A new year will bring new challenges. One item that is bound to get more attention is agriculture’s role in the global-warming debate.

We’ve seen that already, with the recent United Nations climate-change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was over there telling other countries that the agricultural community here is committed to making improvements.

On Dec. 15, while the summit was under way, Vilsack and officials from Dairy Management, Inc. (DMI) announced that they would work together to reduce dairy greenhouse-gas emissions 25 percent by the year 2020.

This is admirable. No one can deny the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions when there is the opportunity to do so.

It is the role of a leader to establish an objective, and then the details will hopefully be filled in later. Perhaps the best example of visionary leadership was the announcement by the late President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that the U.S. would try to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade — and that did happen in 1969. We are glad there are new visionaries on hand to establish goals for dairy greenhouse-gas emissions.

But going to the moon in the 1960s was a very tangible goal — and one that could documented by its mere physical presence. It is going to be interesting to see how someone documents a 25-percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emission. For one thing, there is no baseline; no one knows for certain how many pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent are produced by a 300-cow dairy.

In a conference call on the day that Vilsack and DMI made their joint announcement, I asked Erin Fitzgerald, director of social and environmental innovation at DMI, what the current baseline is, and she gave this perfunctory response: “We’re currently conducting an open-source life-cycle assessment at the University of Arkansas. And, current estimates show that the United States dairy industry is less than 2 percent of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. And that baseline will be used in our future to measure our carbon commitment.” 

In the conference call, which also included Secretary Vilsack, the principals kept referring to methane digesters, but no one could say how many methane digesters it will take to accomplish a 25-percent reduction or how dairy farms might quality for federal incentives. It would have been nice to have had some more specifics. 

And, I’m hearing enough problems with methane digesters that I wonder if it makes sense to put so much reliance on them. It’s as though the politicians in Washington — who are far removed from reality — think they can come up a quick solution, however pollyannaish, for everything.

If the announcement gains the dairy industry some political favor, then it is a good thing. We just hope that the details of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will be based on science rather than political platitudes.