Global Farm­ing

Savvy live­stock farm­ers can lower green­house gas emis­sions and re­duce the car­bon foot­print of their en­ter­prises while boost­ing prof­its.

Farmer's Weekly (South Africa) - - Contents - FW

In 2006, a re­port by the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions shocked the world’s agri­cul­tural and agro-pro­cess­ing in­dus­tries. Ti­tled Live­stock’s Long Shadow, it al­leged that live­stock, largely through meth­ane emis­sions, were the ma­jor pro­duc­ers of green­house gases. Since then, it has be­come clear that the re­port had ex­ag­ger­ated the role of live­stock in this re­gard, par­tic­u­larly when com­pared with the trans­port in­dus­try. Newer method­ol­ogy has re­sulted in much lower es­ti­mates for the green­house gases (GHGs) pro­duced by farm an­i­mals.

None­the­less, it is true that ru­mi­nants are the ma­jor cul­prits of meth­ane emis­sions. Ex­pressed as kilo­grams of car­bon diox­ide per kilo­gram of food pro­tein, beef cat­tle, small ru­mi­nants and dairy cat­tle pro­duce sig­nif­i­cantly more GHGs than mono­gas­tric an­i­mals such as poul­try and pigs.

Ru­mi­nant food pro­duc­tion is also seen as an in­ef­fi­cient way of con­vert­ing plant pro­tein and en­ergy to food pro­tein and en­ergy. Dairy and beef cat­tle pro­duce far less pro­tein per kilo­gram of plant pro­tein used than non-ru­mi­nants do.

On the other hand, ru­mi­nants con­vert parts of plants that are not ed­i­ble for hu­mans into nu­tri­tional food, and this is the ba­sis for a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at live­stock pro­duc­tion.

An al­ter­na­tive mea­sure­ment

In a pa­per de­liv­ered at the 2018 In­ter­na­tional Dairy Fed­er­a­tion World Dairy Sum­mit, French sci­en­tist JL Peyraud rec­om­mended an al­ter­na­tive method of de­ter­min­ing pro­tein-use ef­fi­ciency by ru­mi­nants.

Hu­mans and live­stock com­pete for food and feed from plant pro­duc­tion, but the com­pe­ti­tion is only for the hu­man-ed­i­ble parts of plants. If one ex­cludes the parts that hu­mans can­not eat, such as the parts of grain used in an­i­mal feed, live­stock farm­ing is not the in­ef­fi­cient food pro­ducer that a sim­ple food:kilo­gram of feed com­par­i­son in­di­cates. Based on an­i­mal pro­tein pro­duced per kilo­gram of ed­i­ble plant pro­tein used, grass­land pro­duc­tion sys­tems are more ef­fi­cient than grain-based in­ten­sive sys­tems.

In South Africa and else­where, ru­mi­nants graze lands un­suited to crop pro­duc­tion. It is es­ti­mated that 25% of the world’s an­i­mal pro­duc­tion is de­rived from per­ma­nent grass­lands and range­lands. Grass­land pro­duc­tion also pro­duces health­ier food with a higher per­cent­age of im­por­tant fatty acids such as omega-3 and a lower per­cent­age of sat­u­rated fatty acids.

This said, en­teric fer­men­ta­tion by ru­mi­nants pro­duces meth­ane, which is 28 times more en­vi­ron­men­tally harm­ful than car­bon diox­ide. But this can be mit­i­gated.

‘ use crop residue and food waste to pro­duce food’

A 2014 Agri­cul­tural Re­search Coun­cil study found dif­fer­ences be­tween var­i­ous cat­tle breeds and even be­tween in­di­vid­ual cat­tle of the same breed. And there are al­ready breed­ing plans that in­clude meth­ane pro­duc­tion as a breed­ing trait.

Good an­i­mal hus­bandry, which re­sults in higher pro­duc­tion from the same re­sources, the proper use of ma­nure, and im­proved crop man­age­ment through min­i­mum tillage and crop ro­ta­tion, can also help lower to­tal car­bon foot­print.

Dr Martin Scholten from the Wa­genin­gen Univer­sity in the Nether­lands has in­tro­duced the con­cept of ‘cir­cu­lar­ity’ in live­stock pro­duc­tion. Farm­ers should fo­cus on re­source ef­fi­ciency rather than pro­duc­tion ef­fi­ciency and use all pro­duced agro­biomass, in­clud­ing crop residues, food waste and ma­nure, to pro­duce food. This would re­duce the in­dus­try’s var­i­ous foot­prints.

Im­pli­ca­tions for South Africa

A car­bon tax al­ready ex­ists for the mo­tor in­dus­try. While agri­cul­ture is ex­empt from this tax, there is no guar­an­tee it will re­main so. There are many new ways to mit­i­gate car­bon foot­prints in­ter­na­tion­ally; South Africa’s sci­en­tists would do well to study these.

Apart from any­thing else, it makes eco­nomic sense for farm­ers to limit car­bon and other foot­prints. For ex­am­ple, those who adapt bi­o­log­i­cal farm­ing meth­ods save on fer­tiliser and other chem­i­cals.

by DR koos coet­zeeDr Koos Coet­zee is an agri­cul­tural econ­o­mist at the MPO. All opin­ions ex­pressed are his own and do not re­flect MPO pol­icy. Email him at farm­er­[email protected]­ton.co.za. Sub­ject line: Global farm­ing.

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