Thursday, March 21, 2024

Climate-friendly beef? Argentina’s new ‘carbon-neutral’ certification could help reduce livestock emissions – if it’s done right

Cattle are major producers of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
Paul Winters, University of Notre Dame

In Argentina, where beef is a symbol of national pride, a government-led partnership has started certifying certain livestock as carbon neutral. It’s a big step that shouldn’t be underestimated, but getting the certification process right is crucial.

The world’s livestock sector is a key driver of climate change, contributing around 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Two-thirds of agriculture’s annual greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, with raising cattle for meat typically being the most emissions-intensive activity. While shifting diets to plant-based foods and alternative proteins can help reduce emissions, global meat consumption is growing with an expanding population and rising prosperity.

There are ways that livestock producers can reduce those emissions. However, beyond social pressure, ranchers have few incentives to do so. Unless those steps to reduce emissions also increase productivity, they typically become costs with little immediate benefit in return.

With formal certification, farmers can earn a higher price. This has been the case with certified organic or fair-trade products. If livestock could be raised in ways that produce fewer emissions and certified as climate-friendly, the resulting higher prices they could fetch might give producers an incentive to invest in reducing their herds’ emissions.

A cow photographed through a tree canopy.
Argentina’s new ‘carbon-neutral’ certification hinges on the grazing landscape sequestering carbon in trees and in the soil to offset methane produced by the cattle. Papa Pic, Eldorado, Argentina, CC BY

Argentina’s certification approach relies on a silvopastoral system, which integrates tree growth with grazing or production of grasses or grains for fodder. Livestock are raised in forest interspersed with native natural grasslands and cultivated pastures. The pasture and grazing are managed to return nutrients and organic matter to the soil.

The trees and soil regeneration methods both store carbon, leading to the certification’s claim that the cattle, despite the greenhouse gases they produce, are carbon neutral.

The certification, approved in early 2024, is a collaboration between Argentina’s National Agricultural Technology Institute and National Industrial Technology Institute and the Argentinian private sector, with certification from the International Environmental Product Declaration System, one of the first and longest operating third-party verification systems of environmental claims.

This silvopastoral system may be hard to replicate elsewhere, but it’s only one way to reduce livestock emissions. I’m an agricultural and resource economist and executive director for the Innovation Commission for Climate Change, Food Security and Agriculture, led by Nobel Laureate Michael Kremer. Here are some other emerging innovations that could lead to livestock certifications that reduce emissions:

1. Feed additives

Innovative feed additives, such as red seaweed, could reduce livestock methane emissions by 26% to 98%, depending on the type of additive and how it is administered.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with many times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. About 12% of ruminants’ gross energy intake goes into digestive processes that generate methane, which the cows belch into the air. So reducing methane emissions via feed additives could also increase productivity while maintaining milk quality. If cattle can conserve energy in the digestive process, they can redirect it toward animal growth and milk production.

Startup companies, such as Blue Ocean Barns and FutureFeed, have started to produce feed additives to reduce methane. However, products like these aren’t widely used yet, largely because cattle producers have no incentive to invest in changing their practices.

2. Gene editing

Research underway into gene editing – intentionally altering the genetic code of a living organism – may also have the potential to change the microbes that produce methane in livestock’s gut microbiomes. That could substantially reduce livestock emissions.

This type of innovation might benefit farmers who let their livestock graze in fields rather than provide them with feed. Compared to additives like seaweed, gene editing is meant to be a long-term solution, which would make it more cost-effective over time. But like feed additives, currently there is limited incentive for breeders and producers to consider this direction.

3. Advanced farm-management practices

Advanced farm-management practices, such as improved feeding software, could also help reduce methane emissions intensity. These practices tend to be more affordable than other options.

For example, dairy production in sub-Saharan Africa is much more emissions intensive per gallon of milk than production in North America or Europe, and cows in the region are only 5%-7% as productive. This is due to a host of management limitation in low-income settings.

Existing technologies for animal management can be adapted to increase production efficiency and reduce overall emissions. Methods of providing better nutrition and animal care for livestock that limit excess methane production are already widely used in higher-income countries. These methods could also be adapted for producers in low- and middle-income regions, with support and the right incentives.

Certification as a path forward

Certification can give livestock producers incentive to use these methods, but certification systems must be carefully designed.

Claims like Argentina’s should be reliably verified to ensure that the certification is credible. Argentina took an important step by including a proven third-party verification system, going beyond similar “climate-friendly” national programs initiated in Australia and the United States.

The organizations that verify certificates should play a role in establishing the rules, but so should governments. For example, feed additives alone are unlikely to reach “carbon-neutral,” but organizations are exploring whether lesser reductions could be sufficient for livestock to be certified as “climate friendly” and earn a higher price for producers.

Cattle cross a dirt road with trees and rangeland in the background.
Cattle graze in Argentina. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

Finally, certification will only work if consumers are willing to pay a higher price for carbon-neutral, or even just climate-friendly, meat and dairy products.

