Livestock a major threat to environment
Remedies urgently needed
29 November 2006, Rome - Which causes
more greenhouse gas emissions, rearing cattle or driving cars?
According to a new report published by
the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock
sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2
equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of
land and water degradation.
Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s
Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report:
“Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most
serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the
With increased prosperity, people are
consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat
production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in
1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to
climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.
The global livestock sector is growing
faster than any other agricultural sub-sector. It provides livelihoods
to about 1.3 billion people and contributes about 40 percent to global
agricultural output. For many poor farmers in developing countries
livestock are also a source of renewable energy for draft and an
essential source of organic fertilizer for their crops.
But such rapid growth exacts a steep
environmental price, according to the FAO report, Livestock’s Long
Shadow –Environmental Issues and Options. “The environmental costs per
unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the
level of damage worsening beyond its present level,” it warns.
When emissions from land use and land use
change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of CO2
deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share
of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 percent of
human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming
Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.
And it accounts for respectively 37
percent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which
is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 percent
of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.
Livestock now use 30 percent of the
earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including
33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for
livestock, the report notes. As forests are cleared to create new
pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin
America where, for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the
Amazon have been turned over to grazing.
Land and water
At the same time herds cause wide-scale
land degradation, with about 20 percent of pastures considered as
degraded through overgrazing, compaction and erosion. This figure is
even higher in the drylands where inappropriate policies and inadequate
livestock management contribute to advancing desertification.
The livestock business is among the most
damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources,
contributing among other things to water pollution, euthropication and
the degeneration of coral reefs. The major polluting agents are animal
wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers
and the pesticides used to spray feed crops. Widespread overgrazing
disturbs water cycles, reducing replenishment of above and below ground
water resources. Significant amounts of water are withdrawn for the
production of feed.
Livestock are estimated to be the main
inland source of phosphorous and nitrogen contamination of the South
China Sea, contributing to biodiversity loss in marine ecosystems.
Meat and dairy animals now account for
about 20 percent of all terrestrial animal biomass. Livestock’s presence
in vast tracts of land and its demand for feed crops also contribute to
biodiversity loss; 15 out of 24 important ecosystem services are
assessed as in decline, with livestock identified as a culprit.
The report, which was produced with the
support of the multi-institutional Livestock, Environment and
Development (LEAD) Initiative, proposes explicitly to consider these
environmental costs and suggests a number of ways of remedying the
– controlling access and
removing obstacles to mobility on common pastures. Use of soil
conservation methods and silvopastoralism, together with controlled
livestock exclusion from sensitive areas; payment schemes for
environmental services in livestock-based land use to help reduce and
reverse land degradation.
Atmosphere and climate – increasing the
efficiency of livestock production and feed crop agriculture. Improving
animals’ diets to reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane
emissions, and setting up biogas plant initiatives to recycle manure.
Water – improving the efficiency of
irrigation systems. Introducing full-cost pricing for water together
with taxes to discourage large-scale livestock concentration close to
These and related questions are the focus
of discussions between FAO and its partners meeting to chart the way
forward for livestock production at global consultations in Bangkok this
week. These discussions also include the substantial public health risks
related to the rapid livestock sector growth as, increasingly, animal
diseases also affect humans; rapid livestock sector growth can also lead
to the exclusion of smallholders from growing markets.
Contact: Christopher Matthews
Media Relations, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53762
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the
- FAO Newsroom