USDA promotes electricity from manure, dairy farmers pledge 25 percent emissions cut

Tom Vilsack after being announced United State...

Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack. Image via Wikipedia

COPENHAGEN–A typical herd of 700 dairy cows can power 200 homes, according to the nation’s top farmer, but only about 2 percent of them do that job. The US plans to plug in more cows.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack signed a memorandum of understanding with U.S. dairy producers here today, vowing to accelerate the development of systems for converting manure into electricity.

For their part, diary producers have committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020.

But Vilsack and a panel of green American farmers he brought with him didn’t address the most direct form of greenhouse-gas emissions from livestock.

A single dairy cow can produce 400 liters of methane gas each day, and in the UK have been identified as the source of 25 percent of methane emissions. Scientists have proposed battling livestock flatulence through changes in feed, activists through vegetarianism.

“Agriculture not only has the potential to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions but also to serve as a carbon sink,” Vilsack said.

Although the carbon cap & trade proposal passed by the House last summer will initially increase costs for farmers, Vilsack said it will result in a net gain: $1 billion in the short term growing to $15 billion in 204o.

Vilsack is the latest in a series of cabinet secretaries to travel to Copenhagen to highlight the new U.S. commitment to halting global warming. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Energy Secretary Steven Chu preceded him.

Vilsack has been touting climate issues all week.

Yesterday USDA issued an update of a 2008 report which makes the case that climate change is already affecting agriculture in the U.S., though it does not estimate a cost.

“Climate change poses significant threats and challenges for farmers, ranchers, and those who make a living off the land, which will have a serious impact on our ability to feed the people of the United States and the world,” Vilsack said yesterday.

The impacts include increased disease, pest, and weed problems, drought, and reduced productivity of livestock, which don’t bulk up as readily in warmer weather.

On Friday, Vilsack met with international agriculture interests and climate change experts to discuss the role of agriculture in the pending accord.

At that event he argued that reduced carbon emissions would help agriculture feed the world’s booming population.

“Research conducted by USDA has shown the benefits in terms of reduced carbon emissions of increased cropping intensity, low-energy precision application irrigation, and no till practices,” he said. “But we must do more.”

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