Farmers: Tell Your Story!

By David Schmidt

Reprinted from: Animal Ag

Man kneeling feeding cows

The party is over. Sometime in the last 50 or so years the production of food has become a mystery to consumers and farming has become a dirty word – linked to polluting of the environment and mistreatment of animals rather than a noble profession of growing food to meet the dietary needs of an ever expanding population.

What are we doing about it?

I just spent two days at a conference at Cornell (Dairy Environmental Systems and Climate Adaptation) listening to 150 or more scientist, industry representatives, and farmers discuss a variety of topics related to dairy farming and climate change. My take home message was that agriculture needs to step up to the plate – big and bold – and tell the story of food production. Let me summarize the story as it was told at the meeting.

Know and Report the Facts:

  • Animal agriculture emissions are about 14.5% on a global basis (FAO) (not the commonly reported 18%) and it makes no sense to calculate these emissions on a global basis. The important number is emissions per unit of production.
  • Agriculture in the United States is responsible for about 8.8% of US GHG emissions and animal agriculture is responsible for 3-4% of the US GHG Emissions (EPA GHG Inventory, 2014).
  • Farmers in the United States are producing more food with less inputs. Per the dairy industry: it takes 5 cows in Mexico and 20 cows in India to produce the same amount of milk as a cow in the United States.
  • The primary GHG gasses from agriculture are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. We cannot deny this or argue that because it is only a small % we don’t need to worry about it. We need to take responsibility for our share of these emissions.
  • The LCA from the dairy industry suggests about 70% of the GHG emissions is from the farm – about 30% from each of enteric fermentation, crop production, and manure management and the remaining 10% from other farm energy use. We are doing good but we can do better.
  • In 50 years there will be another 2.5 billion people in the world to feed and we don’t really know where that food will come from. We need global agriculture to become more efficient at production. We can lead the way.

Talk to Consumers

Consumers are asking how their food was produced, the environmental impact of that production, and how the animals are treated. If farmers don’t talk to them about these topics someone else will.

Tell the story. Talk about how farmers care about the environment, farmers care about their animals, and farmers care about feeding the world.

Talk about practices and policies in place to protect animals from abuse or the investments made to reduce heat stress on animals. Talk about proper manure application to avoid pollution and reduce inorganic fertilizer inputs. Talk about conservation tillage and about the progress made in the sustainable intensification of agriculture – producing more with less.

Certainly mistakes are sometimes made and there are bad actors in the industry. Unfortunately, that kind of news is what makes the headlines. There is also much room for improvement in practices. Don’t defend bad actors or bad practices. We have come along way but need to do better. We need to talk about this too!

Tell the story of agriculture. It is important!

Always Considering Climate — David

David Schmidt MS. PE is a researcher and educator in the Department of Bioproducts and Bioysystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota and regional project coordinator for the project Animal Agriculture in a Changing Climate, a national project of the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center and funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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