Fixing Farming Without Breaking Food

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With the recent rise of locavore cuisine and its promise of sustainably sourced produce, dairy and meat, you might be tempted to think that farms are increasingly Earth-friendly places.

Well, get that pastoral picture—calm cows drinking deep from a spring, golden wheat glowing with a valley sunrise, towheaded children picking pesticide-free strawberries—out of your head. Most farming isn't all that green, nor is the agriculture industry as a whole. Rather, agriculture is responsible for approximately a third of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, according to a report in Nature.

Scientists at Climate Focus and California Environmental Associates say this doesn't have to be the case. Researchers at these institutions maintain that yearly carbon emissions from global agriculture can be slashed from 50 to 90 percent by 2030, "the equivalent of removing all the cars from the world," without jeopardizing the world's food supply.

The researchers say that farmers can limit emissions, for example, by making sure that they don't over-fertilize fields, something that can lower yields, lessen long-term soil fertility and add to greenhouse gases.

Farmers must also work to curtail the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, by better managing staple crops and livestock. Rice often relies upon flooded or partially flooded paddy fields, "the decomposition of material depletes oxygen in the soil and water, causing anaerobic conditions that generate methane," the report says. With certain irrigation practices, however, farmers can cut down on methane production.

With grazing animals, one of the simplest solutions in limiting their methane output is feeding them better. Healthier livestock reach slaughter weight more quickly, the reasoning goes, meaning their methane-producing days are limited. Also with livestock, farmers could convert methane-laden manure into greener materials, such as compost or even electricity-yielding biogas.

Consumers, on the other hand, can accomplish a lot simply by eating more responsibly.

Almost half of the food worldwide is thrown out—often for purely aesthetic reasons.

Eating less red meat, the researchers say, would decrease demand for cows and curb methane production.

To be clear, these ideas aren't all that new—it has long been known, for example, that cows contribute to atmospheric methane levels. But many of these known problems haven't been collected comprehensively or become a prominent part of climate discussions.

Charlotte Streck, a co-author of a study with Climate Focus, says that lawmakers hadn't given too much thought to applying these techniques in the past because it's a highly politicized, almost taboo issue. "There was always the assumption that any kind of climate mitigation activity would put at risk food security," Streck, who has worked on these issues for some 15 years, tells Newsweek.

One surprising finding of the study is that sustainable agriculture and consumption could feed actually more people. "If we manage our food system better and lose less food and eat just a bit less beef, we reduce emissions and positively impact food security," she says.

Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, says that many farmers are already ramping up efforts to cut carbon emissions, including increased interest in converting manure methane.

Farmers can also help global warming by increasing the amount of carbon in the soil, something that Rasmussen said can be achieved with some of the methods outlined by Streck and her colleagues, such as by tilling soil less frequently. The methods would also allow soil to hold more water and nutrients, helping to increase crop yields.

"It's kind of a win-win situation," Rasmussen says.