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Northwest Iowa Dairy Outlooks

A local discussion of current science and issues concerning dairying in northwest iowa

Category Archives: carbon footprint

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The Dalhousie University website reports that a new paper released by Nathan Pelletier and Peter Tyedmers of the Dalhousie University School for Resource and Environmental Studies raises some thought-provoking questions about consumption and production in our food systems and in particular, the livestock industry. “Forecasting potential global environmental costs of livestock production 2000-2050” has been published in the October 2010 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Dr. Pelletier, a self confessed “foodie” and ecological economist, is interested in studying food systems and how they effect the environment both at the local and global levels.

“Food is a really unique area of consumption in that we have a great deal of control over what and how much we choose to consume,” he says. “As a result, we also have direct control over the environmental implications of our dietary choices.”

Focusing on the global livestock industry, the paper explores the relationships between projected growth in livestock production and world-wide sustainability thresholds for human activity as a whole. The paper focuses on three domains: greenhouse gas emissions, reactive nitrogen mobilization and appropriation of plant biomass.


Drs. Pelletier and Tyedmers’ research focuses on the 50-year period between 2000-2050. Using published data of the environmental impact of livestock production from the year 2000 and projections of livestock production and consumption from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the authors were able to estimate the potential environmental impacts in the 50-year period.

The news is not great.

It is estimated that global production of livestock will double in the next 50 years, which will in turn, greatly increase the environmental impacts of the livestock industry. Drs. Pelletier and Tyedmers estimate the livestock industry alone will account for 72 per cent of humanity’s total “safe operating space” for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, 88 per cent of safe operating space for biomass appropriation and nearly 300 per cent of the safe operating space for reactive nitrogen mobilization.

Nitrogen plays a pivotal role in both our natural and agricultural ecosystems. It is the most abundant element in our atmosphere, but when the nitrogen cycle is overloaded, the consequences can be very serious. An abundance of nitrogen can lead to ecosystem simplification and a loss of biodiversity as well as contribute to global warming, acid precipitation and eutrophication of bodies of water.  Industrially-fixed nitrogen is a large component of commercial fertilizer but it is estimated that only 10 tp 20 per cent of the nitrogen applied to crops is actually consumed by humans. The remainder is lost to the environment. While reactive nitrogen is not directly used in livestock production, it is used to fertilize the crops and pastures that feed livestock.

It is estimated that nearly 60 per cent of the biomass currently harvested annually to support all human activities is consumed by the livestock industry. This underscores the dependence of this industry on biological productivity and raises some serious questions about the sustainability of devoting such a large portion to the livestock industry.

This doesn’t mean that you should immediately stop eating burgers and steak and become a strict vegetarian. Human beings need protein to survive and livestock is a valuable source of protein and other nutrients. There are, however, also many other sources of protein that have the potential for a far less dramatic impact on the Earth.

For example, the paper also examines similar environmental projections that explore the implications of a shift away from livestock production to a more low impact source of protein such as poultry or soybeans. Although the authors stress that a total switch to poultry or soybeans is unrealistic, even a marginal decrease in livestock production would help to reduce environmental impact.

As consumers, we can also make a difference. “It is very well established that making changes in our diets can help reduce our individual and collective environmental impacts. What we need to focus on is a change in expectations. We need to re-establish appropriate levels of consumption in developed countries (where overconsumption of livestock products is prevalent), and curtail the rise of diets overly dependent on livestock products in the developing world. This will have both health and environmental benefits,” says Dr. Pelletier.

The article concludes by saysing, “So maybe the next time you’re in the grocery store, or farmers market, contemplating the 14-oz rib eye steak, opt instead for the chicken breast, or try that delicious tofu curry recipe you found on the Internet. Your planet will thank you”.

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Gary Truitt with Hooiser Ag Today reports theNational Cattleman’s Beef Association has launched a series of blistering allegations against the Environmental Protection Agency. Last week EPA administrator Lisa Jackson testified before the Senate Ag Committee that her agency is not out to get American agriculture. But, this week National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Chief Environmental Counsel Tamara Thies accused the agency of trying to put the cattle industry out of business, “It is ironic that as we strive to become less dependent on imported oil the policies of the Obama administration are likely to make us more dependent on imported beef.” She accused the EPA of waging a war to bring an end to production agriculture, “EPA exhibits reckless indifference to scientific fact, and instead imposes stringent regulations based on nothing more than its biased, anti-animal agriculture agenda that will leave many cattle operations with no recourse but to shut down.”

Speaking on Wednesday at a forum focused on the impact of EPA regulations on job creation and economic growth in the nation’s rural communities, Thies told members of the Rural America Solutions Group that EPA’s regulations will result in a loss of jobs, just the opposite of what the White House says they want to do. She said EPA regulations are causing economic uncertainty in the cattle industry and throughout rural American because they are “vague, overreaching, costly, unnecessarily burdensome, ludicrous, and sometimes illegal.”

