David Butler — Climate Change: What the IPCC Report Means for Agriculture

The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.

According to the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying.

As the agriculture industry takes a leadership role in reducing its carbon footprint, are there additional opportunities within the report? David Butler, head of sustainability at Alltech, joins the Ag Future podcast to unpack the implications of the IPCC's findings, explain how it may be used to guide policies, and explore the key takeaways for the agri-food sector. 

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with David Butler hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Tom Martin:            Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us as we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the global food supply chain and speak with experts working to support a Planet of PlentyTM.

                                 I’m Tom Martin, and I’m joined by David Butler, head of sustainability at Alltech. David helps set the company’s commitments and goals to be more sustainable across the more than 120 countries in which the company operates.

                                 A global business must be on top of global dynamics, and among them, of course, is climate change. And recently, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change raised the alarm to a new and higher level with a report titled, “Climate Change: Widespread, Rapid and Intensifying”. And that’s our focus.

                                Welcome, David.

David Butler:           Thanks, Tom. It’s great to be here.

Tom Martin:            And so, basics first, David. What is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

David Butler:            Well, it’s an international organization that was set up by the United Nations way back in 1988. And it’s made up of representatives from 195 nations. And it’s their job to keep policymakers up to date on the science related to climate change so they have the information they need to make effective policies.

                                And the IPCC does not conduct climate science; they — the representatives enlist hundreds of scientists in the field who volunteer their time to review all of the existing scientific papers and produce these assessments.

Tom Martin:            Well, if you would, bring us up to speed on those assessment reports. What do they cover?

David Butler:            Well, the reports are designed to provide, you know, the scientific basis for governments to develop their policies, as I mentioned. And they’re also the foundation for negotiations at the U.N. Climate Conference. So, this will be central to the next conference, which is coming up in Glasgow in the fall. And they provide the information that the policymakers need, but they don’t tell policymakers what policies they need to put in place to accomplish the goals.

                                 So, the assessments have three parts, and the report that just came out a couple of weeks ago is the first of those three parts. It’s focused on the current science of climate change, which has advanced quite a bit since the last report came out.

                                 And then, the next two reports will be out early next year. The second one will deal with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change. And the third report will deal with mitigation, or how to combat climate change.

Tom Martin:            This most recent report that we’re talking about now notes changes in the earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system. How does this report differ from others that have come before it?

David Butler:            Well, first, I want to mention how amazing it is to me that they’re even able to produce this report, because there are hundreds of scientists that work on it, and they have to come to an agreement on all of the language in the report. And then, they have to agree with 195 representatives from the member countries. And so, that — it’s amazing that they can, you know, agree on such a massive document and all of the statements that come out in the report.

And I think, in the past, you know, that — the fact that they, they all had to be in agreement meant that the language in the report was very, very cautious. And so, you know, if there was a 90% likelihood of something happening, they would use words like “likely” or, you know, “somewhat certain”. They would use very cautious language. But in this report, they used words like “unequivocal”; you know, it is an established fact. They say things like that.

So, the science is much more defined than it was, and there’s really no doubt anymore that climate change is here, it’s happening now, (and) it’s caused by humans, primarily from burning fossil fuels.

Tom Martin:            What does this report tell us about our climate situation now (and) where we’re headed in the short term?

David Butler:           Well, let me read you the very first point in the summary. It kind of says it all:

                               “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”

                                So, basically that’s saying there is no time left to wait, unless — and they go on to say, “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5 degrees (Celsius) or even 2 degrees (Celsius) will be beyond reach.”

Tom Martin:            What, according to the scientists who’ve contributed to the IPCC report, needs to happen in agriculture to help put the brakes on these climate changes?

David Butler:            Well, certainly, agriculture, like every other industry, has its own environmental footprint. The thing about agriculture is that a lot of our footprint is related to methane emissions. And the report goes into great detail about the impact of methane. And that’s really the first time that one of these reports has taken such a close look at methane.

                                 Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. And it’s also very short-lived in the atmosphere; it only lasts about ten years, as opposed to potentially thousands of years for CO2. So, that means that, if we reduce it, then we can get a pretty quick impact on climate change. So, it’s a big problem, because it’s a very big greenhouse gas, but it’s also a part of the solution.

                                 And although the report doesn’t make specific recommendations and it doesn’t tell agriculture what to do, it does highlight the importance of dealing with methane as soon as possible.

Tom Martin:            Well, agriculture has been taking a lot of the blame as a significant source of methane. I think the IPCC report found that atmospheric concentrations of methane are at their highest level in 800,000 years and that lowering methane emissions is the best option to fight climate change. But how do you see that influencing ag policy?

