While many experts believe that livestock belong decidedly on the minus side of any environmental equation – given, for example, the role of expanding cattle production as a driver of deforestation in the Amazon – a group of experts in animal feeding argued today for a major revision of conventional calculations about the size of livestock’s ecological “hoofprint.”
Gathered for Agricultural and Rural Development Day at Rio+20, these scientists called for a new approach to livestock development – referred to as LivestockPlus – which they argued can contribute significantly to climate change mitigation while also benefiting millions of the rural poor through sustainable intensification of meat and milk production.
Their argument rests in part on substantial evidence compiled in a recent review article published by CIAT. It indicates that tropical forages, if well managed, can capture huge amounts of carbon – on a scale similar to that of forests – while also opening up the possibility of reducing emissions of nitrous oxide and methane per unit of livestock production. Representing CIAT as well as the Brazilian Agricultural Research Enterprise (Embrapa), International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and CATIE, the scientists cited other practices as well that can boost livestock’s livelihood and environmental benefits.
Evidence from CATIE, for example, suggests that these benefits are especially pronounced with silvopastoral systems combining improved forages with trees or shrubs. ILRI’s experience in Asia further indicates that there is considerable scope for improving the fodder value of residues from cereal and legume crops. Without reducing grain yields, these approaches could dramatically reduce methane emissions from dairy production – by as much as a third.
While all of these options deliver clear productivity benefits, farmers need other incentives as well to adopt new practices on a large scale. Experience in Brazil demonstrates that tax incentive schemes can be highly effective for this purpose. Another option worth exploring is to include planting of tropical forages in payment-for-environmental-services (PES) schemes, based on lessons learned from recent experience in Colombia and Costa Rica.
To make such approaches work, however, said Embrapa president Pedro Arraes, research will have to produce better numbers about livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation potential as well as a common repository for this valuable information.