August 06, 2015

06/08/2015: Great Plains agricultural greenhouse gas emissions could be eliminated

Corn production in Colorado, USA.
Researchers from the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at Colorado State University and their partners have completed a historical analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from the US Great Plains that demonstrates the potential to completely eliminate agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from the region. 


The article, appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used historical agricultural census data and ecosystem models to estimate the magnitude of annual greenhouse gas emissions from all agricultural sources (e.g., cropping, livestock raising, irrigation, fertiliser production, and tractor use) in the Great Plains from 1870 to 2000.


"Carbon released during the plow-out of native grasslands was the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions before 1930," explained the study's lead author, William Parton, senior research scientist with CSU's NREL. 

"Livestock production, direct energy use for tractors and irrigation, and soil nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen fertiliser application are currently the largest sources."


The analysis demonstrated that adoption of best management practices (no-tillage agriculture and slow release fertiliser, for example) could substantially mitigate agricultural greenhouse gas fluxes.


"If just 25 percent of agricultural producers in the region adopted these practices, we estimate a 34 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions," said Parton.

"If 75 percent of them adopted the practices greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in the region could be completely eliminated."


These reductions in greenhouse gas fluxes would occur without any reduction in food production and are primarily a result of no-tillage cultivation practices.


"This is an important research milestone about the ways that population change shapes the environment," said Myron Gutmann, director of the Institute of Behavioural Science and professor of history at CU-Boulder, who was principal investigator on the project. 

"In this case, through the expansion of agriculture on the Great Plains and the need for different kinds of foods."

Gutmann said that, as farmers replaced human and animal labour with mechanised equipment and expanded herds of cattle to meet consumer demand for meat, emissions from these sources overwhelmed the otherwise beneficial effects of other agricultural changes, such as increased irrigation and a reduction in the extent of land in crop production.

Read more about the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences HERE.
Read more HERE.
 

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