David Butler:            That’s a great question, Tom. And right now, in Congress, they’re working on budget reconciliation, and in the proposal, there are a lot of climate policies. And there is possibly a methane polluter fee. And as far as I can tell, that is focused on leakage from the natural gas industry and should not affect agriculture.

But certainly, agriculture is a source of methane, and we need to think about what happens down the road at some point — if there are methane policies that impact agriculture, what would those be, how would that affect the industry, and would they work or not?

Tom Martin:            Speaking, David, of legislation before Congress, earlier this summer, the U.S. Senate passed the Growing Climate Solutions Act. And it’s now before the House, where it’s been since about June; (it) seems to be kind of stalled there at the moment. But the bill is supposed to make it easier for farmers, ranchers and other rural landowners to generate carbon credits by reducing their carbon footprint and, then, to sell those credits to companies interested in offsetting their emissions.

And this ag carbon credit market is kind of in its beginnings and is in its developmental stages, but as we await some clarity there, for things to shake out, for it to form fully, what are some of the ways that agriculture could reduce emissions and sequester carbon?

David Butler:            You know, like all industries, agriculture needs to start out by reducing our own emissions. And so, at the most basic level, that means that we need to switch over to renewable energy and get off of fossil fuels. And every industry needs to do that.

                                 But we also have an opportunity to reduce methane emissions from livestock, and we can go into more detail about the possible methods for doing that, but there is a lot of research going on there, there is a lot of potential for doing that. I think that’s very exciting.

                                 And then, some methane emissions come from manure, so we can put into place technologies to help with manure management. There are different ways to store manure, separate it and run it through anaerobic digestion, a big — sometimes they’re called biogas reactor methane digesters. And those allow you to produce as much methane as possible and then take that methane and use it as renewable natural gas or, in fact, burn it to generate electricity. So, that’s much better than releasing the methane into the atmosphere.

And then, we also need to explore agri-voltaics. And that’s simply just putting solar panels on agricultural land in such a way that it can still be useful farmlands. So, if you — if you put the panels on racks that are high enough, you can grow crops or graze animals underneath them, and they might be a little more spaced out than they would be if you have a solar farm, but you’re still getting the agricultural value out of that land instead of converting it into a solar farm. And I think that’s really important, especially as we need to feed more people.

Tom Martin:            So, this implies a lot of gearing up, a lot of retrofitting — changes that will have to be made to accommodate carbon sequestration and, as you say, renewable energy. All that costs money. What might be some sources of funding for all these changes?

David Butler:            Well, as you mentioned, you know, carbon markets are going to mature, probably over the next decade. And that could certainly be a big source of income, because there are industries — like the fossil fuel industry and the airline industry and some heavy-manufacturing industries — where it’s going to be really hard and take a very long time for them to come up with technologies to reduce their emissions. And in fact, the fossil fuel industry, they can never reduce the emissions of their products. You know, they’re going to have to reinvent themselves.

                                So, in the meantime, those industries will need to buy carbon offsets so that they can reduce the impact of what they’re doing. So, a lot of money will be flowing out of those industries, and hopefully, a lot of that money will go into agriculture to help farmers be part of the solution for climate change.

Tom Martin:            I don’t know that this is necessarily on the horizon in this country — maybe it is — but what, David, is likely to happen if governments take actions to reduce livestock numbers to reduce methane emissions?

David Butler:           That is an excellent question. I think it’s kind of, you know, that’s what’s on everybody’s minds: Will we come up with caps for livestock?

                                I don’t think that that would work. And the reason is that, you know, it would have to be on a country-by-country basis if there were limits on livestock. We don’t have a world government, so nobody can say, “This is how many livestock are going to be produced in the world.”

                                So, let’s say that the U.S. put a limit on the number of cattle. Well, that’s not going to change the demand for beef or dairy, so you would have to import those animals, and they would most likely come from Brazil, which could involve further deforestation of the Amazon or conversion of other ecosystems in Brazil. And that, combined with the transportation, could actually create a bigger carbon footprint than you had before.

Tom Martin:            Lots of complications in this issue. Is there already evidence that the agriculture industry is taking on a leadership role on climate change?

David Butler:            Absolutely. The U.S. dairy industry has a net-zero initiative with the goal of achieving that, zero emissions, by 2050. And there are many companies that are signed up to support that.

                                 And the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association recently came out with the carbon neutrality announcement, also for 2050. So, more and more companies are working in this direction, and the industry, as a whole, is moving in that direction.

Tom Martin:            Well, David, as I mentioned in the introduction, you are the head of sustainability at Alltech, and so you must have a very large plate (of responsibilities), I would imagine. And I’m just wondering: What sorts of projects related to climate change are currently on that plate?

David Butler:            Well, I work with several teams across the company. So, I want to mention a couple of their projects first.

