Stifling heat waves, droughts, devastating forest and wildland fires, flooding, violent cyclones, rising sea levels, human lives lost — we’ve heard about this and more in the news this summer. And while each story is grim enough in itself, they add up to what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns is “a code red for humanity.”
That was his reaction to the climate-change report (https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/) released on Aug. 8. It was done by a panel of 234 authors from all over the world. Known as the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, it was established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization.
“The alarm bells are deafening,” said Guterres. “Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.”
“This report tells us that recent changes in the climate are widespread, rapid and intensifying, unprecedented in thousands of years,” said the panel’s Vice-Chair Ko Barrett.
Quick ABCs of climate change
Put simply, climate change is what happens when greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere trap the sun’s heat and stop it from leaking back into space, which, in turn, causes global warming.
Go here (https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data) to see charts and graphs of scientific data about global gas greenhouse emissions.
While many of these greenhouses gases occur naturally, industrialization with its dependence on burning of fossil fuels and coal, along with other human activities including agriculture, has led to a speed up of increased atmospheric concentrations of some of these gases, notably carbon dioxide.
As carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas levels rise, the land and the ocean can’t be as effective as in the past in absorbing and slowing the build-up of these gases in the atmosphere.
By 2020, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere had risen to 48 percent above its pre-industrial levels before 1760.
Another culprit in climate change is deforestation. Because trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, when they are cut down, the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect. And with deforestation, the trees aren’t even there to absorb the carbon dioxide and release oxygen.
Increased livestock farming also comes into the picture because cows and sheep produce large amounts of methane when they digest their food. Methane is actually a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, although its atmospheric timeline is shorter.
Surprisingly, rice production is also a major methane producer.
Another agricultural culprit is nitrous oxide emissions, which happen when fertilizers containing nitrogen produce nitrous oxide emissions.
Looking at these causes, it quickly becomes evident that humans are the main reason for the buildup of greenhouse gases. And that means, of course, that it will be up to us to lower the emissions. We can’t just hope they’ll go away.
Humans . . . and some good news
The good news, according to the report, is that people still have the potential to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxides and other greenhouse gases, which would, in turn, limit climate change.
Electric cars, biofuels, wind turbines, solar energy — these are some of the ways that people are hoping to bring about some changes. But there are also important changes brewing in agriculture, which globally accounts for about one-third of total greenhouse gases and black-carbon emissions. (Black carbon is made up of tiny particles of carbon that are released when fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass aren’t completely burned.)
Turning cows upside down
Think cows and you think of beef and milk products. A juicy steak, a hamburger on the grill, tacos, a slab of cheese, some yoghurt and, of course, an ice cream cone.
But climate scientists also think about the ways that cows contribute to global warming.
To begin with, cattle are at the top of the list when it comes to agricultural sources of greenhouse gases worldwide. Raised for both beef and milk, as well as for inedible outputs like manure and draft power, they are responsible for the most emissions —about 65 percent — of the livestock sector’s emissions.
This is in large part because cows are ruminants. Grasses and other roughage that cows eat are hard to break down and digest, which is why cows have specialized compartments, often referred to as “four stomachs.” Microbes in these multi-chambered stomachs help them digest their food by fermenting it. This is the process that produces the powerful greenhouse gas methane, which gets released into the atmosphere when they burp.
Each year, a single cow will belch about 220 pounds of methane. Although methane from cows doesn’t live as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it is 28 times more potent in warming the atmosphere.
But there’s more than that to consider. For example, trees are cut down to open up more grazing land and fertilizers are applied for crops that are grown to feed cows. As for water, a conventional hamburger requires about 660 gallons to produce.
Down on the farm
Some cattle farmers — both dairy and beef — are looking at different feeds and even different breeds to help decrease greenhouse gases.
As part of that, they’re using dietary supplements and additives to decrease methane emissions.
Some are also changing the way they store and handle manure. In some cases they’re covering manure lagoons to prevent methane and other gases from escaping into the atmosphere. The upside to this is that these gases can then be used to generate power on the farm and in some cases for neighboring homes.
Up in the lab
Then there’s “alt meat,” often called, cultivated meat, lab meat or even clean meat.
This is different from what’s being hailed as “meatless meat” — plant-based meats sold as Beyond Meat and Awesome Burgers.
To produce cultivated meat, a biopsy is taken from a cow and the cells are incubated in media rich in nutrients that mimics the natural body of the animals. These nutrients help the cells thrive and divide. With the use of a bioreactor and some technological aids, muscle and fat tissues are created. The end product is biologically the same as the meat that comes from an animal. Bottomline, it’s real meat made from real animals.
When it comes to food safety, there’s no need of feedlots or slaughterhouses, where foodborne pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella can run rampant. And the cow, itself, doesn’t have to be killed. In addition, the entire process is done under sterile conditions and monitored for possible contaminants the whole way through.
