The United States is counting on cows to help save the planet.
U.S. Secretary Tom Vilsack announced an agreement with the American dairy industry Tuesday to reduce the industry's greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020, mostly by convincing farmers to capture the methane from cow manure that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere.
"This historic agreement, the first of its kind, will help us achieve the ambitious goal of drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions while benefiting farmers," Vilsack said at the U.N. climate talks. "(The) use of manure of technology is a win for everyone."
Agriculture accounts for about 7 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
The plan calls for persuading more American farmers to purchase an anaerobic digester, which essentially converts cow manure into electricity. The problem is that, so far, only 2 percent of U.S. dairy farmers are using the technology, mostly because it is too costly for family farmers.
There are more than 60,000 dairy farms with about 9 million dairy cows in the United States, but 77 percent of the farms have fewer than 100 cows, according to Dairy Farming Today, an industry group. Farms that would be interested in this technology would likely have more than 100 cows.
Thomas Gallagher, the chief executive officer of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and Dairy Management Inc., which signed the agreement with the government, said the commitment shows that U.S. farmers are concerned with making their operations increasingly sustainable.
"This memorandum came about because of the commitment of U.S. dairy farmers and the dairy industry to a sustainable future," Gallagher said. "Sustainability goes hand-in-hand with our heritage of taking care of the land and natural resources while producing nutritious products that consumers want."
Vilsack acknowledged that farmers, who would be exempt from capping their emissions under current climate legislation, would be motivated to take part by selling offsets or emission credits on voluntary carbon markets, or eventually in a government cap and trade system.
Fred Yoder, a farmer from Ohio who is the former chairman of the National Corn Growers, acknowledged that money will be a driving force in farmers participation. But he said farmers also realize they can no longer ignore greenhouse gas emissions.
"Before, they didn't see the necessity and now farmers are finally starting to think the train has left the station on mitigating the greenhouse gases so how do we wrap our hands around it and get ready for it," he said.