Alltech E-CO2 is a subsidiary that Alltech has that works with farmers to help measure and reduce their carbon footprint. And so, they’re growing and getting projects all over the world. There’s more and more demand for that. And they help farmers, in a lot of different ways, identify how they can reduce that carbon footprint. So, that’s really important.

                                 And then, our research and technical teams are working on a lot of exciting projects right now to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts from livestock production in general, but especially from ruminants. And some of those other environmental impacts include nutrient pollution, like nitrogen and phosphorus runoff in water or mineral contamination in soil and water. And so, I think that’s really exciting.

                                 But my team’s main focus, right at the moment, is working on our transition to renewable energy. And we began installing solar at some of our facilities. The first facility to have a solar ray is our plant in Serdán, Mexico. And those panels will be operating very soon.

                                 And we’re looking at energy efficiency improvements in our facilities, and we’re looking at purchasing renewable energy from solar developers through power purchase agreements as well.

Tom Martin:           What are some various ways to reduce the carbon footprint of cattle?

David Butler:             As you probably know, the big problem with cattle is that they produce methane when they digest grass and other kinds of fiber. And that happens because in their rumen, there are a number of different types of microbes that help to break down the cellulose in that plant matter. And some of those microbes produce methane. And interestingly, the same thing happens when termites eat wood.

So, that methane, when it’s produced by cattle, that’s not a good thing for the farmer. It’s actually kind of a waste product; it’s lost energy. It would be better if the cow was not producing methane and if the rest of that energy from, from the carbon and hydrogen bonds went into helping the cow grow.

                                So, agriculture is working on a lot of different ways to try to combat this problem. And it can help farmers be more profitable at the same time that it reduces the amount of methane that we produce. So, one way to do that is (to) improve the efficiency of ruminants by making them — making them healthier and giving them better nutrition. And, you know, the more milk that they produce from the same number of cattle, or the more meat they produce, then you have less methane per gallon of milk or per pound of meat.

Many of our products do just that. They improve the performance and productivity of livestock, which means it takes fewer animals to produce the same amount of food. So, that reduces the overall environmental footprint of livestock, including greenhouse gas emissions.

And beyond that, there’s a lot of work being done on feed additives and ingredients that show promise for reducing methane emissions from cattle and other ruminants. And people are looking into breeding cattle that can produce less methane.

                                So, at Alltech, we’re doing all kinds of research in this area and making great progress on finding solutions. And I think that it’s probably comforting for people to know that this is a problem for agriculture, too, just from a productivity standpoint, and that we want to solve that, and there are a lot of people working on that.

Tom Martin:            You’ve touched on solutions that are in discussion, research and development, and in practice at Alltech. What else could agriculture do, in general, to combat climate change?

David Butler:            Well, you know, farmers have been recycling biomass for thousands of years, right? Nothing is wasted on the farm. Manure is used as fertilizer and, you know, crop waste, like corn stalks, (is) used as food for animals.

So, farmers are kind of like recyclers within the carbon cycle, right? They — everything they do revolves around the carbon cycle. I would like to see the agriculture industry take leadership of that and kind of help to transition us to a circular carbon economy.

And right now, an incredible amount of biomass goes into landfills or gets incinerated every year, and that’s a huge waste of nutrients and carbon. So, I’m talking about food waste, yard waste, wood waste and sewage sludge that all end up in landfills or are incinerated.

                                 And if you can imagine, we could take all of that organic matter, that biomass, and reuse it or recycle it in some way. Some things can become animal feed, some things can become compost, and other things can go into anaerobic digesters to produce natural gas or renewable electricity.

                                 And then, at the end of that cycle, everything else can go into biochar. And that’s a big topic, maybe for another day: What is biochar? We could talk about that for two hours.

Tom Martin:            Can you just give us a quick definition of that?

David Butler:            Yeah, sure. So, if you take organic matter — it could be wood chips, it could be straw, it could be manure — and you heat it without oxygen, you’re essentially baking it. It’s called paralysis. And (if) you drive off almost all the hydrogen and the oxygen, and you’re just left with this kind of crystalline carbon. And if you put that carbon in the soil, or if you use it in manufacturing of some other product, like roadways or plastics or concrete, then you’re pulling that carbon out of the carbon cycle, and so, you’re sequestering it. And it can last in the soil for hundreds and thousands of years. And that’s a great way to draw down carbon from the atmosphere.

Tom Martin:            It’s all so interesting, and we’ll revisit (this topic) over time. David Butler, head of sustainability at Alltech. We thank you so much, David.

David Butler:           Yeah. Thank you, Tom.

Tom Martin:            I’m Tom Martin. Thanks for listening. This has been Ag Future, presented by Alltech.

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