The U.S. is one of the world’s largest agricultural producers and largest exporter of food. American farms are some of the most efficient and productive in the world, but direct emissions from agriculture comprise more than 8 percent of total U.S. emissions.
Soil management practices that release nitrous oxides (N2O) into the atmosphere are the largest single source of these agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (49 percent). The second largest (44 percent) is the methane produced by livestock raised for meat and dairy production.
Slowing agricultural emissions while still meeting growing global demand for food will require significant innovations in agricultural practices. On the supply side, new technologies, practices, and policies will need to increase productivity, reduce the use of fertilizers, increase carbon sequestration through soil management, and cut methane emissions from livestock. At the same time, demand-side measures can minimize the consumption and waste of GHG-intensive foods.
Agriculture Policy Focus Areas
Roughly half of all agricultural GHG emissions in the U.S. come from soil-management practices such as tillage, fertilization, and irrigation. But numerous scientific studies show that better soil-health–management systems can also aid carbon sequestration and reduce these emissions.
Both livestock and decaying plant matter emit methane, which is as much as thirty times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Policies to reduce agricultural methane include adjusting feeding practices, implementing methane-recovery technologies at landfills, and increasing rates of recycling and composting.
Even if we improve agricultural efficiency significantly, meat and dairy will likely remain the most GHG-intensive foods on our plates. But compared to their meat counterparts, plant-based pork and chicken could reduce emissions by 30–36 percent and plant-based burgers could reduce emissions by 80–90 percent. Cell-based or lab-cultivated meat can likewise drastically reduce GHGs.
In the U.S., about 40 percent of all food—enough to fill a semi-truck every 20 seconds—goes uneaten. As this waste decays, it generates extremely potent methane emissions. Strategies to reduce these emissions include improving the efficiency of operations and supply chains and finding uses for edible byproducts.