Greenhouse Gases: Who is the Real Culprit of CO2?
Greenhouse gases are considered the primary driver of climate change, and fossil fuels are primarily blamed for the increase of greenhouse gases. The main greenhouse gases are: CO2, Methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (NOx), HFC’s and PFC’s.
In this article, we will look at CO2.
Getting a little geeky for a second: Carbon dioxide, CO2, is the product of the oxidation of carbon in organic matter, either through combustion of carbon-based fuels or the decay of biomass.
Natural CO2 sources include volcanic eruptions, respiration of organic matter in natural ecosystems, natural fires, and the exchange of dissolved CO2 with the oceans.
Volcanic eruptions are a natural source of CO2s.
The main man-made sources of CO2 are fossil fuel combustion and land use changes (including deforestation and converting agricultural land or forests to urban development), which release stored organic matter and reduce the ability of natural ecosystems to store carbon.
Let’s take a step back and look at how the earth has dealt with CO2 before man really played much of a role. Trees and plants take in CO2 and release oxygen through photosynthesis.
The photosynthesis process simplified.
Remember ecology from school? All plants take in CO2, and release O2. Rain forests, crops, trees, grasses, etc.
Can we lower the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere?
Grassland represents the largest and most diverse land resource – taking up over half the earth's land surface. If managed properly; grasslands can actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. The vast amount of area grasslands occupies, the fact that it is everywhere on the planet, and the potential to improve how it is currently used, all contribute to its importance as a tool for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.
Grasslands act as a natural carbon filter.
Earth used to have extensive grasslands that supported giant wild herds of grazing animals. The grass protected the soil from the sun, sustained robust diversity of life below and above ground. The grass helped create a thick top soil layer, many feet thick. The grazing animals fertilized the soil and naturally promoted grass regrowth in return.
The grass took CO2 from the atmosphere and stored it in the soil.
This natural system had been maintaining the balance of carbon in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.
The depletion of our grasslands
All over the world grasslands have been reduced, converted to crops, yielded to cities, migratory paths broken up and many converted into deserts. These grasslands had been subject to wet and dry years for thousands of years and were well adapted to the occasional droughts that came with the dry years without the areas becoming desert. The grasslands protected the soil and the animals that subsisted on them.
In the US, the Homestead act of 1862 brought almost six million settlers who tried to replace grass with crops, or confined grazing of imported livestock.
Humans plowing through nature's carbon filter.
The clearing and plowing of the land exposed the soil to the sun and wind.
Dust rose over 20,000 feet above Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and the Dakotas. Ten-foot drifts of fine soil particles piled up like snow in a blizzard, burying fences and closing roads. The area became known as the Dust Bowl. The wild roaming of Bison that ate and fertilized the grass were mostly replaced with crops.
We managed to get through the Dust Bowl and now much of our grassland is farmed – growing corn and wheat and soy. Grazing and farming are now not done on the same ground as the buffalo roamed. There is no natural system in place anymore for fertilizing and replenishing the soil.
Grassland depletion and impacts to modern livestock
Cattle are not typically grazed on the land like the wild buffalo used to graze on the plains, but rather raised in lots, on range land, or other areas not deemed suitable for crops. Feed is grown separately. The cattle then spend the last 15-20% of their lives in feed lots, being fed the bounty of our lands – corn and soy among other things. About 85% of cattle in the U.S. are raised this way, spending the last 20% of their lives in feedlots.
About 85% of cattle in the U.S. spend the last 20% of their lives in feedlots.
One of the main arguments against raising cattle is that the raising of corn and soy, etc. for feeding of the cows contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions due to transportation of feed and the equipment required to grow the feed, etc. Add to this the methane emitted, the water consumed, and you have what appears to be a significant problem.
The argument then goes on to say that if we just grow plants for food and eliminate the cows; we would greatly reduce the carbon footprint of our food supply, halt climate change, and save our planet. You see statements like:
- It takes 26 pounds of corn to make one pound of beef.
- There is more methane emitted from cattle production than from all of transportation.
- Cattle production is unsustainable.
- Reducing meat and dairy consumption is key to bringing agricultural climate pollution down to safe levels.
The conclusion from this train of thought is that it’s much more efficient to just eat the plants and eliminate the cattle; thereby reducing greenhouse gases to the point where our food system becomes sustainable.
Fixing the problem or putting on a bandage?
If this line of thinking is correct, then it seems like we should move to a more plant-based food system to be able to feed our increasing population.
The problem with the argument is that the numbers do not stand up to scrutiny on multiple levels.
One example of misleading information that leads to this way of thinking is the documentary (I use this word loosely), “Cowspiracy.” The greenhouse gas emissions attributed to livestock were 51% when the movie came out in 2014, then later revised to 14.5% and now there are no numbers, just a generalized statement. The numbers did not stand up to scientific scrutiny.
With modern media, many people hear this and other data and assume it is correct. I have heard the original number parroted in numerous podcasts, blogs, and articles. Once some numbers are thrown out, our current efficient social media system picks them up and runs with them. This is just one example. There are many more.
With a little digging into greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the world, you discover that cattle are simply not the major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. They do produce methane, but that accounts for just 2% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
Dairy is about twice that. All of agriculture produce about 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Healthcare produces the same amount.
Healthcare and agriculture are about equal when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
Visit EPA Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and compare the sources. You'll see that the majority of emissions comes from transportation and energy production.
So, if we were to eliminate all cattle and dairy we would only put a small dent in the overall greenhouse gas problem. All the nutrition from the meat and dairy products would then need to be replaced with plants, which means more land would be put into agriculture, requiring more fertilizer.
But the cattle would not be producing fertilizer, so we would need to burn more hydrocarbons to make fertilizer. More equipment to plant and harvest the crops, more carbon released when plowing, etc.
