An unlikely climate push in rural America

Hog giant Smithfield Foods, prodded along by retailer Walmart, has launched a program to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025, but it is doing so largely by focusing on the fertilizer applications of its grain farmers. While that’s an important step, since fertilizers add to carbon emissions, it also sidesteps the biggest source of the company’s emissions — its 19 million hogs, FERN’s latest story, in partnership with The WorldPost, reported.

The story, by Brian Barth, points out that “agriculture accounts for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly the same as the combined total for electricity and heating, and well above the transportation sector, which contributes just 14 percent. Within agriculture, fertilizer contributes 13 percent.” But the simple act of livestock digestion and belching accounts for 40 percent of all ag emissions, while livestock manure adds another 25 percent, according to the FAO.

The figures are starker for Smithfield, where manure sitting in Pepto-Bismol-colored lagoons accounts for nearly a third of its greenhouse gas emissions. Although fertilizer, by comparison, accounts for just 7.5 percent, that’s what its program, led by agronomist Rachel Grantham, focuses on. “The company has installed biogas digesters at some of its hog farms, which trap methane from manure and convert it to electricity, but it claims that the technology is not yet cost-effective to implement at scale. Paying Grantham to smooth-talk the farmers who produce the hog feed into changing their practices was more affordable than dealing with the excrement,” Barth writes in the story.

“Not all agriculture produces greenhouse gas emissions, however. Quite the contrary. Like a healthy forest or grassland, the plants and soil of a farm are capable of sequestering large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere. Climate scientists differ on just how much carbon storage is possible on the planet’s agricultural lands, though some models suggest that farms have the capacity to absorb as much as the carbon equivalent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions annually — roughly 36 gigatons. Agricultural land currently absorbs about .03 gigatons,” the story says.

One alternative method is silvopasture, “a mashup of forestry and grazing” that produces lumber as well as meat. One expert figures that “silvopasture has the highest carbon sequestration potential of any temperate climate food production system — about 250 tons per hectare, on par with most naturally occurring forests in the U.S., even when factoring in the emissions from methane burps.” But this approach will never be effective for a vertically integrated producer like Smithfield, the largest pork company in the world.

Still, a farmer practicing it asserts that his income per acre was easily as much as his neighbors who grow corn and soybeans for Smithfield, especially considering their debt. So why aren’t more farmers converting their fields to pine groves? “They don’t know about it.”

You can also read the story at FERN.