Will Agriculture Win in the Global Warming Debate?

May 28, 2010 04:31 PM
Global warming can easily be turned into a joke…especially when there's a 50-degree day in May. But the government isn't laughing about global warming; it is making plans for legislation to reduce the U.S.'s carbon footprint.
Agriculture, with its heavy energy reliance, manure production and burping cows, has and will continue to have its share of the spotlight.
Ray Massey, crops economist with the Commercial Ag Program at the University of Missouri, says one of the big questions agriculture will have to face is if greenhouse gases have the potential to hurt agriculture or profit agriculture. "Is it a source of emissions or offsets?”
Basically, can agriculture contribute to or help reduce greenhouse gases?
Massey says agriculture currently accounts for a small part of total U.S. greenhouse gases.
Sources of U.S. greenhouse gases:
29% Industry         
27%  Transportation
18%  Commercial    
18%  Residential
8%  Agriculture     
That 8% that agriculture is composted of breaks down like this:
50% Soil Management
33%  Enteric Fermentation
15%  Manure Management
2%  Other
Massey explains that soil management includes the emissions caused by growing crops, and for the most part it is linked to nitrogen fertilizer. Enteric fermentation is the gases released when ruminant animals burp. Manure management accounts for the liquid manure created in the dairy, swine and feedlot cattle industries.
Even with fertilizer accounting for the largest part of agricultural greenhouse gases, Massey doesn't think it will be capped or heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. "It is a non-point source (as in easily identifiable) and none of the farmers out there, even the big farmers, are really using that much.”
But EPA has indicated that it would like to issue permits to producers of ammonia production, he says. "So it could be that fertilizer prices go up if ammonia production is subject to a permit and regulation.”
Massey says enteric fermentation would also be difficult to cap, but easy to tax. "If there was a tax, it would be on beef cattle and dairy cattle, because that's where the fermentation occurs.”
The Overall Goal
Being able to classify where the largest amount of gases is coming from is only half the battle. The main objective is still to decrease.
"The world wants us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in absolute numbers,” he says. "If you are emitting a 1,000, they want you to emit less than 1,000.”
Massey says the two options when trying to lower greenhouse gases is to reduce the quantity produced or to improve efficiency.
"For agriculture, it is going to be very difficult to reduce production,” he says. "It's really not an option. So, agriculture really has to increase efficiency while it is increasing production in order to be in line with the greenhouse gas reduction regulation.” 
Massey spoke during the Breimyer Seminar at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

You can e-mail Sara Schafer at sschafer@farmjournal.com.

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