CSU ecologist likes steak, calls out cattle, tracks greenhouse gasses in the food cycle | SteamboatToday.com
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CSU ecologist likes steak, calls out cattle, tracks greenhouse gasses in the food cycle

Steps for consumers

• Compost or recycle your own organic waste (food waste that goes into the garbage disposal doesn’t find its way into the landfill).

• Eat low on the food chain.

• Support growers who rotate crops and use cover crops instead of tilling soil to suppress weeds.

• Avoid or limit consumption of foods that arrive by air transport, for example, winter strawberries.

— Old McDonald had a farm, and on his farm he had some cows and sheep that produced more greenhouse gases than did the pigs and chickens. That’s because the cows and sheep are ruminants, whose complex digestive tracts cause them to belch large quantities of methane into the air. It’s a problem.

Mark Easter, a senior research associate at the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at Colorado State University, told an audience of almost 50 people at the Depot Art Center in Steamboat Tuesday night that food production is a major contributor to greenhouse gases (some estimate 14 percent of greenhouse gases come from agriculture), and cattle are a significant contributor.

Steps for consumers

• Compost or recycle your own organic waste (food waste that goes into the garbage disposal doesn’t find its way into the landfill).



• Eat low on the food chain.

• Support growers who rotate crops and use cover crops instead of tilling soil to suppress weeds.

Participate in The Longevity Project

The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.



• Avoid or limit consumption of foods that arrive by air transport, for example, winter strawberries.

Easter’s talk was hosted by the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. He recognized Bob and Sarah Woodmansee, of Stagecoach, who were in the audience. Bob Woodmansee is director emeritus of NREL.

As cattle digest grass in the first of their four stomachs, the plant material reacts with microbes resulting in the production of large amounts of methane, which the cows expel by belching. Add to that the amount of carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, that goes into raising cattle (baling hay and trucking meat to market), and cattle are a significant contributor to greenhouse gases, Easter said.

Cattle produce roughly twice as much methane as pigs and farmed salmon, he said.

“When I first saw this, I wanted to cry,” Easter said. “I grew up eating steak. But when I look at this, it tells me, for my own life, I need to make informed food decisions.”

Steamboat area rancher Jo Stanko, a member of Easter’s audience, came to the defense of cattle producers in Northwest Colorado.

“The thing about growing things here is we grow grass. We can’t consume grass,” Stanko pointed out. “The animals adapt to the environment and are able to turn it into meat. Are you talking about the benefits of having cattle for carbon sequestration? You need to also take into account the environmental positives of having these animals.”

For purposes of looking at the cumulative impact of agriculture on greenhouse gases, Easter used the production of bread as a model.

“You see it on the plate of so many meals,” he said. “Bread is a really important food source, but the story of bread (in terms of greenhouse gas production) is really the story of wheat.”

Our society is “extremely dependent on natural gas and oil for food production, Easter said. But the greenhouse gas impacts of food production don’t stop there.

Greenhouse gases are produced when farmers till the soil, use a tractor to fertilize it and use a combine to harvest it, before shipping it on to a grain elevator or miller who, in turn, ships it to a baker.

Plowing exposes soil carbon to microbes that convert organic matter to large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). And applying fertilizer to the soil results in nitrous oxide (NO2) emissions, which are very efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere, Easter said.

However, Easter added, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases in the food chain is the 40 percent of food that is discarded in landfills, where microbes in a limited oxygen environment convert it into methane (CH4).

“I was shocked, and I was really frustrated (upon learning that) because I’m a gardener. Food from the grocery is this pure elemental thing,” Easter said. “I didn’t want to think about fossil fuels and methane, but as it turns out, there is a legacy of greenhouse gases in every food and it goes straight back to natural gas and petroleum.”

Steamboat Today reported in 2011 that Twin Enviro Services, which operates the landfill near Milner, had begun a residential pick-up service for food waste that keeps such waste out of the landfill and composts it.

Easter said one of the pieces of good news on the greenhouse gas front is that the state of California is leading the way with plans to turn to composing operations in order to greatly reduce food waste in landfills.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1


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