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Climate Change: Do We Consider
Livestock Emissions?

By Marianne de Nazareth

27 October, 2009

When we think about Green House Gas Emissions, (GHG) mentally we only consider the burning of fossil fuels and emissions from cars and industries as damaging. We have never really thought about the breeding of cattle causing any lasting damage to the planet, but there it is, livestock emissions are real and something which needs our focussed attention besides other GHG emitters. Daily meat requirements have grown phenomenally in countries where meat is an intrinsic part of a human’s daily diet. Faced squarely with research and statistics, we have to realise that this is a problem which has to be dealt with just like other issues like deforestation etc. We just can’t wish it away. Solid solutions need to be found, especially in countries where livestock breeding is a way of life.

According to James Workman in his brand new book “ The Heart of Dryness,” In 2002, some 1.5 billion cattle ruminated world wide. As they did, microbes respired in their gut through an anaerobic process that produced methane gas and nitrous oxide, two invisible contributors to global warming respectively, 23 and 296 times more potent as green house gases than carbon dioxide. Cattle emit 95 percent of their methane not through farting but by burping : Each day, cattle collectively generate 18 percent of Earth’s green hour gas emissions, worse than all the cars driven all over the planet, combined. One writer quipped accurately that, given the amount of energy consumed raising, shipping and selling livestock, a 16 oz t-bone is like a Hummer on a plate. Workman goes on to say, Yet our human quest for meat will continue to escalate. For every newly converted vegetarian, four poor humans start earning enough money to put beef on the table.

According to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.

Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes. The global livestock sector is growing faster than any other agricultural sub-sector. It provides livelihoods to about 1.3 billion people and contributes about 40 percent to global agricultural output. For many poor farmers in developing countries livestock are also a source of renewable energy for drawing their ploughs and an essential source of organic fertilizer for their crops.

But such rapid growth exacts a steep environmental price, according to the FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow –Environmental Issues and Options. “The environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening beyond its present level,” it warns.

When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure. And it accounts for respectively 37 percent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 percent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.

FAO research reveals that livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface, which is mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock, the report notes. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.

At the same time herds cause wide-scale land degradation, with about 20 percent of pastures considered as degraded through overgrazing, compaction and erosion. The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources. The major polluting agents are animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops. Widespread overgrazing also disturbs water cycles and significant amounts of water are withdrawn for the production of feed to sustain these animals.

The global livestock sector definitely needs looking at. But who is going to bell the cat?

(The writer is a fellow with the UNFCCC and teaches a module on Climate Change in Christ University, Bangalore, India)


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