Posts Tagged ‘Methane’


Emissions from Agriculture and Livestock Continue to Grow

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By Laura Reynolds

In 2010, global greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector totaled 4.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO₂) equivalent, up 13 percent over 1990. Agriculture is the third largest contributor to global emissions by sector, following the burning of fossil fuels for power and heat, and transportation. In 2010, emissions from electricity and heat production reached 12.5 billion tons, and emissions from transport totaled 6.7 billion tons.

Agricultural emissions have increased over the past two decades. (Photo credit:

Despite their continuing rise, emissions from agriculture are growing at a much slower rate than the sector as a whole, demonstrating the increasing carbon efficiency of agriculture. From 1990 to 2010, the volume of agricultural production overall increased nearly 23 percent, according to data compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for its program, FAOSTAT. FAO released a new GHG Emissions database for agriculture, forestry and other land use changes in Dec 2012, which can be found here.

According to FAO, methane accounts for just under half of total agricultural emissions, nitrous oxide for 36 percent, and carbon dioxide for some 14 percent. The largest source of methane emissions is enteric fermentation, or the digestion of organic materials by livestock, predominantly beef cattle. This is also the largest source of agricultural emissions overall, contributing 37 percent of the total.

Livestock contribute to global emissions in other ways as well. Manure deposited and left on pastures is a major source of nitrous oxide emissions because of its high nitrogen content. When more nitrogen is added to soil than is needed, bacteria convert the extra nitrogen into nitrous oxide and release it into the atmosphere. Emissions from manure on pasture in Asia, Africa, and South America together account for as much as 81 percent of global emissions from this source. These emissions from the three regions increased 42 percent on average between 1990 and 2010, reflecting an increase in range-based livestock populations; elsewhere, these emissions either decreased or stagnated.



Don’t waste energy, turn waste into energy

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By Graham Salinger

Nearly 2 million people die every year from water born diseases because of a lack of adequate sanitation. A team of researchers led by Kartik Chandran, an associate professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University, thinks they may have a solution to the sanitation crisis that will also promote energy security in developing countries. Dr. Chandran recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates  Foundation to set up a “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility” in Accra, Ghana.  Working with his colleagues Ashley Murray, founder and director of Waste Enterprisers , and Moses  Mensah of the  Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Dr. Chandran hopes to turn feces  found in sewage into biodiesel and methane by converting  a waste-processing facility into a biorefinery.

Dr. Kartik Chandran and his research team are developing the “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility” in Accra, Ghana (Photo credit: Columbia University).

“Thus far, sanitation approaches have been extremely resource- and energy-intensive and therefore out of reach for some of the world´s poorest but also most at-need populations,” Dr.  Chandran explained in a press release. This has resulted in waste going directly into water supplies without being treated. Water management is especially important at a time when the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly evident and fresh water availability grows more erratic. As water resources become scarce, preventing water from being contaminated becomes increasingly significant to agriculture and public health. Yet, half the people in the developing world lack access to safe sanitation.



Letting funding go to waste

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By Molly Theobald

When was the last time you took a look at the back of your refrigerator? Way in the back—where the three-week old Chinese takeout leftovers are hiding. It’s not pleasant, is it?

In many parts of Africa, about a quarter of food is wasted before it even reaches the market because of lack of appropriate storage techniques. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Not to sound like your mother or anything, but don’t you know there are starving children in Africa? And yet, many of us are still wasting precious—and relatively easy—opportunities to do prevent food waste.

In the United States, an estimated 27 percent of all food available for consumption is thrown away. Food waste amounts to about 30 million tons in a year and accounts for 12 percent of total waste produced by the country in a year.

Food waste is also contributing to global warming. Rotting food produces methane, a green house gas that is more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide. In the United States, rotting food in landfills accounts for 34 percent of the country’s total methane produced. It is estimated that if all food waste in the United States was eliminated, it would be the equivalent of removing a fourth of all the cars in the country from the roads.

