March 25, 2019

Ag experts puzzle over ‘Green New Deal’ goals

Ag experts puzzle over ‘Green New Deal’ goals

The Green New Deal is a broad set of policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States while improving citizen health and economic security. The legislation’s key supporter is freshman representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York. While any specific Green New Deal policies are unlikely to pass in Congress anytime soon, many Democrats are pushing for passage of a Green New Deal non-binding resolution, which provides a framework for future legislation. Some have also called the Green New Deal a “blueprint” that should be adopted by the eventual Democratic nominee for president in 2020.

So what does this plan say about animal agriculture? Well, it’s pretty vague. A fact sheet released by the Ocasio-Cortez office (and later withdrawn) stated agriculture would experience an “overhaul,” though it would be hard to “get rid of farting cows.” Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez herself said in an interview, “We’ve got to address factory farming, maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” Democrats who support the plan have emphasized that no one is talking about banning burgers—they just want to highlight agriculture as one source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Uncertainty about the plan has sparked concern from agriculture experts. One issue is that the deal lumps together agriculture and transportation as main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The idea that these sectors are even comparable comes from miscalculations in a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations 2006 report called Livestock’s Long Shadow. The emissions from animal agriculture are actually much lower than transportation, and a FAO representative has even admitted that the numbers were flawed. 

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency found that agriculture was responsible for only 9 percent of U.S. emissions, while transportation was responsible for 28.5 percent. Of that 9 percent, cows and other ruminants account for two-thirds of emissions, mostly due to methane released through burps. Research from UC Davis puts that number closer to 3 percent for cattle and pigs combined. 

Based on the UC Davis research,  pushing for a more meatless world wouldn’t be a silver bullet for addressing climate change. Research shows that if all Americans participated in “Meatless Mondays,” there would only be a 0.6 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions. Another studyfrom Virginia Tech and USDA-ARS scientists has shown that completely removing all animals from agriculture would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by only 2.3 percent—meanwhile increasing nutritional deficiencies.

The New York Times points out that animal agriculture serves an important role in getting rid of food by-products, which can be fed to animals. Otherwise, these by-products actually add to the environmental burden of farming crops. 

In addition, research shows that farm animals are a key to agricultural sustainability, and that grazers, such as cows and sheep, actually increase biodiversity and health of grasslands, which cover around 40 percent of the Earth’s land mass.

Fortunately, it does sound like Ocasio-Cortez is open to feedback. AgWeek reports that her team reached out to UC Davis Department of Animal Science professor and air quality Extension specialist Frank Mitloehner following a Twitter discussion. "I had a constructive discussion with Ocasio-Cortez team members about ag and the Green New Deal. I am glad they reached out to experts around agriculture,” Mitloehner told AgWeek. 

In a recent column for BEEF Magazine, rancher Amanda Radke shared her views on the deal. While she’s not a fan of the proposal, she does see a silver lining: “I think producers have a great opportunity to talk about beef sustainability with consumers, on social media and in communications with elected officials,” writes Radke.