Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


A new generation of progress brewing in GHG management

Food brands and production efficiency are the new drivers of emissions management

Posted: June 18, 2013

Canadian farmers are seeing some significant new advances in understanding, measuring and managing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These will help anchor environmentally sustainable industry practices and generate more efficient and effective production options. They may bring together the cropping and livestock sectors in new ways.

The factors driving these developments are the same ones behind a lot of the progress in sustainable farming systems today. Food marketing is a leading one as brands want to include information on carbon footprint. Demands for sustainable farming systems are another force. The search for capturing production efficiencies in emissions control is also gaining ground.

That has scientists and the agriculture and food industry around the world looking for new ways to more effectively measure GHG emissions. Here's a quick overview of some of the developments in Canada.

Emissions measurement options

Around the world, the search is on for the most effective ways to measure GHG emissions driven by new interest and capabilities in farm systems modeling. Canada's efforts are centered around a GHG modeling program called Holos.

Developed as a simple tool to measure whole farm emissions, Holos is continually being updated with new data and improved features. Roland Kroebel, an agro-systems modeler at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Lethbridge, Alta. is a lead player on the Canadian team.

Holos is simple but sophisticated, a state-of-the-art tool usable by everyone from producers to researchers to industry decision-makers, says Kroebel. There is now interest in broadening out beyond GHG emissions to budgeting approaches for carbon, water and nitrogen.

"The budgeting approach will allow us to give effective estimates of resource use efficiency. Atmospheric emission is only one pathway of loss and if you reduce this pathway that doesn't necessarily mean that nitrogen you keep is actually productively used," he says. "It may leave the system another way.

"We are trying to make the Holos model more holistic to show how elements interact so that we get a nitrogen performance cycle. This will help farmers identify where there is a nutrient surplus on the farm and how that surplus can be used more efficiently, to save inputs and money.

"The goal is also to be able to give farmers the best available Canadian data to calculate carbon footprints to choose strategies to improve that footprint. Farmers want to be able to demonstrate they have a sustainable production system. In the longer run we would like to incorporate environmental impact estimates by looking beyond nitrogen surpluses to also include phosphorus, water quality and biodiversity issues."

Internationally, a new measuring tool called the Cool Farm Tool has been developed with a goal of being a global tool to measure carbon footprint. It has attracted interest from farm groups around the world and the food industry. One challenge from Canada's perspective, says Kroebel, is that the model is quite simplistic and the data not representative of Canadian situations. By comparison the Holos model is based on Canadian data and is built for Canadian conditions.

Farmers will help drive

Kroebel and research counterparts are trying to actively engage Canadian farmers in this ongoing assessment of needs, bringing together farm organization leaders this spring to get input on options. "The goal is to make sure what we are doing at the research and development end is in synch with what producers are seeing as the need."

New life cycle analysis information

One source of new data for the Holos tool and related discussions comes from significant progress on the livestock front. Livestock production, particularly with ruminants, is identified as a GHG contributor and there is pressure to find ways to reduce the livestock GHG footprint. Now Canada has taken a major step forward to meet this challenge with a broad science effort that includes a life cycle assessment of GHG emissions from dairy and beef production.

Conducted by AAFC using Holos these studies take a comprehensive account of GHG emissions throughout the whole life of cattle. The result is some of the most sophisticated analysis of its kind completed to date anywhere.

"These life cycle assessments provide us with a baseline model of GHG emissions from beef and dairy farms in Canada, along with a greater in-depth perspective on the efficiency and environmental impact of production as it relates to those emissions," says Dr. Karen Beauchemin of AAFC Lethbridge, a lead researcher in the effort.

"This gives us a clear idea of where we are today. It will help us develop strategies that can help minimize emissions while protecting the high production levels required to meet the demands of feeding a growing world."

On the beef side, the issue of GHG emissions has been particularly challenging in part because of the multiple production levels and different approaches that exist within the beef sector, says Beauchemin. As a result this new information is critical.

Fresh focus on research

This new energy in GHG emissions analysis is producing new related research. One example is a study of cattle on range, led by Dr. Sean McGinn of AAFC Lethbridge. Beef lifecycle analysis research shows that the cow calf sector, seen by many as the most environmentally friendly part of the beef business, is in fact the largest GHG emitter in the sector, says McGinn.

Now, research at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Onefour Ranch, is setting out to put numbers to enteric methane loss from cattle grazing on range. That study has attracted cooperation of the Australian beef industry which is collaborating on the research.

"The important thing for producers to understand is that if we can measure methane emissions effectively, this is a win-win situation for producers and environmentalists," says McGinn. "Greenhouse gas emissions represent a loss of efficiency. Between two percent and 12 percent of energy from methane production is lost to emissions. If we can reduce that we've increased the value of feed. And if we manipulate the diet without much cost to the producer, then it's really a win-win."

Check out these articles

Canadian scientists on the leading edge of these developments have helped develop a series of articles as an example of this new frontier in emissions and farming. These articles are appearing in various media, but are available directly from the website www.meristem.com. That site hosts the web magazine Land and Science which includes articles and other information on driving progress in sustainability.

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Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.

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