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Land Use: Food and Agriculture

Key Steps to Curb Carbon:

According to the “Risky Business Report“, which addresses climate changeYields of corn, wheat, and other crops in the Midwest and South are likely to drop by more than 10 percent in the next ve to 25 years absent adaptation—and could decline by more than 20 percent in some counties.

According to the Farmland Information Center, Kentucky has over 13 million acres of farmland, but statistics have shown a steady decline of farmland and private forest land that is converted to development. The American Farmland Trust claims that Kentucky loses about 45 acres of farmland per day.

According to a UN report, the energy that goes into the production, harvesting, transporting, and packaging of wasted food, meanwhile, generates more than 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The greenhouse gas emissions associated with food loss and waste are caused, but not limited to:

  • On-farm agriculture emissions—including from the digestive systems of cows, manure from livestock, on-farm energy use and fertilizer emissions—for producing food that is ultimately lost or wasted;
  • The production of electricity and heat used to manufacture and process the food that is ultimately lost or wasted;
  • Energy used to transport, store and cook food that is ultimately lost or wasted;
  • Landfill emissions from decaying food
  • The emissions from land use change and deforestation associated with producing food that is ultimately lost or wasted.

Promoting Local, Sustainably Grown Food

According to the Farmland Information Center, Kentucky has over 13 million acres of farmland, but statistics have shown a steady decline as land is developed.  The American Farmland Trust claims Kentucky loses about 45 acres of farmland per day.   According to a UN report, the energy that goes into the production, harvesting, transporting and packaging of wasted food, meanwhile, generates more than 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Two state marketing programs, Kentucky Proud and Appalachia Proud, raise the visibility of locally-produced foods.  The Kentucky Department of Agriculture also promotes the Buy Local program, focused on supplying local restaurants, and also programs to promote more local foods in Kentucky schools such as Farm to Campus and Farm to Schools.  The KDOA also does a good job in promoting local farmer’s markets throughout the state.

Unfortunately, there is no standard accepted definition of what constitutes “local food,” and that can have a significant impact on strategies for limiting greenhouse gasses.  Agricultural production methods can have a significant impact on carbon generated.

Article: WorldWatch Institute article, Is Local Food Better?

Best practices for climate mitigation includes maximizing the use of food that is plant-based, with minimal transport (100 miles or less by truck), avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and promotes a local food economy (creates jobs within 100 miles of the community, promotes landowner-managed and non-industrial scale farms).

Mt. Folly Farm in Winchester is an example that has taken a comprehensive approach to their operation, featuring local organic food production and processing and no-till farming to provide a carbon sink.  Their compound features recreational trails and tourism, as well as a restored pioneer cabin powered by solar.  They are designing their operation to be part of a learning community with local universities.

Increasing Plant-Based Food Consumption

Plant-based meat alternatives generate 10x fewer GHG emissions than producing similar beef-based products. The Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services and local schools have attempted to increase the adoption of more plant-based foods, however, the industrial meat and dairy industry is a powerful influence in the debate.

The Drawdown Project states that plant-rich diets reduce emissions and also tend to be healthier, leading to lower rates of chronic disease. Business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs. $1 trillion in annual health-care costs and lost productivity would be saved.

According to information supplied by the Plant Based Food Association, plant-based meat alternatives generate 10x fewer greenhouse gas emissions than producing similar beef-based products, according to a study by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. This also encourages responsible use of land, water, fuel and fertilizer. And plant-based eaters contribute approximately half as much dietary greenhouse gases as meat-eaters, according to a study by Scarborough et al. If beans replaced beef in the US diet, the US could meet up to 75% of its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction target, according to a study by Helen Harwatt et al. With Kentucky being a significant agricultural state, it is in our best interest to take steps to encourage more adoption of plant-based foods.

Reducing Food Waste for Climate Impact

Agriculture accounts for roughly 10% of global GHG emissions, and as much as 50% of non-CO2 emissions. In 2018, Kentucky passed a joint resolution (Senate Joint Resolution 218) requiring state agencies to examine food waste and identify ways to increase food donations to hunger relief organizations and directs the development of food waste reduction guidelines to be used by all state agencies in food purchasing contracts.

  • See the Kentucky Hunger Initiative [Article]

Research led and released by Roni Neff, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, examined the amount of nutrients contained in the nearly 40 percent of food that goes uneaten in the United States.

Composting and Waste-To-Energy

According to Scientific American, diverting even just a portion of compost and waste to so-called waste-to-energy systems could free up large amounts of landfill space. Biodigesters are one solution to convert organic waste to renewable energy.  However, these systems must be considered with several caveats:

  • Sites must avoid creating environmental injustices to host communities.
  • Feedstocks for these systems should be true waste materials such as from sustainable agricultural production.
  • Operations should not encouraging excessive use of factory-farming wastes or diverting organic waste from its natural soil-building function of restoring farmland.

Toyota manufacturing has set corporate targets for 2050, including recycling systems that produce electricity. Their Georgetown, Kentucky. landfill gas operation, using municipal solid waste, will be used to power the production of 10,000 vehicles a year. This is the first application of landfill gas at a Toyota plant in the world, and the first private landfill gas project in Kentucky.

Article: Toyota Landfill Gas Waste to Energy Plant Now Online

Healthy Soils, Rotational Grazing, Nutrient Management

Employing farm practices that rebuild organic matter, soil biodiversity and use smaller-scale, less nitrogen-intensive and organic farming methods are also good for CO2 reduction.

Building organic matter through rotational grazing for example (the process of using only one portion of pasture to graze while the remainder “rests”) allows for healthier soils and for forage plants to renew. Healthy soils can help improve resilience to extreme weather events such as floods and droughts –making sustainable soil management a key factor in advancing climate goals.

Excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers, especially by industrial-scale farming operations, can worsen an impact of climate change. Nutrient pollution is expected to cause more harmful algal blooms in waterbodies.

The excessive use of high concentrations of nitrogen fertilizers in operations such as industrial-scale farming is increases complications that can have an impact on climate change. According to the EPA, scientists predict that climate change will have many effects on freshwater and marine environments. These effects, along with nutrient pollution, might cause harmful algal blooms to occur more often, in more waterbodies and to be more intense.  Therefore we encourage smaller-scale, less nitrogen-intensive and organic farming operations.

Additional Resources:

Sustainable Agriculture/
Land Use and Food Waste



Kentucky-Specific Sustainable Agriculture/Land Use and Food Waste Nonprofit Resources


More Resources:

Department for Environmental Protection Recycling and Local Assistance Program

Organics Recovery Program Development Tool(66 pp, 2.2 M, About PDF) was created by the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Louisville in conjugation with EPA, to assist colleges and universities with organizing or expanding organics recovery programs.



Reinforces some of what is mentioned above:
  • Reductions in corn yields of several percentage points expected
  • Higher temperatures shorten pollination times, 5-10%
  • Cool-season planting times may need to be shifted for veg crops
  • Climate variability will likely increase. More extreme droughts, more frequent and extreme precipitation events.
  • Hail, Wind, Flooding damage more common.
  • Reduced livestock production in summer months.
  • Increased pressure from diseases, insects, pests, weeds
  • trees such as sugar maple, birches, black walnut, and northern red oak will likely decline; other species such as loblolly pine, blackjack oak, and southern red oak are expected to increase