Livestock systems have appreciable impacts in the economy and culture of societies. They contribute
to rural development, human diets, trade balances, biodiversity, risk management and other sustainable development outcomes.
More than one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from the agriculture, forestry and land use sector. Human consumption of meat and dairy products is a major driver of climate change. GHG emissions associated with their production are estimated to account for over 14.5 per cent of the global total. moreover, animal products have been estimated to contribute more to GHGs, deforestation, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and unhealthy humans, than plant-based foods. Beef and dairy are the most emissions- intensive livestock products and account for 65 per cent of the total GHGs emitted by livestock. as the world’s population increases, the need for food continues to grow. unless actively addressed, these emissions are likely to increase.
Agriculture is responsible for highly impactful emissions and accounts for an estimated 45 per cent of total methane emissions. about 80 per cent of agricultural methane emissions are from livestock production, including enteric fermentation and manure management.
Agriculture also accounts for 80 per cent of total nitrous oxide emissions, mainly from the application of fertilisers, both synthetic nitrogen and manure added to soils or left on pastures.
These two gases are significantly more powerful than carbon dioxide in driving warming over a span of
20 years. methane has more than 84 times global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide, while nitrous oxide has a GWP of 264 over the first 20 years after reaching the atmosphere.
Main sources of nitrous oxide The principal sources of nitrous oxide are manure and fertilisers used
in the production of animal feed.
Methane gets emitted from manure because of bacterial activity. Bacteria are involved in the decomposition process and releases methane in the process. When manure is stored long enough, a large bacterial community consisting of many different species can establish. The larger the bacterial community called inoculum in technical terminology, the higher the emission of methane. The biggest challenges in reducing emissions from livestock.
Despite the scale and trajectory of emissions from the livestock sector, it attracts remarkably little policy attention at either the international or national level.
Reducing emissions from agriculture poses challenges due to the diffuse nature of farming and the critical role of agriculture in the lives (and livelihoods) of billions of people. Reducing agriculture emissions requires action from the more than two billion people employed in agriculture, or one- quarter of the global population. moreover, compared with other sectors, recognition of the livestock sector as a significant contributor to climate change is markedly low; public awareness of the link between animal food consumption and climate change is not fully comprehended.
What has been done – A recent assessment from the united Nations Environment Programme (uNEP) and the climate and clean air coalition found that cutting farming-related methane emissions would be key in the battle against climate change.
Source of methane is from enteric fermentation, a digestive process of ruminant livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep.
Governments in developed countries such as australia, canada, European union and the united states and have focused on lower impact actions to reduce the livestock carbon such as the use of reusable bags, as these are less politically contested. Higher impact actions, such as a plant-based diet, may be politically less popular, and are therefore avoided.
Demand for animal products is rising fast. By 2050, consumption of meat and dairy is expected to rise to 76 per cent and 65 per cent, respectively, against a 2005–07 baseline, compared with 40 per cent for cereals.
The biggest meat-consuming countries are china, the European union, the united states and Brazil; major dairy consumers are china, India, the Eu and the united states. Rising demand for livestock products translates to rising emissions of cH4 and nitrous oxide. studies show that if current dietary trends (increasing global consumption of animal products) were to continue, emissions of methane and nitrous oxide would more than double by 2055 from 1995 levels.
Livestock production is also an important driver of land use changes like deforestation, which contributes carbon dioxide emissions directly and indirectly through the conversion of forests into cropland. In nomadic areas where livestock numbers exceed the land carrying capacity, land degradation takes place and contributes to slow emissions.
The uN held the uN food systems summit in september 2021, to make farming and food production more environmentally friendly. It was stressed that all governments must build on good practices such as indigenous food systems, invest in science and innovation, and engage all people, particularly women and youth, indigenous peoples, businesses and producers in achieving the sustainable Development Goals (sDGs); (sDG 13 – climate action) at policy level, countries have made commitments to reduce emissions in Nationally Determined contributions (NDcs) in fulfillment of the Paris agreement. In Kenya’s NDc, there is a specific mention of focus on efficient livestock management systems to address adaptation and mitigation targets.
On the ground, the first step in reducing emissions from animal agriculture is to produce animal products as efficiently as possible that is, to change how we farm. The adoption of proven GHG-efficient farming technologies and practices could achieve about 20 per cent of the sector’s required emissions reduction by 2050. at all levels of livestock farming, both large and small scale, manure management approaches should be efficient, by covering it, composting it, or using it to produce biogas.
It has been realised that individual and societal consumption behavioural changes offer important means to reduce livestock emissions. It is noted that government intervention to address overconsumption of unsustainable foods will play a big role in climate mitigation.
In conclusion, the solution to emit less GHGs from livestock farming is to limit the demand for GHG intensive foods through encouraging shifts to more sustainable diets, development of governance tools such as policy design and enforcement and public awareness through national sensitisation.
[The author Dr Serah Kahuri holds BSc in Geography & Topographic Science- University of Wales, Swansea 2004, MSc. in Geo- Information and Earth Observation: Land Administration University of Twente, ITC Faculty, Netherlands, 2010]