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How Livestock Exacerbate the Drought

With severe drought gripping much of the Mid-West and West, the federal government is promising relief from this “natural disaster” for agricultural producers.  Soon federal funds will be flowing for “disaster relief” in the farm belt.  Already farmers are permitted to graze and hay Conservation Reserve Program lands which are supposed to be, among other things, left un-grazed to provide wildlife [forage and] cover. But in a drought, the government typically relaxes that restriction—at a time when wildlife most needs the grass to remain un-grazed for both food and cover to hide from predators.

However, there is good evidence to suggest that the drought conditions in the Mid-West and West are not “natural disasters”.  This so-called natural disaster due to climate change is largely precipitated by human activities.

The irony of all these efforts to financially assist farmers and ranchers is that they are among the main culprits responsible for the climate-induced drought conditions now affecting their bottom line.

According to the UN FAO report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” 18% of the world’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions in CO2 equivalent is from livestock production—more than all global transportation combined. Yes, that is right. More than all the cars, trains, trucks, airplanes, and boats combined.  Part of the reason for this astounding figure is that livestock, cattle in particular, release tremendous amounts of methane. Methane is many times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

A World Watch paper puts the contribution of livestock even higher—at more than 50% of all GHG emissions in CO2 equivalent arguing that livestock respiration should be included in any calculation of GHG emissions.

In either case, the point is that livestock production is a major contributor to GHG emissions and one of the easiest to eliminate since there is no physical or biological necessity for humans to consume meat or milk products.

Providing assistance to Mid-Western farmers makes matters worse because a good portion of the grain grown in the “farm belt” is used to feed livestock. Very little of our rich agricultural lands actually grows food for direct human consumption; rather a large proportion is fed to cattle.

So a positive feedback mechanism is in place. The more meat and milk products we consume, the more corn and soybeans that are grown to feed livestock. The more livestock we sustain, the more greenhouse gases [are] released into the atmosphere, contributing to even more climate change and warming.

I don’t expect any politician, especially in an election year, to say to America’s farm belt that they are culpable for the weather/climate changes that threaten their own livelihood.  But the threat goes far beyond the loss of feeder corn and potentially higher beef prices. Climate change could affect agricultural production everywhere, including the food that everyone depends upon—whether they eat meat or consume milk products.

Perhaps one of the best ways to both sustain the financial viability of the Ag sector as well as reduce global greenhouse gas emissions would be to buy out farm[s] and ranches rather than maintain Ag production.  For the same amount of money (billions of dollars) we are spending annually on price supports, Ag disaster relief, Conservation Reserve Program, and numerous  other agricultural support programs, we could buy up millions of acres of Ag land and permanently retire them from production.

These lands could be restored and dedicated to other public benefits like protection of watersheds, wildlife habitat, and public recreation. We have done this in the past. During the 1930s Dust Bowl days, the US government purchased millions of acres from willing sellers throughout the Great Plains. These lands are now part of our national grasslands administered by the Forest Service, as well as national wildlife refuges overseen by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management holdings.

At the same time as we would reduce environmental degradation resulting from Ag production, a retirement of Ag land would increase the financial security of the remaining farmers and ranchers since over production in many years results in low product prices.

Finally, to the degree that this Ag land retirement results in less cattle and other livestock production, we may see some reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions.

George Wuerthner is the Ecological Projects Director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology and has published 35 books, including soon to be released Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth. 

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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