Farming for the future: How one Irish dairyman is working to protect the planet

Farming for the future: How one Irish dairyman is working to protect the planet

The Atlantic Ocean has long inspired adventures and expeditions in search of a brighter tomorrow. It has been the playground of many historic pioneers, who ventured into the great unknown with no idea where they would weigh anchor. Standing at the edge of this vast body of water is Ronan Síochru’s (Shuck-roo) family farm, Dingle Holsteins, which Ronan himself is on a quest to make more efficient and sustainable by reducing the environmental impact of cattle.

“Our farm is probably unique,” Ronan said. “We’re surrounded by water.”

That’s no exaggeration: The Síochrus’ land rests in the village of Burnham on the Dingle Peninsula at the very southwest tip of Ireland, with the town of Dingle to the east and the ocean to the west. The region’s misty skies and craggy hillsides evoke a sense of otherworldliness — one that millions of people encountered when the nearby Skellig Michael island served as an iconic setting in the most recent “Star Wars” films.

“It’s a really nice part of the world,” Ronan said. “There’s no place else we’d rather be farming.”

Ronan is among the fourth generation of his family to farm on this land, where he grew up understanding that farming is a group effort.

“The term ‘family farm’ was certainly the case,” he said. “We were all expected to pull our weight. It just instills this work ethic in people, you know — you just have this drive to make your family and make the farm better.”

Just as he cherishes his agrarian heritage, Ronan is also proud of his heritage as an Irishman — specifically as one of the 39% of Irish citizens who speak the Irish language (and the 4% who speak it on a daily basis, according to the 2016 Irish census). It helps that the Dingle Peninsula is one of the few remaining Gaeltachts (Gwail-tock-t; a predominantly Irish-language-speaking area) in the country.

“We just grew up with Irish,” Ronan said. “I suppose I can thank my grandfather; he taught us all Irish when we were young. We’re proud that we speak Irish. It’s part of our identity.”

 

Ronan-Síochru

Return of the farmer

Despite the fact that agriculture had been part of Ronan’s life from a young age, he did not originally plan to join the dairy industry, striking out instead for London at the age of 19. However, after three years, he felt himself being called back to Burnham.

“Like most fellows my age at the time, I suppose we (thought) were meant to get away from home,” Ronan said. “It took me going away to realize that I did want to farm full time.”

Since returning to the family farm in 2014, Ronan has grown the operation significantly, transforming it from a 60-animal suckler herd (or cow-calf operation) to a dairy farm with 85 pedigree Holsteins. Ronan and his family are proud of the milk they produce — and of where it will eventually end up. 

“The majority of our milk will go to cheese, butter or infant formula,” he said. “We take extra pride in that we’re producing a very high-standard product. And the product we’re producing is traveling — it’s a worldwide product. (We have) a reputation to uphold.”

Sustainable Farm Ireland

Partnering up for the good of the planet

In the years following his return to farming, Ronan has made significant improvements to his family’s operation as part of his commitment to sustainable dairy farming.

“We’ve invested heavily in the farm and in the future of the farm,” he said. “Whether it’s the production or the quality of the soil, the yard, there’s always something to improve. I’m just trying to make the farm better.”

The farm currently includes 10 acres of woodland, and Ronan hopes to expand that woodland in the future to serve as a haven for wildlife and to potentially offset some of the emissions naturally produced by dairy farms. Being environmentally friendly is important to the Síochru family.

“We’re just trying to farm in the most sustainable way possible,” Ronan said.

In 2018, Ronan entered a partnership that has allowed him to take his sustainability efforts to new heights. Alltech, a global animal nutrition company, reached out with an interest in helping him on his quest toward greater sustainability.

“I was delighted to be asked,” he said.

Along with other industry partnersAlltech Ireland is working to help Ronan and dairy farmers like him gauge the efficiency of their farms and implement new measures and techniques to improve that efficiency, thereby establishing more profitable and sustainable production. To achieve this goal, Alltech Ireland representatives visited Ronan’s farm and deployed several assessment tools that provide farmers with important metrics and information. Those tools included:  

  • InTouch, which monitors herd performance and provides nutritional advice based on cows’ body condition scores (BCS) and offers a review of their feed, including its fiber and protein levels, as well as suggestions for diet reformulation, grassland management and more.
  • Alltech IFMTM, which assesses the nutritive value of the diet and monitors the amount of methane produced in order to help increase the rumen efficiency of the herd.
  • Alltech E-CO2, which monitors the carbon footprint of the farm, evaluates the farm’s efficiency based on its cattle emissions and offers suggestions for how to mitigate the farm’s environmental impact.

