The report is called “Cool Farming: Climate impacts of agriculture and mitigation potential” It’s from Greenpeace International.
We have with us one of the authors, Dr. Pete Smith from the School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen. Dr. Smith was also a lead author, reporting for last year’s climate series, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The total amounts of greenhouse gases coming from human agriculture are surprising to me. Your report finds that farming contributes at least 20 percent, and perhaps even up to a third, of all human-made greenhouse gases.
Dr Smith and I looked at a lesser-known greenhouse gas – nitrogen dioxide, usually shown on charts as N2O. It has a global warming potential 296 times higher than that of carbon dioxide. So it only takes a tiny amount of nitrogen dioxide to kick up a great deal of global warming.
According to Greenpeace:
“The overuse of fertilizers and the resulting nitrous oxide emissions have the highest share of agriculture’s contribution to climate change:
the equivalent of 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 every year. And, the energy-intensive production of fertilizer adds another 410 million tonnes of CO2-equivalents. Of all chemical products,
fertilizers are among the greatest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions.”
We know fertilizers were poisoning various river systems, and adding dead zones to coastal ocean areas – but I did not know they were such a potent force to change the climate.
That’s why we spent some time, in this Ecoshock interview, going over how fertilizer really works. It is made from natural gas – another fossil fuel in short supply. As James Howard Kunstler told us in previous Ecoshock programs, the big fertilizer plants formerly located in Alabama and Louisiana – close to the Gulf of Mexico gas fields – have now moved to the Middle East. The American gas fields are in decline, so fertilizer manufacturing goes where the gas is.
That means our fertilizer is shipped thousands of miles by (oil-burning) ships. It also means that a Middle East conflict could not only cut off oil to the United States – but the very fertilizer required to feed America, used by the industrialized farm systems. Another vulnerability.
It might not even take a war to start this shift. Competition, and higher prices from China and India, could divert fertilizer away from both America and Europe.
You would think the big global warming gases would be in production of the fertilizer. Nope. Although those plants do spew out plenty of greenhouse gases, remember, the fertilizer itself contains fossil fuel derived greenhouse gases, especially nitrogen dioxide. Most of that goes into the water supply (our rivers and lakes, causing eutrophication) – but a significant amount just evaporates directly from the field, or from cow manure.
One solution would be to use other farming methods to build up the natural soil, so we don’t need these fossil fuel fertilizers. At the very least, farmers need to find ways to use the minimum amounts of chemical fertilizers. They need to contain the greenhouse gas emissions from their fields and feed-lots.
Then we looked at all the former forest land that is being bull-dozed to make “green” biofuels. I want to refer our listeners to a study done by Paul Crutzen at the Max Planck Institute, along with a whole group of international scientists, titled “Nitrogen dioxide release, from agro-biofuel production, negates global warming reduction by replacing fossil fuels.” That was published August 1st, 2007.
That study finds that the process of growing biofuels creates so much nitrogen dioxide, as a powerful greenhouse gas, that we actually ADD to global heating, when we try and use biofuels.
Dr. Smith, and the Greenpeace report, has some very positive suggestions for mitigation. Many of these are simple steps that could at least slow down the heating of the planet. I know farm talk isn’t very sexy these days – but since we all eat – we all have to take responsibility for our impact on the planet’s ecosystem derived from farming.
Following my chat with Dr. Pete Smith, I went for a Greenpeace agriculture campaigner based in Vancouver, Canada – Josh Brandon. Josh has real credentials in the field. He’s been working on GM (Genetically Modified) food, trying to get labeling, at the very least, in Canada. Really, Greenpeace wants the experimentation on our food chain stopped until we know more about the impacts and risks.
Now Greenpeace has realized that farming itself is at least 20% of our climate change problem, maybe more. So, Josh Brandon has to morph into a climate change campaigner as well.
We focused on the situation in North America, and the changes Greenpeace want, to help preserve out climate.
Surely, it isn’t necessary to burn out the planet, with droughts, storms, and floods, just to eat? Brandon doesn’t think so, and again, there are some obvious improvements we can make to our farming process.
Here is where to find the 20 page summary of the report (558 KB) as a .pdf file.
The full version (995 KB pdf file) is here:
Or just Google “Greenpeace International Cool Farming”
Check out the interview. Food activism is becoming strong – not just for our own health, but for the continuing health of the whole ecosystem.