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    Could Raising Cows Differently Save the Planet?

    By By Coleen Jose, E&E reporter
    July 26, 2013, 5:10:38 AM EDT

    It is not about whether you should eat meat, but about the type of meat you eat. A panel discussion hosted yesterday by the New America Foundation, which examined ways to transform agricultural practices to fight climate change, hark back to the food movement and the benefits of purchasing grass-fed beef.

    According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, agriculture worldwide accounts for at least 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Most of the emissions stem from livestock, animal waste and rice cultivation.

    "We need a paradigm shift," said Mark Hertsgaard, a journalist and the author of "HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth." "Most news coverage is focused on energy and all of these are vitally important, but we need to make agriculture central to that discussion."


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    The panel was moderated by Mother Jones reporter Kate Sheppard and also included Peter Byck, filmmaker and director of "Carbon Nation," and Judith Schwartz, author of "Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth."

    The potential to mitigate carbon emissions through improved agricultural practices over the next three decades appears to be substantial. A study published by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions estimates that reductions from a combination of carbon sequestration, nitrous oxide and methane reductions would have a major effect.

    Byck pointed to an emerging case study in New Mexico where farmers are getting higher yields without using chemicals. Carbon makes up 17 percent of their soil, compared with the average estimate of 1.2 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An ancient practice for modern food security

    Scaling up mitigation efforts in the next few decades may be crucial to reducing the 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. How improvements translate into quantifiable reductions may require incentives that cut costs or reward practices like carbon sequestration.

    Hertsgaard asked the members of the audience, comprising representatives of institutions, federal and nonprofit sectors, to raise their hands if they had heard of biochar. A few hands went up.

    Hertsgaard called for the continuous study and use of the 2,000-year-old practice that converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, increase yields and lessen the need for tree cutting.

    Related:
    Dairy Costs Could Spike From High Summer Heat

    "The biochar still has to be vetted and proven," Hertsgaard said. "We have to see if it will work in modern conditions, can it be scaled to make a dent in that 400 ppm and what are the social consequences."

    Indigenous populations in Brazil's Amazon were the first to use the dark, charcoal-like material that results from vegetation fires. The carbon content in biochar can retain carbon for long periods of time, possibly hundreds of years, and is produced through gasification.

    In terms of worldwide scalability, the panel was hopeful that policy is moving toward management and reduction in fossil fuel use. Although the Republican-dominated U.S. House has cut funding for some programs to fight climate change, some members of the panel felt there were other approaches that should be tried.

    "If we were to do a correspondingly big shift in our agriculture policy overseas, to encourage not just biochar but general ecological approaches to agriculture, that frankly a lot of those farmers already know about and are inclined to do," Hertsgaard said, "that is potentially a huge breakthrough."

    Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

    E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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