 

Big changes for a smaller environmental impact

Over the course of the past year, Ronan has utilized these resources to make “some big improvements here on the farm,” he said, adding, “Not only have I reduced my carbon footprint on the farm, but I’ve also become more profitable.”

As he mentioned, the farm’s carbon footprint has decreased by a significant 30% — which, in terms of the greenhouse gases that are no longer being emitted by the farm, is equivalent to taking 167 cars off of the road or cancelling 47 around-the-world flights. The rumen function of the herd has also improved, leading to higher percentages of milk solids produced.

Ronan credits an increased feed efficiency as the cause behind these environmental and operational achievements.

“We’ve worked a lot on the cows’ diet,” he said.  

That may be an understatement: To achieve this increased efficiency, Ronan strove to improve the quality of the forage by improving the protein levels of the homegrown silage, diminishing the need to supplement protein from outside forages or with soybeans. He also paid more attention to the cows’ BCS and took measures to strengthen the quality of the farm’s grass and encourage it to grow. 

Even with all of these great results, Ronan refuses to rest on his laurels, already thinking about what more could be done.

“I think there’s still a lot of gains to be made here on the farm,” Ronan said. “(There’s) a lot learned, but a lot left to learn.”

Feeding the world from the Irish coast

What all of these improvements really add up to is an even greater ability to provide food to the global population and, in the process, create a Planet of PlentyTM — which both Alltech and Ronan are committed to doing.

“The population of the world is increasing at a rapid rate, and people will have to be fed, and that’s our responsibility: to feed the world,” he said.

That responsibility might weigh heavily on the shoulders of some, but Ronan and the rest of the Síochru family take it on with pride and incorporate it into the everyday activities of the farm.

“It’s always constantly on our minds,” Ronan said of sustainability and the environment. “In any management decisions that we make here on the farm, all those things are in the back of our mind.”

With three generations of Síochrus having worked this land before him, Ronan deeply understands the importance of taking care of the land as long as it is in his hands — and he hopes to pass this charge on to another Síochru in the future.

“As landowners, we have responsibility to the land, to the generations gone by and the generations ahead,” he said. “Our aim is to farm in a sustainable way so we can pass on the farm to the next generation, in good condition.”

Taking in the vista from the vantage point of Dingle Holsteins — from Dingle town to the bay to the ocean beyond — makes it all too obvious why Ronan cares about protecting the Earth.

“It’s a really beautiful part of the world,” he said, “and we’re trying to look after it as best we can.”

Contact us to learn more about how you can make your business more sustainable

 

Could agroecological farming really feed the world?

Could agroecological farming really feed the world?

Our current food system is falling short.

From how we grow our food to how we distribute and consume it, conventional farming practices alone aren’t just failing to meet the nutritional needs of a growing and already undernourished global population — they’re also actively harming the planet. So how can we increase food security while protecting the Earth for future generations?

With a population projected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, we need a better system. Thankfully, such a system exists — one that replenishes the soil, feeds more people, helps farmers and benefits the planet. It’s called agroecological farming, and it’s the solution to not only the challenges that come with conventional agricultural systems but also to some of the most massive problems facing our planet today.

Where conventional agriculture meets environmental concerns

Today’s industrial-scale agriculture started off with the best intentions. The Green Revolution of the 1960s, a global response to the looming hunger crisis, kicked off decades of agricultural growth. Farmers around the world converted their fields to newly developed varieties of genetically modified grain that produced more yields per acre. These new crops and methods helped feed a rapidly growing population in places like Asia, where rice and wheat yields doubled, grain prices fell and residents consumed more calories, even as the population increased by 60%.

But now, decades later, the true cost of that increased productivity has become much more apparent. The conventional farming techniques required to produce so much of the same crop, year after year, led to widespread soil degradation. The chemical fertilizers required to continue growing crops in degraded soil leached nitrogen and phosphorus into water supplies. Agriculture is responsible for nearly a quarter of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, which come from vehicles used in clearing land, farming and transporting crops, as well as deforestation and methane emissions from livestock.

And then there are the issues inherent in replacing diverse crops with monocrops. Not only does this lead to a loss of biodiversity, but it also means that a crop produced in one location will need to be shipped around the world to reach its consumers — and that the region or country growing that crop will need to ship in other food sources to adequately feed its own people.

