Cut the Crap: The Need to Do More to Address Agricultural Methane Emissions

Agriculture produces more methane than the U.S. oil and gas sector, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide

The agricultural sector has a much larger impact on climate than most realize, and its emissions are different in kind from the carbon dioxide emission associated with the fossil fuel industry. While agriculture emits harmful amounts of carbon dioxide (mostly from on-farm energy use and land conversion), it also produces large amounts of methane (primarily from the digestion of ruminants and from manure) and nitrous oxide (mostly from manure and fertilizer) as well as changing the amount of carbon stored in vegetation and soil. These two greenhouse gases have a global warming impact that is much more powerful than carbon dioxide. Recognizing the potency of these emissions, the true climate impact of agriculture, and the fact that emissions from the agriculture sector continue to rise even as emissions from other sectors have decreased under greenhouse gas reduction policies, we simply cannot achieve our climate goals without significantly reducing these emissions. 

Agricultural methane is a particularly problematic source of emissions given its origins and scope.  Agriculture produces more methane than the U.S. oil and gas sector. The largest source of methane is enteric emissions from cows and sheep – animals whose ruminant stomachs produce large quantities of methane that they exhale with every breath. It also comes from wet manure management systems (primarily in the swine and dairy industries) where manure is stored in huge wastewater ponds or “lagoons.”  Rice fields and food waste rotting in landfills also release methane, though animal agriculture remains the primary source. Efforts to reduce methane emissions from agriculture – what few there have been – have thus far not been successful and may, in fact, have the perverse effect of increasing greenhouse gas emissions instead.  For example, while much attention has been devoted to anaerobic digesters – using animal waste to generate energy – these systems do nothing to address enteric emissions of methane.  And by monetizing waste, digesters eliminate incentives to reduce total manure generation and may even incentivize the growth of herd size which in turn will increase enteric methane emissions, as well as the noxious odors and pollution that disproportionately harm environmental justice communities. Meanwhile, initiatives like feed additives such as seaweed or synthetic chemicals to reduce methane from cow belches only reduce a small fraction of emissions, while producing the seaweed at a scale necessary to be effective could lead to a host of other sustainability concerns.

Despite the impact of agricultural methane on our climate and the lack of effective reduction strategies to date, the Biden Administration’s Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan (MERAP) proposes only to rely on already-established incentive-based and voluntary partnership programs to reduce emissions from this sector. While the MERAP proposes updating and implementing regulations to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, it proposes only to use tools already created under the Administration’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recently established climate-smart partnership initiative.  We urge the Administration to do more, and to look to stronger measures to monitor, report and reduce methane emissions from agriculture. Options include measures to shift manure management to systems that generate less methane, require methane capture from the largest generators, reduce herd size through demand-side measures (as is done in the energy and transportation sectors), and expand improved grazing systems.

Fortunately, the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) offers another opportunity to address methane emissions from agriculture.  It provides the U.S. Department of Agriculture almost $20 billion to incentivize practices that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, leaving the “what” and “how” to the Secretary’s discretion.  As the Secretary begins to implement the agricultural provisions of the IRA in which, for the first time, Congress explicitly tied agricultural funding to climate change mitigation practices, we urge him to consider practices that reduce all agricultural sources of greenhouse gases, including methane. 

There will undoubtedly be hard pushback from the industrial agriculture lobby to prevent the public from learning the truth about the harmful climate impacts of industrial animal agriculture as there has been any time there is an attempt to increase regulation of the sector.  Indeed, the lobby has gone to great lengths to obscure the facts about the climate footprint and pollution impact of animal agriculture.  For example, there were a multitude of proposed amendments to the IRA that would have prevented EPA from requiring monitoring or reporting on agricultural methane, and there is a longstanding congressional rider that prohibits the use of appropriated funding to support any program that would require industrial agriculture firms to report their greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.  Despite these efforts, it is essential that the Administration use more than only voluntary programs to curb agricultural greenhouse gas emissions if we have any chance of mitigating the climate harms emanating from this sector.  

View the Earthjustice Sustainable Food and Farming Program’s explainer on Agricultural Methane here: Burps in MERPS

Based in Washington, D.C., Carrie is the deputy managing attorney of the Sustainable Food & Farming Program.

Mustafa Saifuddin is a staff scientist with the Sustainable Food and Farming Program based in the Northeast office.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.