The elephant in the room – or is it a cow?
Of all the sectors contributing to anthropological greenhouse gas emissions, the livestock sector has been the most consistently difficult to pin down. How does one actually measure emissions from a living, changing animal? Do you count the CO2 they exhale with every breath? What about all the rainforest that’s been chopped down to accommodate pasture land, do you count that, too? With the wide range of estimates for livestock’s contribution to GHGs and the ongoing argument as to which production systems are the most sustainable, it’s no wonder livestock often gets left out of the mitigation discussion altogether.
But the difficulties associated with getting the numbers correct are no excuse for inaction, said CIAT’s Andy Jarvis last week at the 13th Annual Meeting of the Inter-Agency Donor Group (IADG) of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. “Despite our uncertainties,” explained Jarvis, “there’s no getting around the fact that livestock have a huge ecological ‘hoofprint.’ That hoofprint can only get bigger as global demand for animal products grows, and the livestock sector has to get serious about appropriate policy and technology.”
Reliable estimates of the percentage of GHG emissions attributable to livestock range from 10-18%, a considerable difference. But even the most conservative figures should be nothing short of startling, especially when you consider that 30-45% of the earth’s terrestrial surface is pasture, as well as 80% of all agricultural land. “That’s arguably the largest ecological footprint on the planet, certainly in terms of area,” said Jarvis. In fact, a full 80% of all agricultural emissions come from none other than the livestock sector, and it would be foolish to ignore such statistics in the name of absolute certainty.
Meanwhile, trends of animal product consumption in the developing world make the subject of livestock sector sustainability even more urgent. Between 1961 and 2005 milk consumption in developing countries doubled, meat consumption tripled, and egg consumption increased by a factor of five. While this increase signals an encouraging blow against malnutrition, it also carries with it the burden of environmental degradation. Furthermore, simply eliminating animal products from the menu with the aim of decreasing emissions could be disastrous for poor farmers, the majority of whom depend on livestock as an important – and sometimes their only – source of income.
Jarvis challenged those present at April’s meeting to look at the livestock ‘hoofprint’ as an opportunity as much as a call to immediate action. “Developing countries are where it’s at! They have the biggest potential for mitigation and major system transformations. There are systems which are far more efficient than others, and developing nations have the ability to put the rest of the world to shame.” Intensive silvo-pastoral systems, for example, were highlighted as having catalyzed a mini-revolution in Colombia and Central America due to their high CO2 capture potential and low implementation costs. According to Jarvis they are the rare climate change win-win, converting degraded pasture land into profitable, productive systems with high carbon stock, biodiversity, and resilience.
It is likely that livestock will continue to be a contentious subject in the climate change discussion. Indeed, any vestige of consensus was slow to emerge at the IADG meeting; the numbers game remains fraught with quibbles and knowledge gaps, and developed nations are keen to defend the efficiency of their production systems. But the bottom line remains the same: livestock will have an increasingly larger share of global greenhouse emissions in the near future unless serious action is taken. That said, the right mix of targeted research, informed policy, and appropriate technology could make the sector into one of the success stories of global climate change mitigation.