Cut off the gas

PIERRE GERBER from the Food and Agriculture Organisation talks about his new report on emissions from livestock farming.


David Burrows (DB): Livestock production seems to be a big emitter of greenhouse gases, but what are the main sources?


Pierre Gerber (PG): Cattle raised for both beef and milk is responsible for about 65% of the sector’s emissions. This is mainly due to their rumination that produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. In fact, ruminants’ digestion represents 39% of these emissions, while feed production is 45%. Feed emissions come from fertilisation, the expansion of pasture and feed crops into forests and the use of fossil energy. Most of the rest is from the storage of manure.


DB: You’ve just studied the emissions from livestock in greater detail for a new report. What were the headline findings?
PG: The global livestock sector is an important emitter of greenhouse gases with emissions representing about 14.5% of human emissions. But the sector has the potential to reduce its emissions quite significantly. The report estimates that sector emissions could be cut as much as 30% through the wider use of best practices and technologies.


DB: How can the livestock sector reduce its greenhouse gas footprint?


PG: More producers need to use existing best technologies and practices. Improving efficiency is important. Generally, the more efficient operations are, the lower their emissions per unit of product. Better feeding practices can reduce emissions from rumination and manure. Further efficiency gains can be achieved by better animal health and husbandry practices.


DB: Is the sector doing enough to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint?


PG: We need a broad range of actions to stimulate the adoption of new practices. Policies and regulations will certainly be needed. Support to farmers, capacity building, activities to raise producers’ awareness are essential. Financial incentives are also key. More research is crucial to develop new technologies. The rise in private and public-sector initiatives to respond to sustainability challenges is encouraging though.


DB: The report suggests emissions can be cut 30% through efficiencies and technologies. Is that enough? And will there also need to be changes in consumption patterns – for example, eating less meat?


PG: A 30% reduction will only partially offset the increase in overall emissions that the projected growth in livestock production will entail. Additional efforts are certainly needed. Changes in consumption patterns offer one way to address the environmental impacts of livestock but should be looked at in a global context and in conjunctions with health and food security concerns. While reduction in consumption may benefit health and the environment where animal products are consumed in high amounts, in many developing countries families have limited access to such products, with negative consequences for their health and nutrition.


DB: Livestock production has the biggest footprint, but what can food retailers, caterers and restaurants do to help reduce the footprint of livestock and the meat they sell?


PG: These sectors should focus on the sourcing, transport and conservation of products to reduce their emissions. Reducing food wastage should be explored. We showed recently that each year food produced but not eaten is responsible for the release of 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. To reduce waste retailers could improve display practices or identify ways to sell items close to their use-by date. Caterers and restaurants could improve quantity planning and adapt size to consumer needs. They could also redirect their purchasing orders towards low emission intensity products.