Higher payments can come directly from consumers buying certified products or through government regulations requiring all meat and dairy products be certified. For example, under its Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Commission encourages food systems that can mitigate climate change. If the commission were to only accept meat and dairy products certified as climate-friendly, that would create an incentive to pursue certification to enter the large European market.

Some environmental groups have complained that climate certification for beef and related carbon credits result in greenwashing, allowing companies and the industry to burnish their reputations while continuing to release emissions. But certification can also encourage livestock producers to take steps they otherwise wouldn’t to reduce overall emissions for a better planet.The Conversation

Paul Winters, Professor of Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Caring for a Feathered Flock

An antidote to the stresses of work and the fast pace of modern life may be closer than you realize. Whether on family farms or in urban backyards, chickens have the power to make your corner of the planet better.

Not only does raising chickens provide you with access to eggs for a tasty, nutritious and versatile food source, it also allows your family to be more self-sufficient, reduce your food miles and establish a family hobby that allows you to connect with one another.

“Chickens make wonderful companions and are often an overlooked option when a family is seeking the countless social, cognitive, physical and emotional benefits of pet ownership,” said Dr. Tanya K. Bailey, a pet therapist and creator of Pet Away Worry & Stress, a program that celebrates the healing connection between humans, animals and nature. “The fact is, many backyard chicken owners view their chickens as lovable household pets that contribute to their family’s sense of well-being.”

Before you bring your own flock home, consider these tips for raising chickens successfully:

You may think of chickens as grain-eating vegetarians, but they’re actually omnivores with a diverse diet. Most chickens eat insects, as well as herbs, fruits, vegetables and grains. Experts recommend having enough food available for chickens to graze throughout the day, but a single daily feeding is usually adequate.

A specially designed chicken waterer can help ensure your hens always have a supply of clean water, but some prefer a trough-style waterer instead.

Chickens require room to roam, but they also need protection from predators and the weather. The most common setup for chicken housing involves an enclosed coop and a secure area where they can wander freely. Plan to secure several square feet of space per chicken to avoid crowding.

The coop you need will depend on many factors, but a versatile option like the Eglu Pro chicken coop is suitable for flocks of varying sizes. It provides housing for up to 10 large hens or 15 bantams with a low-maintenance design and hygienic, comfortable habitat. The coop offers a controllable climate with adjustable vents and double-walled insulation and numerous features to protect chickens from predators, including raccoon-proof locks.

“Over many hours, we watched, learned, asked and then invented an enhanced coop that does justice to the brilliance of the humble chicken, a pet that can bring so much joy to family members of all ages,” said Johannes Paul, co-founder of Omlet. “The ingenuity of the Eglu Pro is that it turns the dream of keeping chickens into a reality for everyone. Created not just for the chicken but because of the chicken, this coop helps those who are looking to slow down, destress and take control of their busy lives or crave the need to build a community around them.”

It’s important to keep a close eye on your chickens’ health and safety. Proper housing and routine cleaning are keys to deter predators and prioritize hygiene to help minimize illnesses. Just like other pets, chickens require sufficient exercise and stimulation to maintain good health, which you can provide with foraging activities.

If you’re considering a new pet, chickens make for a lovable, economical option. Find more advice for raising a feathered flock at


Chocolate of the Month Club Club

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Our robot harvests cotton by reaching out and plucking it, like a lizard’s tongue snatching flies

Cotton in bloom in Oklahoma. John Elk/the image Bank via Getty Images
Hussein Gharakhani, Mississippi State University

Cotton is one of the most valuable crops grown in the U.S., with a harvest value of some US$7 billion yearly. It is cultivated across a crescent of 17 states stretching from Virginia to California and is used in virtually every type of clothing, as well as in medical supplies and home goods such as upholstery.

Cotton grows inside a hard, fibrous case called a boll. About 100 days after planting, the bolls mature and split open, revealing thousands of fluffy white fibers inside. Each boll contains 20 to 40 seeds with fibers attached to them, which is why the cotton plant’s fruit is called seed cotton.

Picking cotton manually, as is still done in some major producing countries, is a meticulous task. Workers have to bend to reach the bolls and can hurt their hands on hard, dry parts of the plants. To harvest the seed cotton, they have to grab and twist it to separate it from the boll without leaving fiber behind.

Starting in the 1930s, cotton farmers in the U.S. shifted from manual labor to large, heavy harvesters. Now the industry is entering a new stage that promises to be more efficient and precise.

I am an engineer and have nearly 20 years of research experience working on agricultural machinery. My current focus is on agricultural robotics and automation. During my Ph.D. program at Mississippi State University, I worked with Alex Thomasson, who heads the agricultural and biological engineering department and the Agricultural Autonomy Institute, to develop a robotic cotton harvester that picks cotton with less damage to the product and the soil where it grows.

A man stands in front of a cotton field, next to a wheeled machine with a computer screen on top and wires hanging from it.
Mississippi State University engineering professor Hussein Gharakhani with a prototype robotic cotton harvester. Hussein Gharakhani, CC BY-ND

Why use robotics?

Cotton farmers have economic, environmental and agricultural reasons to want a better option for harvesting. Traditional mechanical harvesters can be up to 14 feet long and weigh more than 30 tons. They remove cotton effectively without damaging the plants but also can cause problems.

