A plan to make Denmark’s food system carbon neutral by 2050

Two years ago, Denmark’s farming sector announced a bold goal: Its food industry would become carbon neutral by 2050 and serve as a model for the rest of the world. This week, a new report commissioned by a Danish agriculture industry trade group lays out a strategy for how the country can reduce emissions while producing significantly more food.

The plan highlights a range of options — including changing livestock diets, reducing nitrogen application through precision farming, and international conservation efforts in feed-producing countries — that would help Denmark maintain its share of global food production while cutting 80 percent of the farm sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 20 percent of these emissions would be offset by restoring forests and peatlands.

The report comes as the Biden administration pursues similar goals. Although the administration has pledged to make the United States carbon neutral by 2050, it has not yet detailed a plan for doing so in agriculture. But voluntary measures that set aside land, pay farmers to sequester carbon in their fields, and encourage “climate smart” agriculture have all been discussed. The USDA is due to submit its recommendations to the White House on June 26.

The recommendations in the Danish report, however, could be applicable to the United States and other countries with highly industrialized food systems. “I think there are a lot of parallels,” said its lead author, Timothy Searchinger, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, which was commissioned by the Danish Agriculture and Food Council to write the report.

Like the United States, Denmark has a huge pork and dairy sector and uses most of its cropland to produce livestock feed. But unlike the United States, Denmark doesn’t produce much beef, which creates about five times more emissions than dairy and nine times more than pork or poultry. The Danish agriculture industry generates about 17.4 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. By contrast, U.S. agriculture emitted 669 million metric tons in 2018 and accounts for about 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite these differences, the countries face similar challenges, Searchinger said. They must produce more food in the future without plowing up more land or increasing emissions. Globally, food production accounts for one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and occupies about half of all land that isn’t desert or covered in ice. Sparing land is key to both keeping down emissions and protecting biodiversity, which is under threat.

But demand for food, and especially animal products, is growing. By 2050, the report estimates, the world will need to produce 45 percent more food per acre, on average, in order to meet food demands without clearing more land — even if big meat eaters, like Americans and Europeans, cut down their consumption and crop-intensive biofuels are phased out.

“All climate strategies essentially require that we stop clearing forest and other habitat,” Searchinger said. “By definition, we need to produce more food. And if we don’t produce a lot more food per hectare, we are going to have to clear land.” Clearing land, especially forests, is counterproductive, because trees pull carbon from the atmosphere.

Since Danish agriculture is heavily focused on raising pigs, dairy cows, and crops to feed them, much of the report focuses on potential ways to increase crop productivity and reduce emissions through changing feeding practices and managing manure, which emits methane and nitrous oxide, both potent greenhouse gases. And while the report calls on Danes to reduce meat and dairy consumption, Searchinger said the country shouldn’t stop — or even decrease — producing these foods, since that would likely only shift production to countries with less efficient farming systems, ultimately increasing global emissions.

The report calls for breeding new higher-yield crops so that less land is devoted to producing animal feed. Another way to free up land currently planted in wheat, barley, and other crops, the report suggests, is to start feeding livestock more fodder beets, which are at least as digestible as wheat or barley but yield more per acre. And since Denmark imports soy from Latin America, the report proposes working with soy farmers to increase yields without clearing more land — a notable problem in Brazil.

The report also notes that Europe is soon likely to approve a new feed additive for cows that may reduce methane production by 40 percent while also increasing milk’s fat content. Managing manure more effectively is another priority.

Although the Danish government is investing some $240 million in methane digesters, the report finds that digesters are not a cost-effective way to mitigate emissions and may even increase overall emissions, since they use crops as dry biomass to help process the manure. The report recommends a moratorium on subsidies for new digesters and suggests phasing out existing ones. The recommendation stands in stark contrast to the trend in U.S. agriculture, where the use of methane digesters is expanding.

While the report surveys a number of new technologies and practices that could plausibly allow the Danish food system to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, perhaps its biggest takeaway is the need for more innovation, research, and cooperation.

The agriculture industry is roughly where the energy sector was 25 years ago, Searchinger said, before investment and innovation in wind and solar took off. Promising technologies exist for the agriculture sector, he said, but they need to be tested, scaled up, and improved. “Are we pursuing them? No, not with anywhere near the rigor and vigor that we need,” he said.