A more sustainable solution

In response to the challenges of conventional farming, farmers, scientists and researchers around the world are advocating for a more sustainable alternative: agroecology. Also known as agroecological farming or sustainable agriculture, it’s not so much a set system as it is a series of practices that add up to systemic change, from farm to table and beyond.

What is agroecological farming?

According to agriculture blog Organic Without Boundaries, “Agroecology has the explicit goal of strengthening the sustainability of all parts of the food system, from the seed and the soil to the table, including ecological knowledge, economic viability and social justice.” It’s more than a farming system; it’s a social movement that combines agricultural research and the science of ecology, allowing farmers to gain a deeper understanding of the world and our place within it. It goes beyond the idea of growing and producing food to consider the entire ecosystem of agriculture — an approach that’s required if we are to solve the systemic concerns associated with conventional agriculture.

So, what does this entail? Agroecology is simultaneously about removing certain elements of conventional farming systems and adding sustainable agriculture practices in their place. While every agroecological farm is different, some practices come up again and again. Agroecological farming involves using fewer fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers — or eliminating their use altogether. It means moving away from monocropping in favor of crop diversification and crop rotation to help restore nutrients and sequester carbon in the soil. It’s about using natural fertilizers, harvested rainwater and biological pest control measures like “push-pull” practices: surrounding target crops with plants that repel pests, as well as other plants that attract them, effectively keeping the pests away from crops.

These aren’t all new ideas; many have been practiced for thousands of years by small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples across the globe. Agroecological farming practices have stood the test of time because they work sustainably with the environment, increasing food production for their communities without harming the soil, the water or the air. Today’s farmers are recognizing these benefits, with thousands switching to more sustainable agriculture practices — and reaping the rewards.

More sustainability, more productivity

Agroecological farming is beneficial because it is:

  • Better for the environment, with fewer chemical fertilizers, greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation.
  • Better for farmers, who are less reliant on a single crop that might be wiped out by weather, pests or disease.
  • Less costly, since farmers spend less on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In turn, they can reinvest those funds in additional crops or spend them within their own communities.

Of course, none of these benefits would matter if switching to agroecology meant producing less food. But instead, the opposite is true: Research proves that agroecological farming not only means promoting sustainable food systems, but it leads to increased food production as well.

“Agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” said Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, citing a 2008 U.N. study. “Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of three to 10 years.” That same study showed crop yield increases as high as 128% in East Africa, further proving the astounding potential of sustainable agriculture.

However, it doesn’t just come down to increased yields. By replacing monoculture farming in places like Africa, where hunger is a major threat, agroecological farmers can use their increased, diversified harvests to help feed their communities far better than a monoculture could. In an agroecological system, food is grown, harvested and consumed in one local ecosystem — there’s no need to pack it on planes, boats and trucks in a global distribution system that also contributes to global warming.

This is how agroecological farming can feed the world’s growing population, one community at a time. It’s a system in which more diverse farms, scattered throughout the globe, can grow the foods best suited to their areas, rather than the crops that can produce the most grain for the global market. Those farms offer a solution to global hunger that can simultaneously help fight issues like global climate change. It’s a food production system that doesn’t just work — it’s the only one that will allow our planet to continue to survive, grow and thrive.

How California is redefining sustainable dairy farming

How California is redefining sustainable dairy farming

There’s a reason California is known as the “land of milk and honey.” With miles upon miles of fertile ground and plentiful resources, the Golden State is an agricultural dream. It’s where opportunity for farmers flows as abundantly as the 40 billion pounds of milk produced there annually, and where dairy farm families work hard every day to advance the state’s $20 billion dairy industry.

But as the fifth-largest economy in the world, California is also home to roughly 1% of all global greenhouse gases. And while California’s largest-in-the-nation dairy sector only accounts for 4% of the state’s total emissions, there’s no denying that their belching bovines still play a role in climate change and global warming. Sustainable agriculture is something they do not take lightly, and in 2016, the state became the first dairy region in the world to set a goal to reduce methane emissions from dairy manure by 40%.

Let’s take a look at how dairy farmers statewide are taking a stand to reduce their carbon hoofprint for the future of their land, their livestock and the world around us.

A moo-vement to fight climate change

It’s no secret that California is a state with very ambitious policies. And at the center of it all are the dairy farm families who are pioneering lasting changes through planet-friendly farming practices. Supporting their efforts is Dairy Cares, a statewide coalition that ensures the long-term sustainability of California’s farming families through environmental stewardship, responsible animal care and adherence to the core values of honesty, ethics, diligence and community.

