Report calls for smaller livestock densities

Greenhouse gases Livestock production linked to a majority of methane emissions from agriculture

The best way for livestock producers to become greener is to become smaller, says the author of a report examining greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production.

The Worldwatch Institute report links livestock production to the majority of methane emissions in agriculture.

“It’s clear that basic livestock populations need to decline or stabilize,” report author Laura Reynolds said in an interview.

“I think that’d be the easiest silver bullet if there were one: any policies that encourage decreased concentrations of livestock populations.”

The study looked at nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane emissions from global agriculture production from 1990 to 2010, and cited Food and Agriculture Organization research that found methane makes up half of total agriculture emissions.

Reynold Bergen, science director at the Beef Cattle Research Centre, said Canadian research has found much smaller emissions from livestock.

“If you want to drastically reduce methane production, the quickest way to do it is to get those cattle growing faster so that they’re processed sooner, and Canada has done a lot of things to do that,” he said, referring to improvements in genetics, feed efficiency and forage production that have improved the feed conversion ratio for livestock.

Bergen said cattle that once took as many as five years to finish are now ready to be slaughtered within two years.

“We’re using less feed for every pound of gain, and cattle are growing an awful lot faster. We’re using less acres to grow that feed for the cattle,” he said.

“The cattle are growing faster, so they’re around fewer days producing that methane.”

Reynolds advocates moving away from large feedlots toward smaller grass-fed, intensive rotational grazing and organic operations that can fetch a premium for producers.

“Adding oils or oilseeds to feed can help with digestion and reduce methane emissions, but a shift from a grass-based to a grain- and oilseeds-based diet often accompanies a shift from pastures to concentrated feedlots, which has a range of negative consequences such as water pollution and high fossil fuel consumption,” Reynolds wrote in the report.

“Aside from reducing livestock populations, there is no other clear pathway to climate-friendly meat production from livestock.”

Bergen said industry will continue to examine livestock’s environmental footprint.

“We’ve funded research that has kind of as a byproduct gathered a lot of information on carbon sequestration or methane production or manure production that we have never really taken advantage of,” he said.

“What we’re hoping to do over the next couple of years is start to look back at some of those old results and try to quantify where the beef industry has made improvements, as well as identify opportunities to do better.”

The Worldwatch report also cites FAO numbers that show global agricultural production is growing faster than its emissions.

“I definitely think that it’s a positive that we’ve been able to produce more without raising emissions,” Reynolds said.

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