One of the main activities of Mercator alumni is publishing a German-language magazine called adhoc international that treats global public policy challenges from a practitioner’s perspective. Of course, we couldn’t let the climate negotiations go unnoticed. Thus, the newest issue is all about changing climate and humanity (“Klima und Menschen im Wandel”; pdf), and I contributed a piece on the importance of including the livestock sector in a global climate agreement. Those of you who read German, I would encourage you to check it out; for the rest, here is a short summary. Additionally, I talk about the presence of livestock in COP21-related initiatives that do tackle the issue and that merit much stronger public and financial support.
The current balance: problematic
If you think that population growth is a challenge for sustainability, consider this: at any point in time ca. 1.5 billion cows, 1 billion pigs, 2 billion goats and sheep and 21 billion chicken share our planet. According to the FAO, emissions from livestock production contribute 18% of total greenhouse gases, more than the transportation sector. And not only CO2 is a problem – in methane and nitrous oxide emissions, the livestock sector is an even greater contributor. Furthermore, about 80% of the new land for feedstock crops and pastures comes from replacing forests, particularly in the tropics – destroying the planet’s largest greenhouse gas sinks. And with changing incomes and appetites around the world, a business-as-usual scenario would mean an additional increase of agricultural emissions by around 80% by 2050. There is no question that this is unsustainable.
(this still image is really ridiculous, but the video is well-narrated and reasonable, I promise!)
What are the main approaches?
There are a number of different, mainly theoretical approaches to move the sector toward sustainability.
One is the real cost approach: eliminate subsidies – still widespread particularly in the USA and Europe – and introduce environmental costs to reflect the actual societal cost of producing meat and animal products. Sweden, for instance, is debating a CO2 tax on meat, while New Zealand phased out subsidies and has become significantly more resource efficient. However, how to calculate the ‘true’ environmental cost is still hotly debated; and only phasing out subsidies in less ideal conditions than New Zealand – which is generously endowed with grazing meadows and cheap land – could move the sector toward more intensification rather than less.
Agroecology – mirroring circular processes in nature on pasture-based mixed farms with both animal and crop production – is another option that enhances sustainability. Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms provides the prime example. However, this way of farming is still very much a niche sector and, from a purely climate-oriented perspective, the longer growing period of animals – 23 months pasture-fed vs. 15 months grain-fed – does emit 8 months’ worth more of methane, leading opponents to argue that “sustainable intensification” (whatever that means) is more climate-friendly.
Finally, another hotly debated approach is Allan Savory’s claim that rotation-based grazing techniques can restore exhausted grassland soils and improve their carbon absorption potential. Numerous opponents however call out the lacking scientific evidence and false promise for an easy solution to our carnivore conundrum.
It seems that, beyond limiting demand by encouraging a change in diets, easy and clear-cut solutions are scarce.
Now: Where is meat and livestock production at COP21?
So… not on the main agenda. Not in the major countries’ INDCs (which is extremely problematic). The EU only refers to “Enteric fermentation” and “Manure management” in its “coverage” section, together with literally all known sources of agricultural greenhouse gases. China refers vaguely to “to promote mechanism of maintaining the balance between grass stock and livestock, to prevent grassland degradation, to restore vegetation of grassland”. The USA doesn’t mention it at all.
From what I can see (sitting in Costa Rica), livestock is not even a big issue at the side events – ag issues are scarcely represented as is, and the ‘Farmers’ Day‘ didn’t take it up specifically. One big exception is the event “Meat: the big omission from the talks on emissions. Public understanding and policy options” organized by the Humane Society and Chatham House (and chaired by Johan Rockström <3), though the original participating “Government officials or leading experts from Brazil, China and US and Member of European Parliament (from the Sustainable Food Systems Group)” has been paired down to a lone left-leaning EP member (Jo Leinen), so that it seems to be a ‘preach to the choir’ event rather than real discussion. Two more NGO-led events (“Struggle against industrial livestock and feedstock production” and “The Global Livestock Sector: Environmental, Social, Cultural, and Health Impacts”, organized by Brighter Green) seem to be without government involvement at all, so great for morale-building, but not necessarily influential.
