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. But in the U.S., it’s only 3 to 4 percent. Even considering the long shadow of getting animal protein from farm to table, the energy used cannot compare to the impacts of transportation and heat production in creating emissions.

The Lancet commission’s own modeling shows transitioning away from fossil fuels would cut ag emissions by 75 percent – not to mention the outsized impact high-efficiency or electric vehicles would have on overall transportation emissions.

But farmers are already on the front lines. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies agriculture as the only sector that hasn’t increased emissions since 1990. However, neither Lancet report devoted any substantive conversation to the technology that has allowed that to happen.

Farmers constantly seek to improve efficiency, which, in turn, creates environmental benefits and healthier foods.

We see these benefits every day up and down the Valley.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis are adding seaweed to cow feed to reduce the amount of methane produced when animals belch and fart. Ryan McCarthy, the Science and Technology Policy Advisor to California’s Air Resources Board, says such diet change could “reduce (enteric) methane by 30 percent or more.” That would put red meat emissions on a comparable footing with fish.

In 2004, Joseph Gallo Farms introduced the first large-scale biogas recovery system to California. By converting methane from cow waste into renewable energy, the Atwater-based dairy generates up to three quarters of the electricity required for its cheese production and packaging.

Some of the world’s largest livestock operations, including Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, have followed in Gallo’s footsteps; this year, more than 40 farms have received grants to install digesters. A single upgraded biogas recovery plant owned by Seaboard Foods recovers enough natural gas to power 5,300 homes a year.

The biggest improvements can come through better soil management. Improper soil management creates gases and contributes to waterway pollution. Precision farming solves both issues.

More than 20 years ago, John Deere pioneered an autonomous tractor guided by GPS to reduce over-fertilizing while also reducing emissions from over-using tractors. Self-guided equipment use is now widespread, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of crop acreage in America.

In Madera County, Tom Rogers was among the first to adopt moisture sensors, allowing him to cut fertilizer use and use 20 percent less water. Farmers across the Valley are turning to apps to harness the power of drones, satellites and cloud computing, saving money and the planet.

Technological innovation has always driven ag production to be more efficient; higher profits for producers and lower prices for consumers ensures it always will. Instead of pie-in-the-sky aspirations for global vegetarianism, embracing new technology is the best way to feed 10 billion people while cutting greenhouse gasses.

True climate change solutions must involve equipping emerging economies – the biggest drivers of growing demand for meat and processed food operating in the least regulated environments – with the technology to accelerate their path to sustainability.

But adopting government-mandated diet changes as our primary weapon against climate change dooms our hopes of limiting global temperature increases before we even get started.

Breanne Kincaid is the Research Director of the Center for Accountability in Science.