EarthSky reported on a study by scientists at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, suggesting that newspapers are neglecting the impact of agriculture – especially livestock production – on climate change.
Cows causing climate to change? Apparently so. Global warming is being caused by an excess of certain kinds gases in Earth’s atmosphere. We think mostly of carbon dioxide (CO2) as the major greenhouse gas, but it isn’t the only one. Methane is even more potent than CO2 at causing Earth’s atmosphere to warm. Ruminating animals – such as cows and sheep – burp methane. I read that the average cow burps up between 300 and 500 liters of methane a day. I also read that there are more than a billion cows on Earth today.
By some estimates, agriculture contributes 30% of the gases that are causing Earth to warm.
Neff and her colleagues examined thousands of climate change stories published in the 16 largest U.S. newspapers over the past several years. Out of 4,582 climate change articles, she said, the group found that only 109 articles even mentioned food and agriculture contributions to climate change – only 2.4 percent. Only half a percent of articles even mentioned the contribution of meat production to climate change, despite the 18% of world greenhouse gas emissions resulting from people (like me) who enjoy eating meat.
This is the story of bovine digestion – cow belching – and I wont’ go into it here. I won’t because Neff told me in an email that it’s only one of several agricultural contributors to climate change. A tremendous amount of deforestation goes on in the name of producing meat – specifically to raise grain for feed and to clear land for pasture. Neff said most of this deforestation occurs in the Amazon, not in the U.S. Still, no matter where on Earth it occurs, the process of clearing land releases sequestered carbon. This carbon goes into the air and contributes to climate change.
She said there are other mechanisms by which agriculture is affecting climate. Think of the energy required to power livestock production, processing, and transportation; emissions from pesticides, fertilizers and other aspects of producing feed grain; and the methane emitted from manure.
All these activities add up to the 30% contribution of agriculture to climate change. Neff said she was surprised at the lack of coverage of agriculture’s contribution by newspapers. She said, “It’s like there’s a page missing from the manual. Everybody wants to do what they can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re just not hearing about the impacts of food.”
Not all of you who read this blog believe humans are causing climate change. But for those of you who do believe the best reckoning of Earth’s best scientists on this subject, Neff said eating less red meat will help lessen agriculture’s effect on our changing climate.
So there you have it. The wholly benign-seeming realm of agriculture – the very thing that feeds us – is contributing to climate change, and we didn’t know it. And as one might expect in a world where humans and nature are inextricably coupled, it goes the other way, too. Climate change will also affect agriculture profoundly in this century. Cynthia Rosenzweig and Daniel Hillel, for example, have studied the potential impacts of climate change on agriculture and food supply. We sometimes hear that, in some parts of the world, food production may benefit from a warmer climate. Scientists agree this is true. In some places, there might be benefits.
But there are many unknowns. Scientists have come to believe that climate change probably means just that: change. They anticipate a 21st century climate with wider swings toward droughts, floods and heat waves. Will these events challenge those who grow our food?
What’s more, the key to crop and livestock production is water. After all, water = life. And water on Earth is a key issue for the coming century, as our human population continues to grow and rainfall patterns shift – possibly from year to year or decade to decade – in the changing climate.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.