Reducing the environmental impact of farming

posted in: Science | 5

Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses are rising, but reducing them isn’t as simple as taking cars off the road. A significant part of the problem rests is agriculture. What is it about agriculture that is such a problem and how can we develop changes that will have the most benefit?

Agricultural Life Cycle Analysis is a useful tool in collecting information and making decisions. LCAs take every input and every output into consideration including difficult to consider ouputs like greenhouse gas emissions.

Nathan Pelletier from Dalhouse Uni in Nova Scotia presented his work on ag LCAs at Iowa State recently. He explains that actually conducting LCAs can be difficult. First, we need to define the scope of the analysis. For example, if we consider milk production, we should likely include the cow herself, food, water, and waste. We probably should include all of the inputs and outputs associated with feed production and transportation. We might include the inputs and outputs of pasteurizing and transporting the milk. Also difficult is actually quantifying all of the inputs and outputs to air, soil, and water. Finally, it is difficult to complete a meaningful impact assessment including the identification of “hotspots” or most negative impacts. Despite the difficulties, LCAs are worth the effort. Nathan reminds us that agriculture produces 1/3 of global warming emissions. The demand for food will will double by 2050, so we need to half the impact to continue a constant level of damage.
Nathan used LCAs to evaluate different cropping systems. He found that fuel and field emissions for a variety of crops was similar for organic and conventional (although he did not account for the vast variability in each category). It’s surprising that the field emissions were not different, but we have to consider that many conventional farms are no-till, instead treating for weeds with pesticides like Roundup. I imagine that the overall number of times a farmer drives over his field is similar, accounting for the similar fuel costs, even though the reasons might differ.

Even though overall farming methods don’t make that large of a difference with regard to greenhouse gasses and other negative outputs, nitrogen fertilizer source has a huge effect. Synthetic N, commonly used in conventional farming, is produced with natural gas, and CO2 is a coproduct of the process. Additionally, because of the type of N that is applied, not all of the applied N is taken up by plants, leaving the rest to evaporate as greenhouse gases or to be washed off the land into streams, rivers, and oceans.

The issue of replacing synthetic fertilizer is very complex, though, because we need to consider so many factors. For one, transporting and spreading organic N sources like manure is costly because a lot of weight is needed to provide enough N to see yield increases. Transporting and spreading all of this weight has its own greenhouse gas issues. If we use manure, the animals need food, water, and land, but some of this is offset because the animals themselves are a valuable output. Crop rotation is another option, but depending on the plants used, more land will be needed to produce the same amount of food. Nathan’s models considered out of season cover crops as non-synthetic N sources, but this method might not produce all of the N that is needed for various crop types and soil types.

It is possible that the complications of alternatives make synthetic nitrogen seem more attractive. However, a lot of these drawbacks might become non-issues when fuel costs cause synthetic N, P, and K prices to skyrocket. As you can see, deciding how to best fertilize your crops is far from easy.

One way to at least decrease the N problem is with genetic engineering. Newly developed “nitrogen use efficient” or NUE crops are able to take up more of the nitrogen that is applied, leaving less to run off. This, in combination with optomized nitrogen application techniques, could significantly decrease the amount of N needed. I asked Nathan what he thought about NUE but he said he didn’t know much about it. I hope he looks into it, because NUE crops would be useful no matter what type of fertilizer is used.

Nathan’s work with LCAs included an analysis of various types of animal agriculture, which I’ll save for another post.

Follow Anastasia Bodnar:

Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Mention of a company or product does not indicate endorsement.

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  • Anastasia,

    Those conducting research in the field of agricultural biotechnology constantly confront the possibility–actually, the likelihood–that their work will be condemned.

    At the same time, these researchers need funds to support their research.

    The ideal solution *appears* to be to make an appeal to global warming. US$billions are spent annually on global warming research, and anything that claims to ‘combat global warming’ is an appeal for the Green stamp of approval.

    This presents us with a real problem.

    Claims regarding global warming and CO2 are increasingly revealed as fraudulent. Agricultural scientists who rest the value of their work on fraudulent claims regarding the “greenhouse effect” put the value of their discoveries at risk.

    Genetic engineers are not climatologists, and should not pander to those with a dangerous, and faltering, creed.

    They do so at their peril.

  • Andrew, I think you should take a trip to http://www.realclimate.org and tell the climate scientists over there that global warming claims are “increasingly revealed as fraudulent.” Science hits very hard upon fraud, Stem Cells and Cold Fusion are good examples of that. There is, however, a very concerted effort to undermine the acceptance of climate science.

  • I’d rather not have a climate change debate on this blog, but I will say that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are rising at the same pace at which we are emitting it. Whether or not CO2 causes temperature changes, I think we should all be very concerned about how increasing CO2 levels will affect both crop and weed growth. Research has shown that increased CO2 levels make for weeds that can outcompete our crops, so if CO2 levels keep rising, we’re in trouble! Thus, I think reducing CO2 emissions is a worthy goal.

    LCAs are one way to help quantify environmental impact of agriculture per unit of food produced, including CO2 emissions as well as things like nitrogen runoff, effects on local biodiversity, etc.

    I also think that LCAs could be a valuable tool in proving the worth of certain biotech crops, particularly ones like NUE and WUE. So, if we want biotech to become more accepted, we may want to encourage use of LCAs, which I do here.

    I am not pandering to anyone, and I’m pretty sure that Nathan Pelletier isn’t either.

  • James

    Hi, I found your blog on this new directory of WordPress Blogs at blackhatbootcamp.com/listofwordpressblogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, i duno. Anyways, I just clicked it and here I am. Your blog looks good. Have a nice day. James.

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