One thought that really brought this home to me was looking at how many animals roamed the earth before there were billions of people. No one knows for sure how many, but just in the U.S. there were significantly more buffalo roaming the plains than the current number of cattle. The same is true all around the world. Africa had vast herds roaming the savannah.
The idea that cattle are causing the greenhouse effect simply does not pass the red face test in my mind.
Long before people began raising animals, wild animals have roamed and grazed.
The earth had wild grazing animals long before, all over the world, and in much higher numbers than the modern livestock we have now.
How much carbon emissions are associated with cattle raising really depends on how the cattle are raised.
When cattle are raised on feedlots, the carbon footprint is substantially greater than when they are raised on pasture.
The real issue is the raising of the crops to feed the cattle; and where and how the livestock are kept.
This is where the real problem lies.
Regeneration of our land
Cattle raised on regeneratively managed grasslands have a negative carbon footprint, meaning they pull more carbon out of the atmosphere than they generate.
Cattle raised on grain have a much larger carbon footprint. It is the raising of crops that causes the damage, not the cows. I will say that again … it is the raising of crops that causes the damage, not the cows.
When cattle are properly managed, they mimic the system of regeneration that has been on the earth since grasslands have existed, long before we were here. The separation of the grazing animals from the grasslands caused the problem.
How modern crop regeneration hurts our soil
When the land is plowed for crops, we not only remove the cover for the soil which decreases its ability to use photosynthesis, we also release huge amounts of carbon from the soil. This is seldom accounted for. Most of the world's carbon is stored in the soil, the ocean, and the biomass.
Plowing releases large amounts of carbon.
Plowing releases huge amounts of carbon from the soil.
Most of the soil in the world has been depleted. What used to be many feet deep is now only inches deep. In order to make it grow crops we need to fertilize it, amend it, and try to manually fix the depletion that we have caused by farming.
Regenerative farming (the practice of crop growing with the addition of raising grazing animals) is a growing movement.
Fertilization used to happen naturally with the relationship between the grasslands and grazing animals, but once plowed, it must be fertilized by the farmer.
All plants require some type of replenishment, food, or fertilizer. Anyone who has house plants or a vegetable garden can attest to this. Plants must be fertilized to grow and thrive.
There are two basic types of fertilizer: organic or synthetic. Organic fertilizers are basically decaying matter and poop. Modern agriculture uses both types, and estimates are that about half is organic and half is synthetic.
The problem is that synthetic fertilizer does long term damage to the soil and takes nitrogen out of the air.
Air is made up 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen.
The nitrogen can be converted into ammonia (NH3) which is a form the plants can use.
Synthetic fertilizers have long-term negative effects. Synthetic fertilizers kill beneficial microorganisms in the soil that convert dead human and plant remains into nutrient-rich organic matter.
Synthetic fertilizers damage the natural makeup of soil in the long term.
We now have a serious loss of top soil throughout the world due to agricultural use. Modern agriculture essentially uses up the soil. We have to make synthetic fertilizer to make things grow in the depleted soil by pulling nitrogen out of the air and converting it to ammonia. This requires — You guessed it — fossil fuels. As our soils become more depleted, we will require more fossil fuels to make fertilizer.
In addition to using fertilizers for growth, we need to keep pests and weeds from destroying our crops. So we spray our crops with insecticides and herbicides so that only the plants we want will survive. Most of these chemicals end up either in the plants, the soil, or in the water runoff.
Synthetic fertilizers damage the natural makeup of soil in the long term.
Farming is a very competitive endeavor and can only be done economically on a large scale. It is heavily subsidized by the government and is tied to the global food supply. Major financial interests are at stake with the raising of crops.
What we end up with are large areas with few weeds, few insects, few animals, and basically no bio-diversity in the crop lands.
Large scale modern crop generation is destroying our soil and destroying our biggest tool to fight greenhouse gases.
A solution to our CO2 problem
Back to the advice to “eat more plants.” This means more synthetic fertilizer, more pesticides, more herbicides, more contaminated ground water, less biodiversity, and more unnatural chemicals in our environment.
Whew! Such gloom and doom. Thankfully, there is an answer to this dilemma of feeding the world and taking care of the planet we live on. It is the only way that I have seen that actually reduces greenhouse gases, restores topsoil, and feeds the burgeoning population.
It is called regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture is simply implementing what has been done naturally for thousands of years and making it fit the modern landscape. A beautiful relationship between plants and livestock that results in greater production. It is already being done on all continents of the world successfully. It is a shift away from factory farming of animals and mono-cropping toward a more holistic approach to the raising of our food.
Greenhouse gases can be reduced, top soil restored and revitalized, bio diversity increased, maintaining healthy bee and insect populations.
When grazing land and crop generation is properly managed, the amount of topsoil increases. The proof is that over the years, fences have needed to be raised to account for the increase in organic soil! The biodiversity of the soil increases exponentially, and water consumption is significantly less. Yes, I said water requirements are less, for both the crops and animals, because it comes from the regenerated soil.
And since the soil is back to healthy fighting weight due to the grass root depth and soil aeration, it’s able to absorb and use the water properly. Flooding and aridity are also greatly reduced.
Greenhouse gases can be reduced, top soil restored and revitalized, bio diversity increased, maintaining healthy bee and insect populations, reduced water use, runoff control, healthier animals, less chemical use, better nutrition. There is hope for our future. There is a good path forward.
The only one that I see that actually has the potential to work long term. I implore you to educate yourself on some of these topics. We only scratched the surface.
Conclusion: Eating meat is not bad for the environment
Eating meat is not bad for the environment. Eating plants is not bad for the environment. What is bad for the environment is heading down the wrong path using false data and wasting time to fix the problem. Just because something is in the media, touted by celebrities, and popular does not make it true.