No simple solution to livestock and climate change

Many people keeping cattle in poor countries are small farmers Copyright: Flickr/deepchi1

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Simply reducing livestock farming in developing countries will neither cut emissions nor benefit the poor, says livestock expert Carlos Seré.

For many people the terms ‘greenhouse gas’ and ‘climate change’ conjure up images of smokestacks billowing noxious clouds, gridlocked traffic, the cracked bottom of a dried-up lakebed, or a polar bear clinging to a melting ice floe. 

Rarely do you see images of farmers ploughing fields, planting seeds or feeding animals. Indeed, until recently, agriculture — particularly in developing countries — has been largely absent from climate change discussions.

But farming is a significant contributor to climate change, and also a victim.

Agricultural activities, including forest clearing, fertilising soils and transporting produce, and indeed livestock farming, account for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile farmers, particularly in developing countries, are threatened by climatic changes such as shifting rainfall patterns and more extreme and unpredictable weather.

Anti-meat bias

With only a month to go until world leaders gather in Copenhagen to hammer out a new global climate deal, many are hopeful that negotiators will acknowledge the critical importance of the agricultural sector.

They could well commit more funds to adaptation measures and involve agriculture in mitigation schemes. A recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated that US$7 billion will be needed to adapt developing-country agriculture to climate change.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that at a time when objective scientific analysis of livestock farming is urgently needed, there is a worrying tendency for activistsand some policymakersin industrial nations to focus exclusively on the negative environmental impact of livestock.

Livestock certainly deserves the attention of climate change experts. Emissions from animals account for just over half of all agricultural emissions, or about 18 per cent of total emissions.

But as negotiators prepare for Copenhagen, the agenda of some lobbyists appears to be driven by a long-standing anti-meat bias that promotes simple solutions to complex problems.

There is broad consensus that highly intensive livestock production in rich countries can be medically and environmentally unhealthy as well as inhumane, and should be scaled back.

But those who portray livestock as the main culprit in global warming typically fail to mention the ‘meat divide’ that separates industrial and agricultural economies.

The truth about livestock

Livestock emissions depend on how animals are raised and fed. Grain-fed, factory-farmed cattle in industrialised countries emit much higher levels of greenhouse gases than the grass-fed, family-farmed cattle in developing countries.

Overproducing and overconsuming meat, milk and eggs have become a health hazard in the North, while the South suffers from chronic malnutrition — in part due to underproduction and underconsumption of these foods.

Most people who keep cattle in developing countries are either small farmers who feed their animals grass and other common forage, with seasonal supplements of stalks and other harvested crop wastes, or herders who periodically move their stock in search of new sources of grass and water.

Both these groups have very few alternatives for making a living beyond crop and livestock farming and both leave a relatively small environmental footprint. For example, all of Africa’s cattle and other ruminants contribute just three per cent of global livestock methane emissions.

And there is scope to cut these emissions by improving the diets of hungry animals, as poor nutrition decreases their value for milk and meat and encourages poor people to keep more animals, instead of less.

But many experts now agree that the biggest concern about livestock production in developing countries is not how much farm animals are emitting but to what extent a hotter and more extreme tropical environment will diminish livestock productivity. Reducing productivity by even a small amount will threaten supplies of milk, meat and eggs to hungry communities that need these nourishing foods the most.

Finding a ‘third way’

For many people, including more than one billion people living in absolute poverty and chronic hunger, the solution is not to rid the world of livestock but rather to find ways of farming animals sustainably.

Many livestock scientists, including those at my own institute in Africa, are looking to develop a ‘third way’ of livestock production, lying somewhere between factory and family farming — one that promises pathways out of poverty without depleting our natural resources, affecting our climate or threatening our public health.

Such an approach could, for example, focus on improved, better adapted breeds and appropriate feeding strategies that combine roughage-based diets and higher-energy feeds to achieve greater output per animal.

There are no easy answers to reducing global warming while ensuring global food security. But we must not lose our nerve and take the easy way out by resorting to simplistic solutions that recognise only  ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys. And we certainly must not do this to the detriment of people and nations already disadvantaged by poverty.

We must, and can, tackle these interwoven problems together in ways that are both equitable and efficient.

Carlos Seré is director of the International Livestock Research Institute, Nairobi, Kenya.