“Our family farms continue to do more with less, producing more nutritious dairy foods while reducing their environmental footprint,” said Michael Boccadoro, executive director of Dairy Cares, during the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience.

So, how exactly are they doing it?

Leading the way in dairy methane reduction

First, they’ve made methane reduction a top priority. As one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, methane is roughly 25 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The bright side? Methane is a relatively short-lived pollutant in the atmosphere, which means reducing the amount of it can pack a powerful punch in mitigating climate change.

That’s just one reason California’s dairy farm families are working closely with state regulators to achieve the desired methane reduction of 40% by 2030 — and the livestock industry is taking note.

Collaborating for the future

Consistent with Senate Bill 1383, the industry is working to aggressively reduce dairy methane emissions through improved manure management practices, financial incentives and other agricultural research.

According to Boccadoro, the strategy is straightforward and comprises three main parts. Here’s a quick look at how to reduce methane emissions from cattle:

  1. Utilize climate-smart dairy methane digesters. By breaking down solid waste in the absence of oxygen and turning it into natural gas, dairy digesters are providing the largest greenhouse gas reduction of all investments in California’s climate action portfolio.​ Using digesters has allowed California to not only shrink dairy’s carbon footprint, but to help the state transition to clean energy. Through the development of these methane digesters alone, California dairy farms will soon be reducing a total of 1.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (CO2e) per year.
  2. Explore alternative manure management solutions. The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) provides financial assistance for California dairy farm families aiming to prevent the production of methane through drier handling and storage of manure nutrients. Dairy Cares notes that the AMMP is one of the most cost-effective programs, providing 1 ton of GHG reduction (CO2e) for every $43 invested by the state.
  3. Conduct ongoing research. Cutting-edge research is also underway to benchmark and understand how California can continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, measure reductions in dairy methane emissions, and identify the most effective technologies and strategies. This research is a vital component of California’s efforts, allowing farmers to better understand the relationship between weather, climate and dairy methane emissions.

The proof is in the progress

Through the state’s tremendous investment in methane reduction projects and the voluntary efforts of dairy farm families, great progress is being made.

“None of what we are achieving is happening by accident. The state has stepped up and provided over $500 million to date in grant funding alone,” said Boccadoro. “That is being matched by an equal amount of equity funding by many of our dairy families, along with substantial outside private financing.”

The methane reduction benefits of these projects made possible by funding are very real. For example:

  • A 50% reduction in greenhouse gases per liter of milk produced.
  • Projects resulting in some 22 million metric tons of reduction in the first 10 years alone.
  • Significant reductions in nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, as well efforts to protect water and air quality.
  • The CDFA expects that when all of the currently funded projects are operational —sometime around 2024 — manure methane emissions will have been reduced by 25%, achieving roughly 60% of the state’s goal of 40% by 2030.

Methane reduction is only the beginning

California’s commitment to reduce methane production is only one part of the bigger sustainability picture. Together, dairy farm families are also using less energy through energy efficiency upgrades, producing solar renewable energy for use on their farms, recycling and reusing water, and exploring conservation tillage practices like cover crops to improve soil health and carbon sequestration.

As California’s farm families look to the future of sustainable dairy farming solutions, they’re continuing to find new ways to preserve their land, care for their dairy cows and protect their legacy for generations to come. Not just because it’s their pride and their heritage, but because they know the critical role they play in addressing sustainable nutrition, food security and providing dairy foods that are responsibly made.

This progress is only possible through collaboration and a shared commitment to driving lasting change throughout California’s vibrant agricultural communities. With ongoing support from the industry, regulatory agencies, researchers and community stakeholders, California’s family dairy farms will continue to set a new standard in environmentally friendly food production. But it can’t stop in California. As we all work together for a Planet of Plenty, we must make protecting our environment a top priority at all levels, from industrial agriculture to local family farms.

Solving hunger and climate change through agriculture

Solving hunger and climate change through agriculture

What if we could solve world hunger while also stopping climate change?

With nearly one-quarter of the total greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change coming from food, agriculture and land use, it’s clear that we must make drastic changes to reduce our impact. From deforestation to methane emissions from livestock, a growing list of causes have the potential to either protect or pummel our planet.

But what if these concerns could actually become part of the solution? With the right strategies, the right management and the right mindset, they can.

