New EPA Data Shows Agricultural Emissions Remain High

Highlights Urgent Need for Investment

New EPA Data Shows Agricultural Emissions Remain High

The latest estimates of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, for 2022, are in. Though published just in time for Earth Day, they’re not exactly cause for celebration, at least not for agriculture.

The new greenhouse gas (GHG) data from the Environmental Protection Agency sheds light on a critical but often overlooked aspect of our fight against climate change: emissions from livestock production. The U.S. aims to cut economy-wide GHG emissions to at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. Technological advances and supportive policies like the Inflation Reduction Act have put some sectors of the economy on track for moderate reductions; emissions from electric power generation have been steadily falling, for example. But emissions from agriculture have barely budged, with livestock emissions even higher than in the 2000s or 1990s.

This sluggish progress underscores an urgent need for the federal government and private sector to invest in developing and scaling up low-carbon agricultural technologies and practices. These include a variety of strategies — like breeding low-methane cattle, managed grazing, and feeding cattle seaweed — that have shown promise in studies, but are at an early phase of development.

How Have Livestock Emissions Changed?

Livestock emissions can be broadly categorized into three main sources: enteric fermentation, manure management, and the production and application of fertilizers for feed crops.

Enteric Fermentation: Methane released during the digestive process of ruminant animals like cows and sheep accounts for the largest share of livestock emissions. Enteric methane emissions have been slow to decline. EPA estimates emissions in 2022 were 2% lower than in 2021, largely due to a decrease in the beef cattle population. But emissions were still higher than levels in the 2000s or in 1990 when estimates first began. This is partly due to the increasing demand for meat and dairy, which offsets efficiency gains in some regions.

Manure Management: Emissions from manure management arise when livestock waste decomposes, releasing methane and nitrous oxide — both potent greenhouse gases. How manure is stored or treated significantly influences emissions. Storing it as a liquid or slurry produces more methane than when animals deposit it on pasture or range, or when farmers store manure as a solid. This has grown more common, particularly in dairy and pig facilities. As a result, manure emissions have dramatically grown and are more than 50% higher than in 1990.
Fertilizer Production and Application: The production of fertilizers for feed crops releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide, while their application can lead to nitrous oxide emissions. As the global appetite for meat increases, so does the demand for feed, escalating these emissions. Innovations in fertilizer efficiency and alternative, lower-emission crop management practices offer pathways to reduce this impact, but scaling these solutions remains a challenge. EPA estimates that direct nitrous oxide emissions from applying fertilizer and manure to cropland were nearly the same in 2022 as in 2005.

The Case for Federal and Private Sector Intervention

Livestock’s carbon footprint has been stubbornly high for years, but that doesn’t mean farmers and the industry haven’t improved. They have. Efficiency gains have made meat and dairy production less emissions-intensive per gallon and pound produced.

Yet EPA’s new estimates are a stark reminder of how slow that change has been and how much more can be done. Significant government and industry investment in decarbonizing livestock production is necessary to further develop low-carbon innovations and increase farmer adoption of best practices.

New investments in cutting enteric methane emissions are particularly important. A range of innovative solutions is emerging that could substantially reduce enteric methane emissions. These innovations include vaccines targeting the microorganisms involved in enteric fermentation, breeding cattle that would produce lower emissions, and incorporating dietary additives that decrease methane production. Various government programs have funded and conducted initial research into several of these areas; for example, the Department of Agriculture recently awarded two $5 million grants to the University of Florida and University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study how to cut enteric emissions. Companies and industry groups have also supported enteric research, contributing over $2.5 million through the Greener Catttle Initiative, for example.

This is important progress, but more support will be needed to scale up use of methane-reducing technologies and practices. As a 2023 White House report noted, more research is needed to accurately estimate enteric methane emissions and how different practices and products, like feed additives, affect emissions. Such efforts require new funding. The Breakthrough Institute has called on Congress to provide robust funding for research, development, measurement, monitoring, and verification related to enteric methane emission solutions. And we have supported bipartisan legislative efforts like the EMIT LESS Act to not only expand research, but also to provide farmers with financial support to adopt methane-reducing products and practices. In addition, more federally-backed financing would enable companies to quickly scale up production of enteric methane-reducing and other climate-smart technologies.

While developing and scaling-up use of low-carbon livestock practices is imperative, so too is alternative protein innovation. Plant-based and cultivated meat and dairy offer a parallel path to reducing agriculture’s environmental impact. Adoption of alternative proteins is low today with plant-based meat and milk accounting for roughly 1% and 15% of U.S. market share, respectively. But greater investment in R&D, as we and others have called on Congress to provide, could make these products higher quality, more affordable, and more widely adopted. So too could expanded federal support for financing of food manufacturing, as proposed in the bipartisan Food Supply Chain Capacity and Resiliency Act.

Only with new investments in livestock and alternative protein innovation and greater support for farmer adoption of climate-smart practices can we hope to see a new trend in nation-wide emissions: a significant decline like that seen in the power sector.