On the Front Lines: Climate Action from Agriculture Can Help Defend a Texan Way of Life

longhorn-cattle-pixabayBy: Simone Ballard, energy-water nexus intern

Growing up in a rural community in Illinois, agriculture was a part of my everyday reality. My neighbors took pride in their livestock and centennial family farms. It wasn’t just a job for them, but a way of life. Sustaining farms and ranches is still a livelihood for millions of people in this country, putting food on our tables and fueling our economy. This traditional lifestyle is celebrated here in Texas too, but now it faces a unique challenge and opportunity presented by a shifting climate.

So, following the recent historic climate agreement in Paris, now is the time for agriculture to take a prominent role alongside other sectors in leading emission reductions worldwide. Why? The security of our food supply is at stake. The opening remarks of Paris’ COP21 Conference outline the reasons we must take action to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate: …safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change.”

Climate change will impact every facet of human society, so it is critical that diverse groups like agriculture, industry, and municipal contribute new solutions to solving our growing emissions problem. Sometimes those of us who now live in cities – and that’s over half the human population worldwide – forget about agriculture’s critical and tangible role at the beginning of the discussion. However, that narrative is shifting in this pivotal moment of climate discussions, as shown in the above statement.

In Texas, where agriculture makes up a large part of our economy, we should be thinking creatively about how to reduce emissions alongside other major players, like energy industry innovators. If we want to protect our natural resources, keep our communities thriving, and create a healthy environment for many generations to come, we need each sector to play its part and act on climate.

Agriculture in Texas and its impact on climate change

Every action to reduce emissions helps ensure Texas farms and ranching families can thrive for another century and beyond.

The agricultural sector is a critical asset in Texas, of which cattle are the number one cash crop and the second largest export commodity. Cattle ranching became extensive and prominent in Texas after the American Civil War, when soldiers had to leave herds unattended so the cattle roamed free and multiplied quickly. When the soldiers returned, the cattle populations were large enough to begin exporting all over the country. Cows are not just a symbol of a “home on the range” lifestyle, but an economic force. Here are some quick facts from the Texas Department of Agriculture to show just how important cows are to the Lone Star State:

  • Texas exports approximately $855 million in beef and $431 million in hides annually
  • There were 11.8 million head of cattle in Texas on January 1st, 2015
  • In 2012, cattle alone contributed $10.5 billion from the Texas food and fiber sector (out of $100 billion total)

Clearly cattle are a formidable boon to the Texas economy. Unfortunately, they are also a formidable source of climate-altering emissions: methane. Cows contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in an entirely different way than power plants. For example, power plants emit carbon dioxide and smaller amounts of other greenhouse gases from a single location, usually at a constant rate. Cows emit methane – a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – one at a time through digestion and gas. The exact numerical nature of these emissions is harder to estimate due to monitoring difficulties in the field. And that’s just one piece of the puzzle – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that agriculture and land-use activities worldwide contributes to 25 percent of current global emissions (see more on cows’ impact).

What are the consequences of these and other greenhouse gas emissions? For starters, climate change has the potential to drastically upset the “normal” patterns of weather including average temperature ranges and rainfall. This will stress the landscape in terms of plant growth and natural water availability. Texas is already subject to natural drought cycles, but with an altered climate these droughts could become more severe and last longer. This is a major problem since ranchers and farmers depend heavily on water to maintain their lands and cattle; without this essential resource their livelihoods will disappear outright. Unfortunately, some Texan ranchers already suffered during the height of the last drought in 2011, when they had to sell their cattle to survive. This is not only devastating to the economy of ranching, it is stripping ranchers of their identities and family traditions. Ranchers should have a vested interest in keeping our climate stable; they are on the front lines and could be the most adept leaders for transforming agriculture from the inside-out.

The food-energy-water nexus

Clearly, agriculture is closely tied to our water sector, but it is also part of a larger, interconnected system with energy use. For example, water and temperature changes in the form of severe droughts can lead to disruptions in the energy sector. Our current energy systems are water-intensive and require water for processing and cooling. When the water supply is too low or too hot it can strain the system and create rolling blackouts. You don’t need to imagine this scenario – it became a real threat during the most recent drought in Texas. Reducing energy output also reduces agriculture’s ability to produce and deliver their products to the vast networks of processing plants needed to supply Texas’ large metropolitan areas.

This interdependent system is sometimes described as the food-energy-water nexus, where the security of each sector is dependent on the other (explored in more depth here). Climate change is the ultimate disrupter of both this nexus and the ability to conduct “business-as-usual” in the future. These agricultural economic systems have boomed in Texas since the end of the Civil War. In order to keep them thriving, we have to make sure all essential natural resources are there for the next generations to come.

Remember this, anybody?

Remember this, anybody?

What can the ag sector do?

Given the inherent complexity of managing a productive ranch, what practices can both small-scale and industrial-sized ranches employ to make an impact? A solution could lie in the details of how cattle are fed. Researchers at Texas A&M have stumbled upon a secondary use for their mathematical nutrition models, models originally developed to help ranchers feed their cattle more efficiently by maximizing nutrients. By using in-vitro gas production systems in the lab, the amount of methane gas produced by a specific food portion can be measured and used to calculate and reduce emissions for the entire herd. These individual steps are not trivial, especially when you consider the cumulative effect of hundreds of ranches offsetting carbon together through precision and accuracy. Read more on these models-spearheaded by Dr. Luis Tedeschi here.

In addition to helping with daily operational costs, protecting the environment can yield financial gains to the business. Providing a monetary incentive to reduce emissions encourages good practices without straining small businesses. For example, Californian farmers are rewarded for leaving grasslands intact to offset carbon, leading to an increase of farmers being paid to reduce emissions. This could be another pragmatic step here in Texas. (See other examples of financial incentive programs taking shape across the country on EDF’s Growing Returns blog.)

Every action to reduce emissions helps mitigate climate change, which stabilizes the food-energy-water nexus and bolsters the economy, ensuring farms and ranching families that represent a traditional Texan way of life can thrive for another century and beyond. The whole system breaks down without reliable resources. Working to stabilize our natural resources such as water is especially important to Texans, who are all too familiar with the dire conditions of living in a drought.

Agriculture isn’t always making headlines amidst the chaos of our daily metropolitan lifestyles, but it is essential for sustaining the cities we call home. And by no means are Texans ones to back down from any sort of challenge to their autonomy. That challenge is now coming from one of the most subversive and existential threats: the destabilizing of our climate and collective future. Local changes to reduce agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gases in Texas now can have global consequences later. Maybe even the cows will notice.

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