Meanwhile, as per capita food waste has increased in the United States by 50 percent since 1974, in some parts of Africa, over 40 percent of crops go bad before they can be eaten. Lack of proper storage, transportation, infrastructure, crop diseases and pests all work against smallholder farmers—many of whom live on less than a dollar per day. In the U.S. we are throwing away cheap food by the tons, while in Africa—the epi-center of world hunger—people are losing tons of food before it can make it to the table.



Fighting Climate Change by Managing Livestock

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By Mara Schechter

In the United States, grass-fed beef producers could reduce their annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 87.5 percent, according to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Raising the Steaks: Global Warming and Pasture-Raised Beef Production in the United States finds that farmers raising beef entirely on pasture—where all beef cattle spend the first months of their lives—can help mitigate climate change. And the report’s findings may have even greater implications for other countries.


In adopting better management practices, farmers across the world could help fight climate change while increasing the health of their soil. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

“Livestock contribute a greater share of global warming emissions in parts of the world with lower industrial emissions,” writes Doug Gurian-Sherman, UCS Senior Scientist and author of the report. And meat production is growing fastest in the developing world, where smallholder farmers and degraded soils could both benefit from the report’s suggested management practices, including avoiding the overuse of fertilizer and preventing overgrazing to increase soil health and carbon sequestration.

The U.S. beef cattle industry produces 160 million metric tons of GHGs each year. But better management practices could reduce emissions by as much as 140 million metric tons—the equivalent of taking 21 million trucks and cars off the road.  One practice the report highlights is planting legumes in pastures.

One legume seems especially promising— birdsfoot trefoil. Birdsfoot trefoil, a yellow plant that looks like some varieties of clover, produces special compounds which beef cattle digest more efficiently than other types of feed. Cattle are flatulent, burping and passing gas as they eat. And because cattle are ruminants, with four stomachs, they produce methane, a GHG that is 23 times more potent than CO2. But when cattle eat birdsfoot trefoil, they digest it differently than other grasses or grain, and produce less methane. (more…)


The Opportunities and the Risks of Climate Change

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A 3 minute animated video from the British organization, Farming Futures, illustrates how eco-agricultural farming practices like permaculture and composting are not only better for the environment, they are also better for farmers and their business. According to the video, “there are all kinds of renewable technologies, including biogmas, solar and anaerobic digesters.” “They can provide an extra income stream to your farm as well as cut back on emissions.” Although the video is aimed at farmers in the United Kingdom, the innovations it promotes can benefit farmers—and ecosystems— all over the world.

To read more about how alternative farming practices can benefit both farmers and the environment, see: Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Wildlife Conservation, Malawi’s Real Miracle, Emphasizing Malawi’s Indigenous Vegetables as Crops, Finding ‘Abundance’ in What is Local, Honoring the Farmers that Nourish their Communities and the Planet, and Investing in Projects that Protect Both Agriculture and Wildlife.


Is Milk Milk? Evaluating a Dairy Farm’s Footprint

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By Matt Styslinger

“Milk is milk,” says the Center for Global Food Issues (CGFI), a project to support technology and free-trade in the agricultural industry. In their view, all milk—whether from pasture-based, organic farms or produced from industrial, high-input milking operations—is an essential part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. “Supplements don’t change milk,” states their official ‘milk is milk’ website. “They just increase the cow’s ability to produce milk more efficiently.”

Dairy farming systems have multiple impacts on the environment, animal well-being, and the nutritional value and safety of dairy products. (Photo credit: Willem van Weperen)

But that claim “is hard to square with well-known facts,” says The Organic Center (TOC) in its 10 November report, A Dairy Farm’s Footprint: Evaluating the Impacts of Conventional and Organic Farming Systems. “The safety of milk varies substantially across farms as a function of somatic cell counts in milk, residues of synthetic pesticides and animal drugs, and pathogens.” The report concludes that organic dairy farming systems promote cow health and longevity because they put less stress on cows and feed them healthier diets. Healthier cows, in turn, produce more nutritious milk.

In conducting the research for this report, TOC—an organization that supports and communicates science on the health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming—used an index called the “Shades of Green” (SOG) dairy farm management system calculator, developed  by a team of dairy specialist. The SOG was first applied in a March, 2009 report entitled “Shades of Green: Quantifying the Benefits of Organic Dairy Production.” This report focused on the amount of land, pesticide, animal drugs, and synthetic fertilizer not used on organic dairy farms. (more…)


Giving It Up for the Alleviation of Hunger and Poverty?

