Dan, a Wisconsin Dairy farmer with 600 milking cows, wants to convert his 1200-acre farm into a hazelnut orchard. We determined that this transition would be like taking at least 1,310 and as many as 4,631 cars off the road in terms of global warming impact.
We explained this wide-ranging impact of dairy in Part I of this series called ‘What if a Dairy Farm Became a Hazelnut Orchard?‘ (the variation arises from various CH4 to CO2 conversion factors you could choose ).
The world needs to transition to farming plants for human consumption. That’s why AFA is lobbying for the ‘AT-RISK FARMER & RANCHER DIVERSIFICATION & TRANSITIONING ACT‘ which would help farmers like Dan switch to sustainable and non-exploitative farming businesses. These are just the types of transitions that Dr. Sailesh Rao calls for in Climate Healers’ Animal Agriculture white paper. Read this white paper if you haven’t already.
Extrapolating to the World
According to the Global Carbon Project, all terrestrial sources emit about 558 megatons (mt) of methane per year as of 2012, as cited in the graphic below. The International Energy Agency estimates 2019 emissions at 570 million tonnes (Mt).
The earth ‘sinks’ about 548 megatons of methane per year. At least that was the estimate for 2012. It’s probably less now as deforestation has continued. That means that every year, the difference of a least 22 megatons is added to the total concentration in the atmosphere.
570 - 548 mt = 22 mt CH4 added to the atmosphere each year
We are (were?) SOOOOOOOOOOO close to methane balance!
Methane emissions need to be cut dramatically. If we could reduce emissions by at least 22 megatons or 22,000,000,000 kg per year, we would be in balance. But given that the present-day methane concentration (1870 ppm in 2020) is 2.6 times the pre-industrial concentration of 700 ppm, we need to reduce emissions by many times that annual value in order to reduce total atmospheric methane concentrations.
Could we reduce methane emissions to a meaningful degree by not breeding new cows into existence? And if so, how many farms like Dan’s would need to transition from animal farming to growing crops for human consumption?
According to the FAO, nearly 1.5 billion head of cattle live on planet Earth.
The average methane emissions per animal are about 120 kg per year. (The impact of dairy cows are higher, beef cows lower, calves from each breed even lower).
1,500,000,000 cows x 120 kg/cow = 180,000,000,000 kg
In other words, the Earth’s cattle emit 180 megatons of CH4 every year. That’s more than eight times the amount we’d need to reduce to get into methane balance.
If every country in the world cut cattle herd sizes by just 12% we could be in methane balance.
What an amazing opportunity! We could easily reduce methane concentrations in the atmosphere if we stopped artificially inseminating cattle.
|These cows ..||CH4 emissions / yr||multiplication factor or |
fraction of 22 megatons
(amt for ‘CH4 balance’)
|all dairy cows in the US||3.1 Megatons/yr||1/6|
|all beef cows in the US||5.2 Megatons/yr||1/4|
|all 211,764,292* cows |
|21 Megatons / yr||1x|
|all 189,000,000 head |
of cattle in India
|all 113,500,000 cows|
|Ethiopia: 54,000,000 cows||5.4 Megatons/yr||1/4|
|Argentina: 51,000,000 cows||5.1 Megatons/yr||1/4|
|TOTAL:||70 Megatons / yr||3x|
Looking at that table, it’s clear that if the six top cattle countries reduced cattle populations by 30%, the world could be in methane balance.
This one simple trick will reduce atmospheric CH4 immediately – Act Now!
Why on earth don’t we stop artificially inseminating new cattle and allow the herd count to drop? How about we eat lentils rather than cow-meat burgers, and oat milk rather than cow’s milk?
Answer (in the US and most western countries): Government subsidies and bailouts keep cattle ranchers and dairy farmers hanging on. As a result, for example, the total US dairy herd size stays steady at around 9 million.
Agriculture Fairness Alliance lobbies to end subsidies to animal agriculture. Our first legislative effort is to enact the At-Risk Farmer pilot program legislation to give animal farmers a path out. The next step is ending subsidies. In the Climate Healers white paper, Dr. Sailesh Rao writes,
“We show that the annual methane emissions from Animal Agriculture alone causes more incremental global warming than the annual CO2 emissions from all fossil fuel sources combined. We further show that the transition to a global plant-based economy has the potential to sequester over 2000 Giga tons (Gt) of CO2 in regenerating soils and vegetation, returning atmospheric greenhouse gas levels to the “safe zone” of under 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 equivalent, while restoring the biodiversity of the planet and healing its climate. “Dr. Sailesh Rao, Climate Healers
How Many Farms Need to Transition?
Cutting emissions by 10 megatons isn’t enough, nor 22 megatons. We’d need to cut emissions by multiple times that to have a meaningful impact on humanity’s fate. Let’s shoot for 4x the lower figure, and ~2x the larger. Let’s try for 40 megatons.
As we saw in the last post, Dan’s 600-cow farm emits 200 tons of methane per year.
40,000,000 tons / 200 tons/Dan-like-farm = 200,000 farms
If the world transitioned 200,000 farms like Dan’s into making plant-based proteins, we would reduce atmospheric methane rapidly. We would be on our way to becoming a care-taker species as envisioned by Climate Healers.
The Impact of Dan’s Dairy Operation is just a Small Example
There are so many layers of environmental damage that come with dairy farming. And Dan’s operation is just a mid-sized family business. What if we transitioned these mega-dairies too?
- 36,000 cow Fair Oaks in Indiana. The impact of this dairy is 60 X Dan’s impact of dairying
- 33,000 cows on Oregon’s Threemile Canyon Farms (owned by RD Outfitt in North Dakota )
- 8,300 cows on Lost Valley Farm in Oregon. Hoo-boy the story of this farm abounds with bad behavior so bad it’d be comical if it weren’t so tragic for the cows and for the environment. Read more about Lost Valley Farm and other mega-dairy operations – in our post ‘Dairy Is Dirty‘.
RELATED FACTOID: If all Wisconsin dairies went plant-based, it’d be like taking all Wisconsin cars off the road – FOUR TIMES OVER
Given that the US has just 7% of the world’s cattle, we could transition 14,000 beef and dairy farms with 600 cows each, or simply transition 700 of the big cattle operations to pull our weight in reducing methane concentrations.
It’s time to help these farmers transition and be part of the solution. You can support our lobbying efforts at afa.farm/join-us.
† https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/07/WGI_AR5.Chap_.8_SM.pdf page 39 ( Table 8.SM.16 “Metric Values to Support Figure )
keywords: environmental impact of dairy