“Most of the time, whenever we are having a discussion about what we can do to address climate change, the answer is directed toward energy and renewables,” said Dr. Mamta Mehra, senior fellow with Project Drawdown. “And that is true. We need those solutions. But nature-based solutions also have an impact.”

Project Drawdown is a California-based think tank for climate solutions, and one of their most impactful strategies for solving global climate change comes from the food, land and agriculture sectors. By changing how we approach food production and land management on a global scale, we can not only make a major impact on agriculture greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of global warming — we can also help reduce food waste and hunger across the globe.

“We believe at Project Drawdown that for every problem, there is a solution,” said Dr. Mehra at the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience 2020. “For every fear, there is a possibility. And every conflict can be resolved by collaborations.”

What is drawdown?

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the air continues to increase, magnifying and accelerating global climate change. Drawdown refers to the point at which those levels of greenhouse gas emissions begin to decline — in other words, the point at which we begin to reverse global warming.

Project Drawdown is dedicated to finding ways to achieve that goal by 2050 by looking at climate solutions across all industries and sectors. Of their 20 most impactful climate solutions, ten are related to land, food and agriculture, making those sectors some of our most powerful weapons in the fight against global climate change.

Project Drawdown’s top 10 food, agriculture and land-use strategies

  1. Reduced food waste
  2. Plant-rich diets
  3. Tropical forest restoration
  4. Silvopasture
  5. Peatland protection and rewetting
  6. Tree plantations on degraded land
  7. Temperate forest restoration
  8. Managed grazing
  9. Perennial staple crops
  10. Tree intercropping

Transforming threat into opportunity

So how can we turn land use and agriculture from a cause of climate change into a solution? As with any topic this diverse, the answer lies in making multiple smaller changes instead of attempting to make one big change. Project Drawdown’s climate solutions fall into three main categories:

  1. Protect intact ecosystems: Earth is rapidly running out of intact ecosystems, as 77% of the land on the planet has been modified by human activities — and that’s excluding Antarctica. The remaining intact forests, wetlands and grasslands are vital to fighting the effects of global warming and must be protected from further encroachment and destruction.
  2. Restore degraded land: This could mean restoring wetlands to their original, intact state. It could also mean turning degraded forests and grasslands into usable space for growing crops like corn or bamboo. Both strategies turn degraded land from wasted space into productive acreage, helping reverse the effects of global warming while also protecting intact ecosystems from future use by reducing the need for new land to exploit.
  3. Shift agriculture practices: Shifting existing agricultural practices to more sustainable methods can have a major impact on climate change. Many of these practices — like silvopasture, the integration of trees and pasture for grazing livestock, or planting perennial staples like bananas, avocado and coconut instead of annual crops — have been practiced for thousands of years but aren’t used as widely as they could be.

All of these climate solutions fight the effects of global warming in two ways: they reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere and they sequester carbon dioxide into the soil, as well as into the biomass of the plants themselves.

Answering global hunger

Where exactly does world hunger come into play in this discussion?

For Project Drawdown, changing the way the world eats is key to solving global warming. Their number-one most impactful solution is reducing food waste, which accounts for a staggering percentage of total global food production.

“Reducing food waste is about reducing food losses and wastage across all stages of production, distribution, retail and consumption,” said Dr. Mehra. “Thirty to forty percent of food gets wasted, and we still have issues of poverty and hunger. And because we are having these losses, the resources — seeds, water, nutrients and financial capital for the production of these wasted foods — also get wasted.”

According to the World Food Program USA and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), reversing food waste “would preserve enough food to feed 2 billion people . That’s more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe.”

In addition to reversing waste, Project Drawdown also highlights the positive impact of shifting to a plant-rich diet. With 77% of all agricultural land currently in use for livestock, reducing the demand for meat and dairy would reduce both the need for this land and the methane gas emissions from cattle — a major source of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since plant crops use less land and fewer resources than livestock, shifting to a plant-rich diet would allow us to grow more food — and feed more people — on existing grazing lands across the globe.

“Together, as a system addressing the supply side and demand side, our analyses have shown that we are in a position to produce a sustainable amount of food and biomass for our current population as well as a growing population, besides having additional impact on the climate,” said Dr. Mehra. “This is a win-win situation. You have a positive climate impact. You have a positive impact on society, and you also have a positive impact on the livelihood of the people who are dependent on these resources.”