There are some NAMAs that play with the idea of livestock mitigation:
- Costa Rica’s Livestock NAMA focuses on rotational grazing, pasture-improvement feeding and improved fertilization plans in the country’s livestock sector;
- Uganda’s Livestock NAMA wants to use silvopastoral techniques to transform degraded lands with monoculture into complex agroforestry systems to “sequester appreciable amounts of carbon while reducing methane production of livestock under increased tree cover”;
- Colombia’s Sustainable Bovine Livestock NAMA that envisions “implementing intensive and non-intensive silvopastoral systems, and efficient management of the productive system”;
- and the Dominican Republic’s NAMA aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on pig farms through “anaerobic digestion in the Dominican pig farms. The NAMA includes the installation of 1750 biodigesters.”
While laudable, you will notice most of these are small countries with negligible amounts of production compared to the big players. Also, all these are ideas for NAMAs that are waiting for funding to actually be implemented.
The Lima-Paris Action Agenda (“the fourth pillar of the “Paris Climate Alliance”, together with a legal universal agreement, intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) from states, and finance and technology”) gathered on December 1st to go over a number of agricultural initiatives. According to the news report, there is a so-called “Live Beef Carbon” initiative, which “aims at promoting innovative livestock farming systems and associated practices to ensure the technical, economic, environmental and social sustainability of beef farms, and thus to reduce the contribution of livestock production to GHG emissions. The initiative aims to reduce the beef carbon footprint by 15% over 10 years in France, Ireland, Italy and Spain.” This seems a significant step forward. The UNFCCC’s announcement does not seem to exist on the website anymore (404 error), but a cached version offers the following:
Launched in October 2015, the “LIVE BEEF CARBON” initiative aims at promoting innovative livestock farming systems and associated practices to ensure the technical, economic, environmental and social sustainability of beef farms, and thus to improve interactions between climate change and livestock production. The initiative aims at reducing beef carbon footprint by 15% over 10 years in 4 major and contrasting countries producing beef in Europe: France, Ireland, Italy and Spain.
Led by the Institut de l’Élevage (IDELE) and the Interprofession du Bétail et de la Viande (INTERBEV), the initiative includes 6 French agricultural chambers (Pays de la Loire-Deux Sèvres, Bretagne, Basse Normandie, Bourgogne, Auvergne, Midi-Pyrénées), 5 cooperatives, companies (from Ireland, Italy, and Spain), and 4 advising organisms (such as Maison de l’Élevage du Tarn).
Actions to be implemented:
- Establish a common beef carbon framework composed of innovative practices aiming at reducing GHG emissions and increasing carbon sequestration, through an inventory of existing methodologies and practices, information sharing, harmonization, building a common GHG assessment methodology, updating advisory tools to allow comparison;
- Involve 150 Training advisers (national and regional) and 170 innovative farmers, to build a common knowledge/base;
- Create a demonstrative observatory composed of 2,000 beef farms, taking part in the first carbon assessment actions operated at such a scale;
- Build a network of 170 innovative farms to test/apply/promote innovative techniques to reduce GHG emissions and increase carbon storage. Development, monitoring and promotion of beef farms with a low carbon footprint;
- Establish national/EU carbon awareness and mobilization building on an EU beef carbon farmers’ network, allowing exchanges between farmers and advisers in the 4 countries;
- Develop French/Irish/Italian/Spanish national BEEF CARBON ACTION PLANS, and a relevant partnership strategy for other national and UE levels. These action plans will demonstrate to the beef value chains the interest and feasibility of this approach aiming at reducing the beef carbon footprint by 15% in 10 years.
I wonder whether the 404 error is coincidence or whether there are problems with this initiative that had them delete it from the website? In any case, the initiative is led by the French Institut d’Elevage and Interbev organizations, who did launch a press communication announcing the program in October.
Finally, the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef … – well, I guess it exists. In 2014, they presented their own definition of sustainable beef, which are a commendable result of compromise, yet riddled with contradictions as many industry-led multi-stakeholder definitions. Tidbits include, “It […] deliberately avoids the equally important, but more context-specific levels of indicators, metrics or practices. This is because […] at the lower level, context-specific elements including indicators and metrics are only applicable in a narrow range of environments and systems and therefore need to be developed at the local level” (so how will they measure progress on a global level?) and “Feed and forage use is optimized for production and welfare goals throughout the production chain” (what if production and welfare goals differ?).
So that’s it, a global round-up of initiatives surrounding sustainable livestock agriculture. Considering the extent of the problem, this is still rather meek, don’t you think? Or do you know of more that I have overlooked?