One issue is prolonged fiber exposure. Cotton bolls don’t all mature at the same time; the first open bolls in a field may wait for up to 50 days to be picked, until more bolls around them ripen.

Another challenge is that harvesting machines compact the soil as they roll over it. This makes it harder for water and fertilizer to penetrate down to plant roots. And the machines cost roughly US$1 million apiece but are used for only two to three months each year.

Robotics is a potential solution that farmers are already using for other crops, such as fruits and vegetables. Harvesting robots use cameras and sensors to detect when crops are ready to pick and can remove them without damaging the plant.

For cotton, robotics offers more targeted picking of bolls that are ready to harvest. It produces better-quality cotton fiber by picking seed cotton as soon as the bolls open, without leaving it exposed to the weather. The robot targets the seed cotton and avoids touching other parts of the plant.

With robotic picking, cotton farmers don’t need to use defoliants to remove leaves from the plants prior to harvesting, which is a common practice now. And small, nimble robots don’t compress the soil as they move over it, so they help maintain soil health.

A large green machine drives through a cotton field with a man riding on an observation deck. The harvester is more than twice the man's height.
A mechanical harvester picking cotton in Alabama in 2017. Katie Nichols/Alabama Extension/Flickr

A bioinspired ‘picking hand’

Our work focuses on designing an end-effector for robotic cotton harvesting. An end-effector is a robotic hand that enables the robot to interact with other objects. Ours is a three-fingered version designed for delicate and efficient cotton picking. It draws inspiration from nature, mimicking the hunting prowess of a lizard.

Each finger is a 3D-printed structure that contains a moving belt with pins attached to it. The pins help the hand grasp and pull in the seed cotton. Like a lizard snatching prey with its sticky tongue, our end-effector’s three fingers approach the seed cotton delicately. On contact, the cotton fibers stick to the machine’s fingers, much as an insect sticks to a lizard’s tongue.

Next, the hand retracts quickly, like the lizard’s tongue. The end-effector keeps working to “swallow” the seed cotton, transferring it out of the plant. As the harvester picks and transfers seed cotton out of the plant, the end-effector touches parts of the cotton boll with remaining seed cotton multiple times to pick as much as possible.

A robotic harvester picks cotton in a field test.

To pick cotton efficiently, our robot has to do three things: detect bolls that are ready for harvest, determine exactly where they are located in a three-dimensional space and pick the cotton.

The robot uses a deep-learning algorithm that we have trained to recognize open bolls on cotton plants. It uses a stereovision camera to calculate their 3D spatial coordinates, which it transfers to the robotic arm. A control algorithm monitors each cotton boll to ensure that the robot picks as much seed cotton as possible.

Testing and results

So far, we have tested the robotic cotton harvester in the laboratory and in cotton fields. The detection system found 78% of ripe cotton bolls; the localization system calculated 3D coordinates for 70% of the detected bolls; and the picking system successfully harvested 83% of these bolls. Overall, the robot picked about 50% of the cotton bolls that were within its reach.

Our harvester picked cotton at a speed of 8.8 seconds per boll. If we can decrease this required time to 0.3 seconds and increase the robot’s efficiency to pick at least 90% of the cotton bolls it can reach, by optimizing the system and adding more arms on a robot, a fleet of 50 robots could harvest a cotton field as quickly as a mechanical harvester, with a comparable yield.

To improve the robot’s overall performance, we plan to adopt better artificial intelligence algorithms, improve our system’s camera and add another degree of movement to the robotic arm – for example, enabling the end-effector to rotate – to increase its dexterity.

A woman wearing a sun visor and with a cloth bag slung around her waist bends over plants in a cotton field.
A woman picks cotton at a plantation in Birlik, Uzbekistan. Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty Images

We see great potential for our robot in major cotton-producing countries such as China, India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, where cotton is currently picked by hand, often by women and children and sometimes under abusive conditions. One way to make this technology available for small farmers in low-income countries would be to make smaller, semi-autonomous robots that would require fewer sensors. Producing higher-value cotton with less damage to plants and soil could improve life for millions of people who earn their livings raising this global crop.The Conversation

Hussein Gharakhani, Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Mississippi State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Friday, September 1, 2023

Alfa Farmers Scholarships


Alfa Foundation Scholarship

The Alfa Foundation will award 100 scholarships for $1,000 each to students attending Alabama colleges, universities and technical schools.

Scholarship Requirements

Applicants of the Alfa Foundation Scholarship Program award must:

  • Have a current Alabama Farmers Federation Membership issued in his/her name. Annual membership is available by calling 1-800-964-2532, by clicking registering online, or by visiting an Alfa Insurance office. Membership must be issued in the name of the scholarship applicant to be eligible for consideration.
  • High school seniors, graduates, or current post-secondary undergraduates enrolled or planning to enroll in a full-time accredited program at a two- year or four- year college, university, or vocational-technical school located in the state of Alabama for the entire upcoming academic year.
  • Have a minimum grade point average of 2.5 on a 4.0 scale (or its equivalent).