The takeaway: “Drawdown is very much possible,” according to Dr. Mehra. “What we need is a political will and collaboration at all stages with global, national, regional and local groups to achieve it.”

Tanzania’s seaweed economy: Listen to women, save the world

Tanzania’s seaweed economy: Listen to women, save the world

On the Tanzanian coast, in the warm waters of the Indian ocean, you’ll see a sight with the potential to save the world. Rows of sticks, embedded in the sand, rise above the shallow coastal waters. Fuzzy green lines are visible under the clear water between the sticks. Welcome to Tanzania’s seaweed farms: an international and sustainable economic force, a valuable food source, and a potential weapon against climate change, all powered by local Tanzanian women farmers.

This blue seaweed economy is a rare triple-threat: a win for women, a win for the planet, and a win for sustainable economic development. And it could all be brought down by climate change if those in power don’t take the lead of the women who know this delicate industry best.

Seaweed: Endlessly useful, seriously sustainable

Seaweed is a new superfood—and demand is rising. In addition to being used as an ingredient, it can be processed for use in countless food additives, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetic products.

“You might not know you’re consuming seaweed, but you are,” said Dr. Betsy Beymer-Farris, Director of the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program at the University of Kentucky. “Check your chocolate milk and you’ll see something called carrageenan in it. It comes from seaweed that is farmed along the coast of Tanzania by women.”

Other uses for seaweed:

  • Fertilizer
  • Animal feed
  • Pharmaceutical ingredient
  • Wastewater treatment tool
  • Food emulsifier
  • Cosmetic component
  • Nutrient-rich food source

Seaweed uses go far beyond chocolate milk. The first new Alzheimer’s drug in 17 years, recently approved for use in China, is seaweed-based. And it has the potential to sequester carbon—meaning it can be a weapon in our global fight against climate change.

Seaweed can absorb and store carbon that would otherwise be absorbed by the ocean, which has led to increased ocean acidification and subsequent disastrous effects on coral reefs. When that carbon is absorbed by growing seaweed, however, it can be safely stored as the plant rapidly grows—and the potential is limitless.

“If we decide to farm 10% of the ocean in seaweed, we can safely store up to 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year,” said Dr. Beymer-Farris at the 2020 Alltech ONE Conference. “That’s the equivalent of what the entire world emits on a yearly basis.”

As seaweed grows, it provides an important habitat for fish and other aquatic species. And the climate-friendly effects don’t stop after it’s harvested: cows fed a seaweed additive belched 58% less methane—a greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

With so many uses and benefits, it’s no wonder that seaweed farming is a rapidly-growing $6 billion business, projected to top $9 billion by 2024. And in Tanzania, the main drivers of that business are the female farmers who know seaweed, and the conditions it thrives in, better than anyone.

The women’s work of farming seaweed

Some 70% of Tanzanian seaweed farmers are women, and they’ve been farming seaweed off the Tanzanian coast for decades. The area is one the top seaweed producers in the world, making the crop a powerful source of financial stability for women farmers and their families. While Tanzanian men head out to deeper waters to fish, Tanzanian women are expected to stay closer to home—making the intertidal zones of the seaweed farms their domain.

That’s how Tanzania’s women seaweed farmers started noticing that the sea level in their shallow-water seaweed farms was dropping, even as global sea levels were rising. The initial reaction of scientists was disbelief and shock.

“When I was doing research with these women in coastal Tanzania, they kept telling me the sea level was falling,” said Dr. Beymer-Farris. “And I responded by saying, ‘That’s impossible. There’s sea level rise happening as a result of climate change.’ So we took women’s ecological knowledge and we compared it to the academic literature by geomorphologists and geologists, looking at sea level rise. And what we found is that along the coast of Tanzania, the sea level actually is falling because of plate tectonic activity on the East African Rift Valley. There’s continental uplift happening, causing the sea level to fall.”

Those falling sea levels and subsequent rising temperatures mean that the farmers are no longer able to grow a specific species of seaweed, Kappaphycus alvarezii, more commonly commercially known as cottonii. Lacking access to boats to farm the species in deeper, cooler waters, Tanzania’s women farmers are missing out on a major income source, as cottonii is more valuable on the world market. Its loss is a major blow for these farmers. And to make it worse, since women lack representation in local village governments, no one is listening to them about it.

“Women’s traditional ecological knowledge matters,” said Dr. Beymer-Farris. “When we’re looking at global climate change policies, without women’s knowledge telling us that sea level is falling, there are some ramifications to ill-conceived global climate change policies that are introduced in the country.”