Bill Gates, an advocate of this approach, describes the finished product like this: “Cultivated meat has all the same fat, muscles and tendons as any animal . . . all this can be done with little or no greenhouse gas emissions, aside from the electricity you need to power the labs where the process is done.
Uma Valeti of Memphis Meats, now rebranded as UPSIDE Foods says he expects meats made this way will produce up to 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and need that much less water and land than conventionally produced meat.
But out in the marketplace, price comes into the picture. In 2013 when news about the first lab-grown hamburger came out, the burger would have cost $330,00. But over time some industry experts said it could be produced for $9 for a quarter-pound burger. Market gurus say when that number is under $10 per pound, consumers — not just “ultra-consumers” — will be interested.
In the case of plant-based products, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats, which contain no meat at all, some consumers have already shown that they’re willing to pay slightly more for them than for actual meats.
Some predict that producing meat in a lab rather than out in the field will one day render the cattle industry obsolete. And that the land currently used to raise cattle can be used to grow crops for human consumption or trees instead.
But others say it won’t happen overnight. Ten years might be more like it, and that’s just to take a 10 percent share of the global meat market by 2030. Meanwhile, demand for meat keeps growing.
When asked if this breakthrough approach to producing meat will open the door to improvements in food safety, Paul Burridge, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at Northwestern Medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine, gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Cultivated meat by its nature is sterile. With traditional meat, there are so many potential points of contamination. The animals come from so many different places and are raised in so many different ways. During slaughter, there’s the risk of organ and fecal contamination.”
In contrast, he said, meat made in a lab is extremely uniform. And the process is easier to monitor, which makes it very safe.”
Not that there still won’t be cows in the future. Just as there are still horses even though people have cars now.
“But they’ll be more of a legacy,” Burridge said. “They won’t be bred for meat anymore.”
Pointing out that as it is now, agriculture is heavily subsidized, he said: “We’re all paying for that through our taxes,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be great to replace it with a self-supporting system that’s much cleaner and greener. This will be a real game-changer.”
Go here (https://gfi.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/One-pager_-2020-Cultivated-Meat-SOTIR.pdf) for the 2020 state of the industry report on cultivated meats.
Cheese without the cows
“We aim to create a kinder, greener tomorrow by developing new ways to make the foods you love today.”
That’s Ryan Pandya, cofounder and CEO of Perfect Day Foods, which is making cheese and other dairy products without using cows.
Instead it uses a process called precision fermentation, relying on microorganisms instead of cows to produce milk proteins.
To do this, genetic information is fed into a culture of microorganisms such as fungi or yeast. This culture is then grown in fermentation tanks. Once enough proteins have been produced, the proteins are then separated from the microorganisms.
What you get from this is cultured milk proteins that are identical to conventionally produced animal proteins, and which, in turn can be used to make dairy products such as cheese, yogurt and ice cream.
“By utilizing microflora as miniature factories, we’ve figured out how to make these components of milk without cows,” says an article on the company’s website.
Fermentation is nothing new. It is a long-established proven process that uses microbes such as yeast or fungi, to break down a compound, such as sugar, and create a by-product, like alcohol – or, in this case, protein.
When it comes to food safety, the benefits of creating milk products this way are obvious. Instead of dealing with cows, all of their manure, and the foodborne pathogens such as E.coli that can contaminate their milk, fermentation is done in sterile tanks in a sterile setting.
As for helping to reduce greenhouse gases, climate scientists say that reducing the number of dairy cows on the land would make an important difference.
They point out that while most of the concern about food and climate change focuses on meat, dairy also has a significant footprint. By one calculation, it accounts for more than 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — far more than the entire aviation industry.
According to Perfect Foods’ website, if U.S. food makers were to switch to only 5 percent of the bovine protein made with the company’s precision fermentation process, it would be equivalent of removing up to 2.7 million passenger vehicles from roads each year. That’s equivalent to the number of cars each registered in Arizona, Colorado or New Jersey. And it would offset the emissions from 2.2 million homes’ electricity use each year, which is equivalent to more than all new homes built annually in the United States.
By removing cows from the equation, the production of milk is “dramatically more efficient,” says the company’s website, producing up to 97 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional dairy.
According to figures from The Good Food Institute (gfi.org) — a nonprofit that aims to boost innovation in alternative proteins — $590 million was invested in fermented alternative proteins in 2020, and $300 million of that went to Perfect Day.
Rice and methane; no easy solutions
Rice presents a two-fold challenge. Methane and arsenic. The first has to do with climate change and the second has to do with food safety.
A nutritional staple for more than half of the world’s population of 9.7 billion people, rice has its downside: Rice production emits methane, a greenhouse gas that’s more than 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Although figures vary, recent research suggests that flooded rice fields, referred to as “rice paddies,” account for about 10 percent of emissions from agriculture globally.
