High Tech, Low Tech To Move Agriculture Forward In A Changing Climate

Cow flatulence was among the topics last week at the Chicago Council 2014 Global Food Security Symposium—a major gathering of experts from the US government, business, civil society, and international organizations.

Don’t laugh.  Cow flatulence is serious business.  During the “Climate-Smart Food Security” panel, experts discussed how livestock, without proper management, contribute to high levels of methane emissions, which means more greenhouse “gas”-es that feed climate change. On the flip side, Judith Swartz, author of Cows Save the Planet, explained how properly managed livestock can help to restore the land and balance the carbon cycle.

This back and forth demonstrates the dialogue of the panelists convened by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs which hosts major events on everything from farming to food and provides publications on every aspect of global agriculture. (#GlobalAg)

This year’s symposium, “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of Weather Volatility and Climate Change,” introduced the release of the report by the same title and brought together a host of national and international thought leaders combining their talents to move the planet forward and address agricultural development.

Other panels included The Climate-Food Nexus and What It Means for Conflict, Economic Growth, and Sustainability; Climate-Smart Food Security; Managing Risks Associated with Volatile Weather, Changing Climates, and Resource Scarcity; Water Stresses and Global Food Security; and a session of lightning presentations on Harnessing Disruptive Technologies for Agricultural Gains.

14 Percent To Feed Us All

According to “How Stuff Works” that agriculture is responsible for an estimated 14 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. A significant portion of these emissions come from methane, which, in terms of its contribution to global warming, is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization says that agricultural methane output could increase by 60 percent by 2030 [Source: Times Online]. The world's 1.5 billion cows and billions of other grazing animals emit dozens of polluting gases, including lots of methane.

Two-thirds of all ammonia comes from cows. Cows emit a massive amount of methane through belching, with a lesser amount through flatulence. Statistics vary regarding how much methane the average dairy cow expels. Some experts say 100 liters to 200 liters a day (or about 26 gallons to about 53 gallons), while others say it's up to 500 liters (about 132 gallons) a day. In any case, that's a lot of methane, an amount comparable to the pollution produced by a car in a day.

Check out this NPR interview with Judith Schwartz about Cows Save the Planet to hear how livestock can help restore the soil and the carbon cycle of the planet.

The example of cow flatulence was used to underscore the importance of using new technologies and innovation to confront the climate-food nexus—a nexus with important implications for global conflict, economic growth, and sustainability. Agriculture is responsible for an estimated 14% of the world’s greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming (see sidebar), and yet vital to our food supply, commerce, trade and life. New inventions and scientific discoveries are helping farmers all around the U.S. and the world to balance needs and impacts so that we produce food while protecting the environment, such as the scientists and young innovators currently working on biotechnological solutions to cow flatulence using new techniques to address the digestive systems of cattle.

While there is no denying that technology is a vital component of global climate and food, new technology is not the only innovation that is needed to help feed the planet. As Dr. Susan Rice, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and many of the other experts noted over the course of the day, there is a need for sustained funding and education on agricultural issues and collaboration between government, large and small farmers, NGOs and the private sector. Innovations in collaboration and education can lead to maximizing what we already have. Efficient agriculture that maximizes farmland and improves on the lowest-performing farms in the most hard-hit areas are important innovations and can be reached quickly with the right investments and partnerships.

As several speakers said, "it's not rocket science." It’s the experience and the expertise of the entrepreneurs working the soil—the farmers around the world.

Tara Sonenshine is former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and a Distinguished Fellow at GW.

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