Those ill-conceived policies have included $8 million spent on seawalls to protect wealthy cities like Dar es Salaam from rising sea levels. Without women’s representation in local village governments, the knowledge that sea levels are, in fact, falling on Tanzania’s coast was not communicated. The result: Tanzania spent millions on a solution that fit the global narrative about climate change, but missed the situation on their own coast.

Listening to women, saving the world

Could the voices of these women farmers unlock the potential for a Planet of Plenty? Could we fight climate change through the seaweed economy in Tanzania?

In short: we could make a start. If we helped empower female representation in all levels of Tanzanian government and listened closely to the women farmers witnessing falling sea levels, economic investments could be made in ways that make sense for the local climate and local economy. We could provide women farmers with boats and swim training to help expand their seaweed farming to deeper waters. That access would allow them to carry on an ecologically sustainable industry and a lucrative source of economic growth that could benefit them, their families and their community.

With additional resources, these farmers could expand their operations even further into the ocean, creating a massive, sustainable carbon sequestration operation that also provides a multitude of other benefits: valuable habitats for ocean wildlife, a valuable food source, and a valuable commodity on the world market. Together, we have the power to help provide that win-win-win: for women, for the planet, and for sustainable economic development—all through Tanzanian seaweed, and the Tanzanian women who know it best.

3 myths debunked: Animal agriculture’s real impact on the environment

3 myths debunked: Animal agriculture’s real impact on the environment

The way the public and the media perceive animal agriculture’s environmental impact can, and should, change. New research from Oxford University and the University of California, Davis have recently debunked some of the most critical and long-standing myths surrounding animal agriculture. But can this breakthrough overcome animal agriculture’s bad reputation?

The current narrative about animal agriculture says that ruminant livestock animals (e.g., beef cattle, dairy cattle, etc.) produce methane. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Thus, animal agriculture is bad for the environment.

During a keynote presentation for the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience, Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor at the University of California, Davis and air quality specialist, boldly proclaimed a path for animal agriculture to become climate-neutral.

Yes, “you heard me right — climate-neutral,” said Dr. Mitloehner. He said he would like to, “get us to a place where we have the impacts of animal agriculture that are not detrimental to our climate.”

Important Greenhouse Gases to Know

Table of important greenhouse gases

3 myths about animal agriculture’s environmental impact debunked

Myth #1: Methane (the most common greenhouse gas, or GHG, in animal agriculture) acts just like other GHGs in the environment.

Fact: The three main greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, all impact the environment in critically different ways, especially as it relates to their source, life span in the atmosphere and global warming potential.

Carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are known as “stock gases.”  Stock gases are long-lived gases and once emitted will continue to build up in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, for example, has an estimated lifespan in the atmosphere of 1,000 years, meaning carbon dioxide emitted from the year 1020 may still be in the atmosphere today. Methane, on the other hand, is a “flow gas.” Flow gases are short-lived gases and are removed from the atmosphere at a more rapid pace. Methane’s lifespan in the atmosphere is approximately 10 years. This means a flow gas like methane would impact the environment for a duration that is nearly 100 times shorter than the stock gas carbon dioxide.

What causes these gases in the first place? Carbon dioxide is created by the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are used as the energy source to power most homes, vehicles and industry globally. As the graph below depicts, Dr. Mitloehner refers to stock gases like carbon dioxide as a “one-way street” because they only accumulate in the environment over time due to their long lifespan.

Stock Gas vs. Flow Gas chart

Methane can be produced in a variety of methods, but most commonly, it’s produced through the rumination process in beef and dairy livestock (i.e., belching). As a short-lived flow gas, “The only time that you really add new additional methane to the atmosphere with the livestock herd is throughout the first 10 years of its existence or if you increase your herd sizes,” explained Dr. Mitloehner. Methane levels do not increase if herd sizes remain constant because methane is being broken down at the same rate it is being produced.

“What I’m saying here by no means (is) that methane doesn’t matter,” he continued. “While that methane is in the atmosphere, it is heat-trapping, it is a potent greenhouse gas. But the question really is, do our livestock herds add to additional methane, meaning additional carbon in the atmosphere, leading to additional warming? And the answer to that question is no. As long as we have constant herds or even decreasing herds, we are not adding additional methane, and hence not additional warming. And what I just said to you is a total change in the narrative around livestock.”

Alternatively, carbon dioxide is created from extracting fossil fuels that are millions of years old and are trapped under the Earth’s surface.

