Wider adoption of best practice management and technologies could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector by as much as 30 per cent, according to a new study released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The report, ‘Tackling climate change through livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities’, is the result of the UN FAO’s latest estimates of livestock’s contribution to global warming, as well as the sector’s potential to help tackle the problem.
The FAO now estimates that the global livestock sector is responsible for 14.5pc of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
The main sources of emissions attributed to livestock production are feed production and processing (45pc of the total), outputs of greenhouse gases during digestion by cows (39pc), and manure decomposition (10pc).
The balance is attributable to the processing and transportation of animal products.
The FAO says significant potential to reduce livestock emissions lies in helping all livestock producers to adopt practices already being used by the most efficient operators.
Efficient practices key to reducing emissions identified by the FAO include:
- For ruminants – cows, mainly — the greatest promise involves improving animal and herd efficiency. This includes using better feeds and feeding techniques, which can reduce methane (CH4) generated during digestion as well as the amount of CH4 and nitrous oxide (N2O) released by decomposing manure.
- Improved breeding and animal health interventions to allow herd sizes to shrink (meaning fewer, more productive animals) will also help. And manure management that ensures recovery and recycling of nutrients and energy, plus the use of energy saving devices, also have a role to play.
- Additionally, better management of grazing lands could improve productivity and create carbon sinks with the potential to help offset livestock sector emissions.
- In monogastric production – primarily poultry and pig farming –“precision feeding,” breeding, and better animal health care offer ways to reduce emissions due to feed production and manure management. Switching to feed sources whose production is less energy-intensive, and to more sustainable sources of power would allow additional cuts.
Five region-specific case studies in FAO's report suggest that GHG emissions can be significantly reduced by marginally improving production practices, while keeping production levels constant:
- In South Asian mixed dairy farming systems, emission can potentially be reduced by 38 percent by improving feed and feeding practices, as well as animal health and husbandry.
- For specialized beef production in South America, feasible improvements in forage quality, animal health and husbandry and grazing management could lead to an emission reduction of 19 to 30 percent.
- Similar mitigation interventions could reduce emission from West Africa's small ruminant sector by 27 to 41 percent.
- Improved manure management, adoption of energy efficient technologies, sourcing of low carbon energy and upgrading of feed, health and animal management in commercial systems can reduce emissions of pig production by 28 to 36 percent in East and Southeast Asia.
- In mixed dairy systems in OECD countries, reductions of emission by 14 to 17 percent are possible, through feed supplements, treatment of manure in anaerobic digesters and energy efficiency.
Key areas in which the FAO believes policy must change to support moves to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by livestock include:
- Extension and agricultural support services: This suite of approaches facilitates practice change for mitigation and production enhancement, by providing access to good practices and technologies and building capacity to implement them. Commonly used approaches include communication, training, demonstration farms and establishing producers’ networks for knowledge sharing.
- Research and development: R&D is necessary to build the evidence base for mitigation intervention and technologies. It is required to tailor adapted and effective mitigation strategies and plays an important role in refining existing technologies/practices to increase their applicability. R&D is also necessary for increasing the supply of new and improved mitigation technologies/practices.
- Financial incentives: These include either ‘beneficiary pays’ mechanisms (abatement subsidies, carbon credit markets) or ‘polluter pays’ mechanisms (emissions tax, tradable permits). Economically efficient mechanisms for incentivizing the adoption of mitigation technologies/practices also include support (e.g. soft loans) to initial investments associated to the adoption of most efficient practices.
- Market friction instruments: This includes measures that that seek to increase the flow of information about the emissions associated with different livestock commodities (e.g. labeling schemes). This can help consumers and producers to better align their consumption and production preferences with the emission profiles of these commodities.
- Advocacy: Raising awareness about livestock’s role in tackling climate change, to influence and promote mitigation policy development for the sector.
- NAMAs: The development of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions for livestock are national level processes through which countries can develop sectoral mitigation policies that integrate other development objectives, and seek international support towards their implementation.
- International agreements: These include commitments, both within and outside the UNFCCC that provide high level incentives to mitigate livestock sector emissions and ensure that mitigation effort is shared between the different sectors of the economy.
“These new findings show that the potential to improve the sector’s environmental performance is significant – and that realizing that potential is indeed do-able,” said Ren Wang, FAO Assistant Director-General for Agriculture and Consumer Protection.
“These efficiency gains can be achieved by improving practices, and don’t necessitate changing production systems. But we need political will, better policies and most importantly, joint action.”
He added that it is imperative that the sector begin working now to achieve these reductions, given the strong growth in demand for livestock products in almost all developing countries, so as to help offset the increases in overall emissions that future growth in livestock production will entail.
FAO noted that many of its recommendations for improving efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions would also boost production – providing people with more food and higher incomes, with benefits for food security and poverty reduction.
The FAO has engaged with the public and private sector, producers, research and academia, civil society, non-governmental organizations, and inter-governmental organizations to establish the Global Agenda of Action in Support of Sustainable Livestock Sector Development.
The Agenda targets three priority areas where improving practices can potentially bring large gains: promoting more efficient practices, improved grassland management and better manure management.
- To view the FAO's full report click here