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U.S. agriculture: Intensification has reduced impact on climate change

Corn harvest
Corn harvest

PHOTO: Matt Barton
LEXINGTON, Ky., -

When it comes to producing greenhouse gases, it turns out agriculture is not the bad guy some think it is.

Greenhouse gases derive from a number of sources, with the top three being electricity production, transportation and industry. Food production has not been found to be a leading source of greenhouse gases in this country. Since 1990, agricultural emissions have stayed flat, while production has increased significantly. And it’s that increase in production that may have resulted in the sector’s reduced impact on climate change, according to Paul Vincelli, plant pathologist in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Vincelli explained that there are two ways to measure the impact of any agricultural commodity production on global warming. One way is to measure how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere per acre. The other is per unit of agricultural production, such as per bushel of corn.

“In the last 50 years when measurements have been taken, it has been shown that the carbon footprint per unit of agricultural production has gone down substantially,” he said, attributing that to the dramatic yield increases producers have experienced over the past 100 years.

In the developing world, crop yields are often much lower, requiring the cultivation of more land, which Vincelli said can multiply the carbon footprint of food production by as much as three.

“Sure, there’s a carbon footprint to agricultural production, and we recognize that, and we want to make it better. Growers are always interested in improving their environmental impact as well as their bottom line,” he said, emphasizing that the ultimate goal is “sustainable intensification.”

“The intensification that we’ve experienced has actually, on a per unit of production basis, resulted in less of an impact on climate change,” he said. “That’s a really positive message, and I think growers should congratulate themselves for the wonderful work they’ve done.”

Contact: 

Paul Vincelli, 859-218-0722

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