“These long-lived climate pollutants are only emitted,” said Dr. Mitloehner. “They are put into the atmosphere, but there’s no real sink for it in a major way.”

Fossil fuels example diagram

This demonstrates that carbon dioxide and methane are very different types of gases (stock versus flow) and have very different lifespans in the environment (1,000 years versus 10 years), but what about their global warming potential?

 

Myth #2: The current method for assessing the global warming potential (GWP100) of greenhouse gases properly accounts for all important variables.

Fact: The initial method for calculating GWP100 misrepresents the impact of short-lived flow gases, like methane, on future warming. The new “GWP*” is an improved and more representative measurement.

The initial GWP100 measures produced by the Kyoto Protocol nearly 30 years ago marked a very positive step for assessing global warming. The initial documents included many footnotes and caveats to account for variability and unknown values. “But the footnotes were cut off, and people ran with (it),” said Dr. Mitloehner. “And in my opinion, that was a very dangerous situation that has really gotten animal agriculture into a lot of trouble, actually, quite frankly.”

The current GWP100 measurement generates an over-assessment of methane’s contributions to global warming. Currently, in short, GWP100 measurements are all standardized to a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. So, all non-carbon dioxide emissions are converted by multiplying the amount of the emissions of each gas by its global warming potential over 100 years value. Methane has a GWP100 value of 28, meaning it is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, this type of calculation completely omits the fact that flow gases, like methane, are destroyed after approximately 10 years and would not continue for the entire 100-year duration as described in the GWP100 formula. Additionally, it underestimates the impact that stock gases, like carbon dioxide, would have that persist in the environment for 1,000 years.

Dr. Mitloehner cited Dr. Myles Allen from Oxford University as the pioneer of a new calculation called “GWP*.” The new GWP* calculation better accounts for both gas intensity and gas lifespan in the atmosphere in its measurements of global warming. This is a new narrative to explain global warming emissions and, Dr. Mitloehner said, “you will see it will gain momentum, and it will become the new reality” soon.

 

Myth #3: To keep up with increasing demand and global population growth, the United States has continued to increase its numbers of beef and dairy cattle, thus increase methane emissions.

Fact: The United States reached peak beef and dairy cattle numbers in the 1970s and has reduced its number of animals every decade since, resulting in 50 million fewer cattle in total.

Over the last half-century, the United States has made tremendous progress to improve efficiency and increase productivity while also reducing total beef and dairy cattle numbers. For example, in 1950, the U.S. dairy cow herd peaked at 25 million cattle. Today, the dairy herd is approximately 9 million cows, yet it is producing 60% more milk — that’s significantly more milk with 14 million fewer cows!

Though cattle numbers have continued to increase in countries such as India and China, this means the United States has not increased methane output — thus not increasing GHG contributions from livestock — over the last five decades.

 

So, what does all this mean?

Animal agriculture, unlike any other sector, can not only reduce its GHG output, but can also create a net cooling effect on the atmosphere (i.e., actively reduce global warming).

The three scenarios shown below demonstrate the important differences between carbon dioxide and methane, and their ability to generate global cooling. With rising emissions, warming carbon dioxide increases at a growing rate, while methane also increases. With constant emissions, warming from carbon dioxide continues to increase while methane no longer contributes to additional warming.

“But now, the thing that really excites me, and that’s the third scenario,” said Dr. Mitloehner. “So, imagine this scenario here, where we decrease methane by 35%. If we do so, then we actively take carbon out of the atmosphere. And that has a net cooling effect. If we find ways to reduce methane, then we counteract other sectors of societies that do contribute ― and significantly so ― to global warming, such as flying, driving, running air conditioners and so on.”

Rising vs. Constant vs. Falling emissions chart

Examples of Dr. Mitloehner’s 35% reduction scenario have proven to be possible. Over the last five years alone, California has reduced methane emissions by 25% via a combination of improved efficiency and incentives for anaerobic digesters, alternative manure management practices and other technologies.

Though the narrative on animal agriculture has been negative on climate change, there is now increasing hope and new data to debunk even the most long-standing criticisms.

Dr. Mitloehner concluded, “because I know if we can do it here (in California), it can be done in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world. If we indeed achieve such reductions of greenhouse gas, particularly of short-lived greenhouse gases such as methane, then that means that our livestock sector will be on a path for climate neutrality.”


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Dr. Mark Lyons & Dr. Frank Mitloehner photo