Isherwood column: The methane choice
By Justin Isherwood
In late November, Dutch farmers staged a tractor-cade protest that resulted in what officials described as a 700 mile traffic jam. The cause of agri-Netherlands ire was a decision by the Dutch high court (Council of State) suspending ag permits to expand dairy, pig and poultry operations in one of Europe’s most intensely farmed regions. At the root of the suspension was the European Union’s commitment to curtail nitrous oxide over the European air mass, in the Dutch case, ammonia emanating from large confined animal feeding operations, what we cheekily call CAFOs.
A photo of thousands of tractors – John Deeres, Fendts, HI Case – made news world-wide with the familiar if disciplined signs of frustrated agriculture. “No Farmers No Food.” “If you love bread, meat and fries, why not farmers.” The high court shutdown put an estimated 14 billion Euros of projects on hold.
To free up those nitrous oxide units, the Hague considered reducing the daytime speed limit to 100 kph (62.137mph, currently 80.778 mph) but the plan was dismissed when found not enough emission space is made available. Both government and ag-industry knew the core problem is to somehow recycle all that animal sector nitrogen.
The farm lobby has since requested a three billion Euro research grant to find recycling solutions for manure, methane and ammonia and their impact on the atmosphere and the down-wind landscape.
The reason the high court got involved in the first place was evidence of the landscape impacts on soils and water, enough to damage tree foliage and alter soils of the Netherlands iconic dunes, bogs and heaths, that are were converting to grasslands by benefit of the atmospheric nitrates.
The size of Dutch animal husbandry is four times the European average, with consequent economic impact, and the atmospheric issue.
In 2015, the Netherlands created a groundbreaking nitrogen management system allowing construction only if other nitrogen sources are eliminated from the system. A kind of mutual dependency between construction – roads, airports, office buildings – and agriculture, whether from field sourced nitrates or animal.
The ag sector wasn’t happy with the deal because it was too stringent, nor were environmentalists who didn’t think the controls stringent enough. When an environmental group sued the Hague demanding CAFOs be denied expansion because of their negative impact on two nature preserves, it set the stage for the Dutch high court.
The Dutch experience is focusing new attention on CAFOs and impacts of animal agriculture. In the past decade, animal ag has doubled world-wide, the direct result of an improved standard of living. Globally livestock contribute some 14 percent of total greenhouse emissions, about the same as the total transportation sector (28.9 percent U.S.; 15 percent world). These emissions are directly related to our food choices, particularly meat and dairy. While methane has a relatively short lifespan in the atmosphere (12 years against 200 years for CO2 ) its effectiveness as a heat trap is 28 times that of CO2. Suggesting the Bible story about Mary and Joseph in the stable may have been misinterpreted; it was warmer in the stable than the inn-house.
Bezoar Labs of Bryan, TX, is developing a cow/goat/sheep probiotic (Paenibacillusfortis) that alters the digestion of ruminants, with the claim of reducing methane discharge by 50 percent. In practice this adaptive bacteria will be put in water or sprinkled on feeds and pasture. A question remains whether this will reduce the feed efficiency of ruminants? Beyond is another, can methane reduction be gained by limiting the grain, corn and soy feed on which weight gain and milk production are currently based. Weight gain and milk production are the hallmark of CAFO agriculture, whose sheer efficiency is disrupting farm pricing to the consequence a family farm can’t earn a livelihood equal to a truck driver who doesn’t own three million in property and equipment.
Perhaps methane management can help support family-sized farms, a chance to earn a living on a herd sized to fit the landscape and the atmosphere’s capacity for that methane.
As obvious as is CAFO agriculture’s efficiency and logistics, maybe in the end it is the obstacle to revaluing red meat and white milk to better fit our planet’s, as it turns out, sensitive digestion.