Why is this so? It turns out that water that floods the fields blocks oxygen from penetrating into the soil. As a result, the low-oxygen, dense, and waterlogged soils that the plants grow in provide the perfect environment for microbes that produce methane gas. The longer the fields are flooded, the more those bacteria build up.
Looking to the future, the world’s growing population, and along with it, increased rice production, could present even more of a problem when it comes to climate change.
Solutions aren’t easy to come by, primarily because rice is grown in so many ways in so many parts of the world. But researchers are working on figuring out ways to help reduce the methane emissions.
One possible solution that has shown good promise is a sequence of wetting and drying of the fields to prevent methane from building up. If timed perfectly, this has the potential to reduce emissions by 90 percent.
However, this is no slam dunk. This and other irrigation-related possibilities, face many challenges. For example, in areas where rice is grown during the rainy season, farmers can’t drain their fields. Another challenge is the farmers’ ability to control water well enough to make sure both wetting and drying are happening when they should. And even in California, where fields are so large and irrigation delivery so slow, farmers can’t wet and dry their fields “on cycle.”
Then, too, farmers are not rewarded for reducing emissions and don’t suffer any penalties for increasing them. To change this around would take millions, if not billions, of dollars, money for something that some governments consider a low priority.
Nevertheless researchers and farmers see rice management as a good opportunity for the Global Alliance for Climate Agriculture (http://www.fao.org/gacsa/en/) to show on-the-ground projects in the most promising locations and also ways to boost incentives to make improvements in water management.
Food safety tied to arsenic in rice
Rice contains arsenic. That goes for organic and brown rice, as well as for conventional rice. In fact, some studies have shown that organic and brown rice can contain more arsenic than conventional rice. That is especially the case with brown rice because arsenic is mainly concentrated in the husk of the rice.
So how does arsenic get into rice? To begin with, arsenic is naturally present in bedrock and is absorbed by the rice through the soil or irrigation water.
A common way of growing rice is in paddy fields — fields that are flooded with a great deal of irrigation water. In many growing areas, this water is contaminated with arsenic. In addition, arsenic may accumulate in the soil of the paddy fields, which makes matters worse. Then, too, rice absorbs more arsenic from water and soil than other crops.
Even so, while the levels of arsenic in many rice products aren’t high enough in themselves to pose acute health risks in the short term, including cancer, consumers are advised to keep an eye on how much they’re eating. According to a research project in Sweden, eating rice and rice products a few times a week is fine. However, arsenic content in baby food containing rice has remained a concern. It can cause developmental problems as well as other issues for babies and developing systems in children’s bodies and brains.
Rinsing rice before cooking can help get rid of a minimal amount of the arsenic. But it also washes off valuable nutrients, among them iron, folate, thiamine and niacin. Boiling rice with a generous amount of water that is then discarded can decrease arsenic content by half. Some varieties such as jasmine and basmati contain less arsenic than other varieties. And some brands have less arsenic than others.
One of the solutions to the problem of arsenic in rice is a lot like one of the solutions to lowering methane emissions in rice production: manipulating the amount of paddy water in the fields. In one study, plant scientist Daniela Carrijo of Oregon State University found that letting soil moisture drop to 35 percent volumetric water content twice during the growing season could cut the amount of inorganic arsenic by half compared to what happens when the paddies are continuously flooded.
Another research project found that while while keeping the fields dry for a longer time reduces the accumulation of arsenic in the rice grains, it decreases total yield and productivity and can also increase levels of cadmium, which is another deadly toxin.
How hot is our planet getting?
Climate scientists say that the earth’s surface temperature has already warmed by about 1 degree C, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, since the 1800s, before industrialization took hold. The fear is that it’s on its way to reaching 1.5 degrees C, or 2.7 F by as early as 2030.
According to the panel’s recent report, the increase is already at 1.2 degrees C — and rising.
What does this mean to all of us? Bottomline, the more the Earth’s temperature rises, the more changes in the climate system we’ll see. For example, more frequent and intense high temperature extremes, heavier rains, agricultural droughts in some regions, intense tropical cyclones and even less Arctic snow ice, snow cover and permafrost, which lead to rising sea levels.
Climate change scientists warn that at an increase of 2 degrees C when compared to the temperature in pre-industrial times will seriously harm the natural environment as well as human health and wellbeing. And with that comes predictions that dangerous and possibly catastrophic changes in the global environment will occur.
For this reason, the international community has recognized the need to keep warming well below 2 degrees C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees C.
“We need immediate action on energy,” said UN Secretary General Gutteres.”Without deep carbon pollution cuts now, the 1.5-degree goal will fall quickly out of reach . . . . If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as today’s report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”
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