Whether it’s snow at the end of April or an unusually warm January, climate change is on many of our minds. And while the change is having an impact on the things that grow in Wisconsin, the agriculture industry itself has an effect on the climate. The work of commercial growers emits as much as a quarter of the greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere.
And the journal Environmental Science and Technology reports the average American family’s food consumption — whether it’s burgers or potatoes — produces about eight tons of carbon dioxide a year.
"Anything we grow and process and transport is going to provide greenhouse gases. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a carrot or a quarter-pounder. So, there is some climate change impact in food production, period," says farming contributor Dave Kozlowski.
Livestock, especially cattle, produce methane gas in their normal digestive processes. However, with the concentration of cattle farms and some land management practices, this is a potent contributor to agriculture's impact on the climate.
"Methane gas is 30 times more potent than CO2," says Kozlowski, "so a small amount can go a long ways."
However, he says changing the way we eat can have a real impact. "There's just not a good reason for the current American diet," states Kozlowski. "There really is not. It isn't good for you health wise, it's not good for the environment, it isn't good for climate change. So, let's start making a few changes, let's start a little bit at a time each week."
A couple of these small changes include eating locally sourced produce and meat, which will reduce your carbon footprint. Another key step: eating less meat, particularly red meat.
"The USDA suggests that we should be eating about 26 ounces of meat a week ... we are eating about 0.6 pounds [9.6 ounces] a day," notes Kozlowksi.
"If we think of a car with an average mile-per-gallon rating of 25 mpg traveling 12,000 miles a year, that car produces about 4.4 tons of CO2 on an annual basis," he adds. "If we decide to go one day with no red meat ... you're basically lopping 760 miles off that annual basis. So you can see you're making a dent already in the CO2."
Kozlowski admits that climate change is a massive problem that needs to be tackled on many fronts, but the way our food system operates has the potential to change. From diversifying farmland and reducing the number of single-crop farms to the distribution practices that ship foods across the country — if consumers make a shift then restaurants, grocery stores, and processing facilities will change, too.
"Are we going to turn back the clock on global climate change because you're eating less meat and buying locally? No. But as the Chinese proverb says, 'A thousand mile journey begins with a first step,' so at least if we start making some effort then the public is also becoming involved in the issue of turning around climate change. And perhaps then it'll be easier to make the big steps, the big things that have to get done," says Kozlowksi.