Thies offered several examples of EPA regulations that could potentially stifle the U.S. cattle industry – including dust regulation. She said the EPA has laid the foundation to impose the most stringent regulation of dust in U.S. history. Thies said she could continue with more examples and explained that this vast array of new regulatory requirements will add to the cost of doing business – making it harder to pay bills, pay workers, expand, compete in the world marketplace, and satisfy America’s demand for safe, affordable beef.
Thies said cattle producers have made progress in decreasing the industry’s environmental footprint. In 2007, she says 13% fewer cattle were slaughtered than in 1977 but that those animals produced 13% more beef. By producing more beef with fewer resources, she said the total carbon footprint for beef production was reduced from 1977 to 2007 by 18%. On top of that, when compared to beef production in 1977, she said each pound of beef produced in modern systems use: 20% fewer feedstuffs, 30% less land, 14% less water and 9% less fossil fuel energy.

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Cow/Calf Weekly has these comments from a recent speech by Jason Clay. “Here’s the thing. Whatever is acceptable today as an impact (on the environment) with 6.8 billion people is not going to be acceptable when we get to 9.1 billion people. Everything is going to have to be more efficient and we’re going to have to get better with the way we use land, with the way we use water, with other inputs.”

That’s what Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation with the World Wildlife Fund, told a group of cattlemen recently. Clay laid out a series of questions and observations about how beef producers and environmentalists can attain pragmatic solutions to the challenge of producing twice as much food by 2050 as the planet now produces.

According to Clay, around 70% of the land available worldwide for food production is being used. “For the last 40 years, we’ve been increasing ag land by 0.4%/year. In the last 10 years, that’s gone up to 0.6% a year. If you do the math, by 2050 at 0.6% a year, times 40 years, that’s 24% of the remaining 30% of the planet that will either be farmed or ranched. There will be very little room for biodiversity, very little room for the ecosystem services we depend on.”

Clay thinks the modern-day land grab can be slowed and maybe even stopped, by increasing the intensification and efficiency of agricultural production.

“How does beef relate to this issue?” he asked. “Beef production uses 60% of all the land today that’s used on the planet to produce food. And it produces 1.3% of the calories. Is beef production ever going to be the same as (crop production)? No. But can it be better? Absolutely.”

Clay would like to see a world where we don’t convert more natural habitat to food production. “We think we can produce more on what we’ve already got.”

In fact, he says the better producers globally are already producing 100 times more at a global level than the worst producers, for any given commodity. “The better countries are 10 times better in production than the worst countries. And even within a country, some producers are three to four to five times better than the worst producers. So there’s a lot to be gained by increased efficiency.”

In his book, he wrote that sustainable agriculture will require that ranchers and farmers be rewarded for producing not just food or fiber but also “ecosystem services.” Clay explained that comment saying,  “It’s clean water and clean air for sure. But it’s also biodiversity that is useful for both farmers in terms of seeds and seed traits and genetic material that can be used in plant breeding and also good for crop pollinators as well. Today, farmers are not paid for any of these services. Since farming and ranching occupy more of the planet than anything else, it’s important that these types of land use sustain the planet for all living things.”

He also said, “So even increasing productivity won’t necessarily help the people who can’t afford to buy food right now, and food is probably undervalued in the sense that the impacts of producing food at this time aren’t actually reflected in the price. So, habitat loss, soil erosion, global climate change, etc. aren’t reflected in the price of a loaf of bread or a pound of sugar, flour, or whatever.”

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According to Cheryl Baldwin, vice president of science and standards and non-profit certification organization Green Seal the food industry lags all others in environmental sustainability performance.

Speaking at the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting and Food Expo in Chicago, Baldwin suggested one way food makers could improved their scores would be to use less meat in their products.

She explained that since 50 percent of the environmental impact for food makers is the agriculture production of the foods they process, using “lower intensity agricultural products,” is one of several actions they can take.

Meatingplace reporters asked her what advice she had for meat processors. She suggested understanding the production methods used to feed and raise animals, making sure they are treated humanely and looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of processing methods.

She told attendees that grass-fed animals created a lower carbon footprint than those that were grain fed.

This statement points out that either researchers and commodity groups have not done their job in educating the public on the facts concerning our industry or anti-livestock groups don’t really care about the environment, just about forcing a veggie diet on the population.

Earlier this year a study by the University of New South Wales published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology indicated beef produced in feedlots had a slightly smaller carbon footprint than meat raised exclusively on pastures. And more recently, Washington State University scientists concluded that improvements in U.S. beef industry productivity have reduced the overall environmental impact of beef production over the past decade.

Armed with the science, producers and their commodity groups should go to the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting and Food Expo organizers and demand a retraction by Baldwin. Every livestock producer needs to speak-up in their community and make such the science-based information is out there; otherwise those against us will use emotion and misinformation to change our industry and lifestyle forever.

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