Bureaucracy and belching: Cows aren’t the problem

 In Op-Ed

It’s often an untold story, but farm and ranch families have led conservation efforts across Nebraska for generations. With a deep love and appreciation for the land supporting their families and communities across the beef state, they are dedicated to caring for the resources entrusted to them. They know first-hand that caring for the environment protects and preserves their way of life for future generations.

According to both the USDA and EPA’s own measurements, beef cattle production in the U.S. accounts for only 2% of total greenhouse emissions. Transportation and electricity generation together make up 52%, by comparison.

In April of this year, the Biden administration’s U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a rule requiring all publicly traded companies to report their direct, energy/electricity generation, and supply chain greenhouse gas emissions. This rule would impact not only public companies, but every small business, supplier and agricultural producer who provides goods to the country’s publicly traded entities.

While this rule targets publicly traded companies, all private farms, ranches and small businesses that provide goods to publicly traded retailers and processors will be required to disclose emissions data under the supply chain reporting requirements. Why is this a problem? Accurately calculating agricultural emissions at the farm level is nearly impossible, and estimates will be inaccurate at best. Worse, farmers and ranchers could be at risk of legal liability from publicly traded companies or their shareholders over inaccurate reports which again, is beyond their control due to a lack of accurate data collection methodology.

We agree methane is a potent greenhouse gas — that said, greenhouse gas from cattle is vastly different than CO2, which is emitted from fossil fuels. When cattle belch methane, they are not adding new carbon to the atmosphere. Rather, this is part of the natural cycling of carbon through what’s called the biogenic carbon cycle. Unlike CO2 emitted from fossil fuels, which stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane belched from cattle only stays in the atmosphere for approximately 9-12 years before it’s recycled back into the ground. After cattle belch methane into the atmosphere, it is broken down and converted back to CO2. Once converted to CO2, plants can again use it for photosynthesis – the process by which plants use sunlight and CO2 to fuel growth. From there, cattle can eat the plants and the cycle begins once again.

Still, farmers and ranchers take this issue seriously. The U.S. cattle industry achieved significant progress in overall sustainability; we are doing more with less than our forefathers. Between 1961 and 2018, the U.S. beef industry reduced emissions per pound of beef by more than 40% while producing more than 60% more beef per animal. We are dedicated to continuously improving and becoming even more sustainable.

The SEC should stick to its jurisdiction of publicly traded companies and leave the duty of managing agricultural regulations to the EPA and USDA who have the expertise to understand emissions science and the day-to-day operations on farms and ranches. At a minimum, the SEC should not require the collection of new supply chain emissions data to satisfy its reporting requirements. Publicly available emissions estimations (including data from EPA greenhouse gas emissions inventory and USDA Life Cycle Assessments) are already available and are sufficient to satisfy any supply chain reporting requirement. Everything we eat requires the use of natural resources like land, energy, and water. Today, beef is produced using fewer of those resources than ever before. But conservation is never complete; farmers and ranchers will continue to work hard to feed a growing population while – at the same time working to reduce water use, care for the land, and protect the environment.

Brenda Masek, Nebraska Cattlemen President

Published in the Nebraska Examiner on June 7, 2022

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