Context is important, especially when considering climate change and greenhouse gases. The EPA released its annual U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks report recently. It showed U.S. emissions from all man-made sources totaled 6.6 billion metric tons in CO2 equivalents in 2019, down 1.7 percent from 2018. When taking into consideration carbon trapped in the soils through forestry, grasslands, wetlands and cropland (all agricultural activities), U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 12 percent to a net emissions level of 5.8 billion metric tons, down 1.8 percent from 2018.
Emissions related to agriculture totaled 669 million metric tons during 2019, up 1.1 percent from the previous year. Based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change methodology, U.S. agricultural emissions totaled 629 million metric tons in 2019, also up slightly. As a percentage of total U.S. emissions, U.S. agriculture represents approximately 10 percent of emissions, with livestock-related emissions at only 4 percent.
However, when factoring in productivity and population gains over the long-term – context that is critical to this analysis and understanding the scope of the issue - both per-unit and per capita agricultural emissions are declining. Further analysis of the EPA data by the American Farm Bureau Federation shows, since 1990 (the beginning of the EPA data reported), the U.S. is producing 143 times more food and agricultural products, while largely using the same amount of inputs, like fertilizer. (It's 287 times more going back to the 1940s!) During the same time, we’ve lost more than 30 million acres of cropland. And when you consider that the U.S. population has increased by 31 percent, or 79 million people, U.S. agriculture has more mouths to feed. That means U.S. agriculture is producing more food, fiber and renewable fuel for more people while using fewer resources and emitting less carbon.
Learn more about these details - this context – at this link, and how increased investment in agricultural research can help develop new technologies that capture more carbon in the soil and reduce livestock-related emissions. Continued use of targeted, voluntary and incentive-based tools – such as through Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (already showing gains in conservation technology adoption) - will complement these research efforts to ensure that while farmers help to achieve climate goals, they also remain economically sustainable.