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As the number of hungry people worldwide tops 1 billion, and droughts and heat waves brought on by climate change increase, what is a socially and environmentally conscious meat-eater to do about it? In a recent blog post on Time Magazine’s Ecocentric, Eben Harrall suggests giving up bacon cheeseburgers, as well as other meat products.

As part of our research for State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, we’ve highlighted various ways of raising livestock that not only help to alleviate poverty and hunger, but also to mitigate climate change. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

To make his point—in addition to the Food & Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) recent findings that meat production accounts for about 18 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions—Harrall references a recent issue of the journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, focused on global food security.  If the world’s population continues to grow at its current rate it will reach 9 billion by 2050 and we’ll need to find a way to increase food supplies by 70 percent if we want to keep up.

But while industrial meat production is damaging to the environment and to the world’s potential food supply, abstaining from meat to alleviate global hunger is not the only option.

The Royal Society B’s issue on food security introduces technological innovations such as growing meat in test tubes for more sustainable food production, and recommends that, especially in developed countries where one third of edible food is thrown away, more resources be directed towards waste reduction. And as part of our research for State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, we’ve highlighted various ways of raising livestock that not only help to alleviate poverty and hunger, but also to mitigate climate change.

In Rwanda, livestock farmers are using biogas technology to turn one greenhouse gas, methane, into fuel. Biogas units use methane from manure to produce electricity, heat, and fertilizer while emitting significantly less smoke and carbon monoxide than other sources of fuel. (See also: Got Biogas?)

In Zimbabwe, the director of the organization, Njeremeto Biodiversity Institute, Osmond Mugweni,  is helping livestock farmers adopt modern grazing methods, such as holistic planned grazing, to avoid soil erosion and other damaging consequences associated with cattle.

And in Ghana, many poor farmers use slash and burn methods on grasslands to provide short-term nutrients to the soil for agriculture, and to drive out grasscutters—small rodents that are considered a delicacy in the area— for their meat. But the Neleshi Grasscutter and Farmers Association (NAGRAFA) is helping farmers raise grasscutters domestically for sale at restaurants and grocery stores. Not only are grasslands preserved, but farmers have more control over the quality of their product, increasing its value and improving their incomes.

To read more about the impact of livestock on climate change, hunger and poverty, see the FAO report,  Livestock’s Long Shadow.

For more information about how sustainable livestock production can actually mitigate climate change and improve livelihoods and diets, see Making a Living Out of Conservation, Creating a Roadmap for Sustainable Meat Production, Healing With Livestock in Rwanda, Teacher Turned Farmer. . .Turned Teacher, Got Biogas?, Conserving Endangered Animal Genetic Resources in Kenya, Prescribing Improved Nutrition to Combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, Maintaining Links to Tradition in a Changing World, The Keepers of Genetic Diversity, Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use and Happier Meals.


Building a Methane-Fueled Fire: Innovation of the Week

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Madame Helen Bahikwe received government help to purchase her biogas unit and is now more easily cooking for her 10-person family and improving hygiene on the farm with hot water for cleaning. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Madame Helen Bahikwe received help from the Rwandan government to purchase her biogas unit. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

For half the world’s population, every meal depends on an open fire that is fueled by wood, coal, dung, and other smoke-producing combustibles. These indoor cookfires consume large amounts of fuel and emit carbon dioxide and other dangerous toxins into the air, blackening the insides of homes and leading to respiratory diseases, especially among women and children.

Biogas, however, takes advantage of what is typically considered waste, providing a cleaner and safer source of energy. Biogas units use methane from manure to produce electricity, heat, and fertilizer while emitting significantly less smoke and carbon monoxide than other sources of fuel. Access to an efficient, clean-burning stove not only saves lives—smoke inhalation-related illnesses result in 1.5 million deaths per year—it also reduces the amount of time that women spend gathering firewood, which the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates is 10 hours per week for the average household in some rural areas.

The IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project (GBLADP) helped one farmer in Eritrea, Tekie Mekerka, make the most of the manure his 30 cows produce by helping to install a biogas unit on his farm (similar to the unit that Danielle saw in Rwanda with Heifer International). Now, says Mekerka, “we no longer have to go out to collect wood for cooking, the kitchen is now smoke-free, and the children can study at night because we have electricity.”Additionally, Mekerka is using the organic residue left by the biogas process as fertilizer for his family’s new vegetable garden.

In Rwanda, the government is making biogas stove units more accessible by subsidizing installation costs, and it hopes to have 15,000 households nationwide using biogas by 2012.  While visiting with Heifer Rwanda, Danielle met Madame Helen Bahikwe, who, after receiving government help to purchase her biogas unit, is now more easily cooking for her 10-person family and improving hygiene on the farm with hot water for cleaning.

In China, IFAD found that biogas saved farmers so much time collecting firewood that farm production increased. In Tanzania, the Foundation for Sustainable Rural Development (SURUDE), with funding from UNDP, found that each biogas unit used in their study reduced deforestation by 37 hectares per year. And in Nigeria, on a much larger scale, methane and carbon dioxide produced by a water purifying plant is now being used to provide more affordable gas to 5,400 families a month, thanks to one of the largest biogas installations in Africa.

To read more about how waste can be turned into a source of fuel, energy, and nutrition see: Making Fuel Out of Waste, Growing Food in Urban “Trash,” ECHOing a Need for Innovation in Agriculture, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, and Vertical Farms: Finding Creative Ways to Grow Food in Kibera.

If you know of other ways people are making the most of their waste and would like to share it with us, we encourage you to leave a comment or fill out our agriculture innovation survey here.


Innovation of the Week: Reducing Food Waste

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Making metal silos for grain storage

Making metal silos for grain storage (photo credit: FAO)

In some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 265 million people are hungry, more than a quarter of the food produced is going bad even before it can be eaten because of poor harvest or storage techniques, severe weather, or disease and pests. In the United States on the other hand, food is actually being thrown away by the billions of kilograms (and contributing to 12 percent of total waste), putting stress on already bursting landfills and contributing to the emission of greenhouse gases—in the U.S. landfills are one of the biggest sources of methane, accounting for 34% of all methane emissions.

To prevent the loss of crops after they are harvested in Africa and elsewhere, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is implementing education and technology providing projects. In Kenya , the FAO partnered with the Kenya Ministry of Agriculture to train farmers to take steps to reduce maize crop loss to mycotoxin, a devastating result of fungi growth.

And in Afghanistan, the FAO recently provided household metallic silos to roughly 18,000 households in order to improve post-harvest storage. Farmers use the silos to store cereal grains and legumes, protecting them from the weather and pests, and post-harvest losses dropped from between 15 and 20 percent to less than one or two percent.

Recognizing the need to protect harvest in Africa from weather, disease, pests, and poor storage quality, the African Ministerial Council on Science & Technology is promoting research to analyze and promote various technologies and techniques to prevent post harvest waste and improve food processing. And ECHO Farm, in the United States, where Danielle and I spent some time in August, collects innovations of all kinds to help farmers at all stages of cultivation, including after the harvest. Making these innovations accessible to farmers all over the world is ECHO’s mission and we were able to see a demonstration of a number of post-harvest loss prevention techniques that are both simple and affordable.

And progress in waste reduction is being made in the United States, as well. This year San Francisco became the first U.S. city to mandate that all households separate both recycling and compost from garbage. The Department of the Environment expects this single piece of legislation will result in a 90 percent decrease of household waste in local landfills.

Food collection organizations like City Harvest collect food from restaurants, grocery stores and cafeterias that would otherwise be thrown away and deliver it, free of charge, to local food providers for low income families and the homeless.

Minimizing greenhouse gas emissions is a central theme at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen this year as GHG concentrations reached a record high last year. With landfills producing large amounts of greenhouse gases, and as food prices continue to rise worldwide, the reduction of food waste is an inescapable necessity for people everywhere, from restaurant owners in New York City to maize farmers outside Nairobi, Kenya.