Climate change is starting to transform the planet’s ecosystems. News about melting ice caps, raging forest fires, and violent hurricanes threaten the well-being of current and future generations of people all over the world. With increased awareness about the climate crisis, people are now more conscious about the effects and outcomes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But what many people are not aware of is the contribution of the global livestock sector to these GHG emissions.
To highlight this issue, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has released a report highlighting the role of the livestock sector as a significant contributor to climate change. The report provides a comprehensive global assessment of the magnitude, sources, and the pathways of emissions from different livestock production systems and supply chains. It aims to inform livestock producers, policymakers, researchers, and the public about the role of livestock supply chains in climate change and aims to provide possible solutions to reduce these emissions.
The world population is expected to grow from 7.7 billion people today to over 9.6 billion people in 2050. This will pose new challenges as diets will become richer and increasingly diversified. There will also be a growth in animal-sourced foods as the demand for meat and milk is projected to grow by 73% and 58% respectively by 2050. This growth will not be sustainable as agriculture is known to play an important role in land degradation, water pollution, and biodiversity loss. Within agriculture, the livestock sector is highlighted because of its exponential growth and its dependence on natural resources.
The report focuses on three main concerns. The first is the production of animal protein, particularly when fed on dedicated crops, which is less efficient than the production of equivalent amounts of plant protein. The second is the environment in which the livestock is reared. These are usually remote vast areas that suffer from land degradation and deforestation caused by weak policies and institutions. The third concern is the rearing of livestock close to cities or ports where cost advantages are high; this leads to nutrient overloads in the land and pollution due to improper recycling of waste from livestock.
The Aggregate Picture
At the moment, the total GHG emissions from livestock supply chains are estimated to represent 14.5% of all human-induced emissions. About 44% of the sector’s emissions are in the form of methane (CH4); which is the most emitted gas. The remaining part is shared by N2O at 29% and CO2 at 27%. Cattle are the main contributor to these GHG emissions and represent about 65% of sector emissions. This includes beef cattle (producing meat only) and dairy cattle (producing both meat and milk). Pigs, poultry, buffaloes, and small ruminants have much lower emission levels, with each representing between 7-10% of sector emissions.
When it comes to the commodity that causes the highest emissions, beef undoubtedly takes the cake. It causes 41% of total sector emissions. Cattle milk comes in second with 20% of sector emissions followed by pig meat at 9%, buffalo milk and meat at 8%, and chicken meat and eggs at 8%. The rest are emissions from other poultry species. Beef also has the highest emission intensity which is the amount of GHGs emitted per unit of output produced.
Main Sources of Emissions
Emissions from the production, processing, and transportation of feed (food for domestic animals) account for about 45% of sector emissions. Feed materials like grass account for about half of the emissions, mainly from manure deposition on pasture. Crops produced for feed account for an additional quarter of emissions, and all other feed materials (crop by-products, fish meal and supplements) account for the remaining quarter. The second-largest source of emissions is enteric (intestinal) fermentation, contributing to about 40% of total emissions. Methane and NO2 emissions from manure storage and processing amount to about 10%. Energy consumption emissions (either directly or indirectly derived from fossil fuels) contributes about 20% of total sector emissions.
Emissions By Regions
Livestock emissions produced differ widely from place to place. Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest level of emissions due to their production of specialized beef. The highest livestock production was recorded in East Asia, which also has high emission intensities. In North America, almost two-thirds of emissions originate from their beef productions, which, in turn, causes high emission intensities. However, in Western Europe, beef mainly comes from dairy herds which lower the emission intensities. South Asia’s total sector emissions are on the same level as that of North America and Western Europe, but with half the protein production. Sub-Saharan Africa has a profile similar to South Asia.
Scope for Mitigation
At the moment, various technologies and practices that can help reduce emissions are not widely used. The adoption of these practices is key to significant reductions in GHG emissions. Research shows that emissions could be reduced by between 18-30% by adopting better feeding practices to reduce enteric and manure emissions and implementing better supply chain management and health management techniques to reduce the unproductive part of the herd. Not only will these new practices reduce emissions, but they will also help increase productivity and contribute to food security and poverty alleviation. The whole list of the FAO mitigation techniques and practices for livestock can be viewed on their website linked at the end of this article.
Not just different practices, but supportive policies, adequate institutional frameworks, and resource use-efficiency can also be a part of the solution to climate change. Research and development are essential to increase the viability and availability of effective mitigation options as they help develop more accurate and affordable farming practices. Financial incentives are also important for mitigation strategies to reduce risks and costs to farmers. Efforts from local, national, and international governmental agencies are necessary to implement cost-effective mitigation strategies. Due to the size of the livestock sector, global action is needed to ensure that efforts are balanced throughout the sector’s entire supply chain.
To read the entire report click here!