Making livestock farming more sustainable

ID-1005418The livestock sector is important as a source of protein and income, and some one billion people rely on livestock for their livelihood but it is generally accepted that the world’s livestock systems place a huge burden on the environment, for example, contributing 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Some 45% of these emissions originate from the production of feed. The one billion tons of cereals produced for feed each year could feed an estimated 3.5 billion humans. The health impacts of a diet high in meat have also been widely reported.  It is clear that the world’s livestock systems are not sustainable but how can we change this? Two new reports address this challenge.

A Nature commentary piece authored by Eisler et al, discusses the need for the sustainable intensification of livestock. They highlight eight strategies to cut the environmental and economic costs of livestock farming while increasing the quantity and quality of the food they produce.

1)      Feed animals less human food. Of the third or more of cereal grains going to livestock feed, 40% goes to ruminants. But ruminants, such as cattle, can survive on food inedible to humans, such as hay, silage and high-fibre crop residues. They can also graze in marginal areas leaving prime agricultural land for growing human food.

2)      Raise regionally appropriate animals. Highly productive livestock breeds such as Holstein cattle have been introduced around the world in the pursuit of increased productivity. Given that they are a temperate breed, however, they are often expensive and labour-intensive to manage in other climates, and yields can be less than a third of normal yields under these conditions. Working with breeds adapted to local conditions such as those resistant to local pests and diseases may be a less risky option, particularly for poor households.

3)      Keep animals healthy. Improving hygiene, quarantine and disease surveillance practices can help avoid animal diseases being transmitted to humans. 13 livestock-related zoonoses cause 2.4 billion cases of human illness and 2.2 million deaths each year. Improving husbandry practices and animal welfare, for example keeping livestock at lower densities, can improve the health of livestock and the quantity and quality of livestock products.

4)      Adopt smart supplements. Specific plant extracts can help microbial populations in the rumen to grow faster, using nitrogen and energy more efficiently and boosting yields without significantly increasing GHG emissions. And smart supplements don’t have to be expensive: a water fern in India is a source of extra protein for cattle and goats.

5)      Eat quality not quantity. We know in the developed world we generally eat too much meat, more than is healthy or sustainable and much of it from heavily processed foods. The poorest people in the world do not get enough meat, an important source of protein, amino acids and iron needed for physical and mental development. The objective, therefore, should be a balanced consumption of high quality meat, a weekly average consumption of red meat of no more than 300 grams.

6)      Tailor practices to local culture. In some communities, livestock farming practices are intertwined with their culture and introducing conventional farming can disrupt these dynamics. Both natural and cultural, social and physical factors need to be considered when developing more sustainable livestock systems.

7)      Track costs and benefits. Understanding which livestock systems will work in different places is not just a case of yields but of trade-offs between economic costs and benefits as well as social and environmental factors. A farming system that boosts yields above all else may have significant costs for the climate.

8)      Study best practices. There is no one-size fits all solution and to truly design sustainable livestock systems we will require multidisciplinary research to fit a variety of contexts. To help enable such collaboration, authors of the commentary have developed three global farms platforms: the University of Western Australia Future Farm in Pingelly, the Thiruvazhamkunnu Livestock Research Station in Kerala, India, and Rothamsted Research North Wyke Farm Platform in Devon, UK. There are also plans to establish further platforms in South America, North America and China.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation also published a report entitled, Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities, in which they discuss some of the agricultural technologies and practices currently in existence, which if more widely adopted could transform the livestock sector, and its impact on the climate. Such innovations include:

  • Improving production efficiency through the use of better quality feed and feed designed to lower enteric and manure emissions.
  • Improving breeding and animal health to reduce the amounts of un-useable animal products and emissions related to them.
  • Using manure management practices to recycle and recover nutrients and energy contained in manure.
  • Sourcing low emission inputs such as feed.
  • Feeding additives, vaccines and genetic selection methods also have the potential to reduce GHG emissions but they require further research and development.

The report states that, “A 30 percent reduction of GHG emissions would be possible, for example, if producers in a given system, region and climate adopted the technologies and practice currently used by the 10 percent of producers with the lowest emission intensity.” The largest part of this mitigation potential is in low productivity ruminant systems found mainly in South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa, and achieved through better feeding, animal health and herd management. In the developed world, and where efficiency may already be high, large emissions reductions can still be attained through manure management, energy use and the sourcing of feed with lower emission intensity.

As meat production is set to double by 2050, the challenge of meeting current and future meat demand sustainably is one of urgency. We need lots of different areas of science to come together from the social, political and economic sciences to the biological and ecological. One thing is very clear from these two reports, we have the know-how and tools to make livestock farming more sustainable but it is still going to be a challenge to achieve it.

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