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Animal husbandry, FAO proposes 5 intervention areas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

FAO recommends its 194 member states to work on 5 fronts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere from animal husbandry. (1)

A further area of ​​intervention - which in turn deserves consideration, although not mentioned - concerns the use of algae in feed. To reduce ruminant methane emissions and strengthen the animals' immune system.

Demographics, economy and meat consumption

The demographic increase, urbanization and generalized improvement (although deeply unfair) of the global economy have contributed to an extraordinary growth in the demand for meat in recent decades. More than quadrupled in low- and middle-income countries (Low-Middle Income Countries, LMICs), between 1970 and 2012. It is expected to double, according to estimates, by 2050 (2,3).

Consumption moderate of foods of animal origin are generally considered favorable for human health, in the context of varied and balanced diets. By reason of the macro and micro nutrients they bring, and their easy assimilation (eg proteins and amino acids, vitamin B12, calcium, iron).

Livestock supply chains, the problems to be faced

Uncontrolled growth of the livestock supply chains has however led to a series of problems, largely unresolved, related to:

- land consumption. 2,5 billion hectares, equal to about half of the entire global agricultural area, are in fact dedicated to the cultivation of feed materials (FAOSTAT 2016),

- land robberies and deforestations. The ever-growing demand for grazing areas and GM soybeans destined for feed production is still met, especially in Latin America and South America, by means of land grabs (land grabbing) and devastation of primary agricultural forests, (4)

- food security. The security of food supplies and the universal right of access to food (the second of Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs) are also threatened by the destination for feed use, rather than food, of crops and agricultural products,

- animal welfare, zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistance,

- loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG, Greenhouse Gases). These problems are also caused to a significant extent by others supply chains destined to produce food and biofuels (Eg. Palm oil, GMO soy).

Animal husbandry and greenhouse gas emissions

The livestock production chain it is considered responsible for 14,5% of global greenhouse gas emissions deriving from anthropogenic activities. About half of the emissions are methane gas (CH4), which mainly derives from the enteric fermentation of ruminants (44,1% in 2010, FAO 2018), as well as from undigested plant matter residing in the manure (5,6% in 2010, FAO 2018). The remaining half is made up respectively of nitrous oxide (N2O or nitrogen oxide, whose precursor is ammonia present in animal manure, 24%) and carbon dioxide (CO2, 26%), which derive from the production of forage and feed, organic and inorganic fertilizers used in the land, manure management.

55% of emissions are considered direct, i.e. linked to biological processes (enteric fermentation of ruminants or nitrification / denitrification of manure and urine or anaerobic decomposition - CH4 and CO2) or to the use of energy in farms - CO2. Indirect emissions, on the other hand, are worth the remaining 45% and derive from the production of fertilizers and pesticides for crops destined to become feed, from the feed itself, from the use of manure on the fields, from means of transport and tools and from the change of destination of the soil (ie deforestation for agricultural use of the land).

Greenhouse gases and animal husbandry, the impact of individual supply chains

Ruminant animals (polygastric) produce higher GHG emissions than monogastric animals (eg. poultry, pigs). Overall 5 Gt CO2 eq., Over 60% of the global GHG emissions in animal husbandry, are attributed to the beef supply chains. Nonetheless, FAO considers it useful to consider the intensity of emissions in relation to the proteins supplied by the individual supply chains.

The ranking of emissions, based on the amount of 'CO2 equivalent' needed to produce 1 kg of protein, as follows:

- buffalo meat, 404 kg of CO2 eq., Per 1 kg of protein,

- beef, 295 kg of CO2 eq.,

- small ruminants (sheep and goats), 201 kg,

- milk (dairy cows), 87 kg,

- pork, 55 kg,

- chicken, 35 kg,

- eggs (laying hens), 31 kg.

Greenhouse gases and animal husbandry, geographical distribution

The countries high-income and low-middle-income ones but with a high density of livestock (especially cattle) record higher quantities of GHG emissions. 38,8% of the total emissions in agriculture are attributed to the enteric fermentation of ruminants, with a prevalence in Asia (36,7%) and America (31,9%. FAOSTAT, 2017 data). India, Brazil and China are on the podium.

The efficiency of animal husbandry has an extraordinary importance. A US cow, for example, produces an average of 10.000 liters of milk every year. The production of the same quantity of milk in India requires the use of eight cows (which produce about 1.200 liters of milk per year), with methane emissions from enteric fermentation about 9 times higher. Productive exasperation Made in USA (hormones, antibiotics, pesticides) must however be considered, in our opinion, also in its negative effects on animal welfare, food safety and the environment. (5)

The 5 practical actions proposed by FAO

FAO considers it possible to reduce emissions from farms by 30%, especially methane, thanks to improved management and organization of systems. Through synergies between the various supply chains (meat, eggs, dairy products. Without neglecting the by-products, eg leather and wool), suitable investments and involvement of farmers.

1) Increase the efficiency of production and use of resources

The increase of meat production responded exclusively to the greater demand of consumers, without considering environmental issues. Considering the impossibility of totally eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, as they derive from biological cycles and natural processes, it is necessary to review the management and organization of the supply chain.

It is emphasized therefore the importance of improving the composition of feed and fertilizers, as well as intervening on the selection of breeds and the management of manure. Without altering natural biological cycles, nor compromising animal welfare and public health.

2) Strengthen the circular economy

Reduce waste food throughout the entire supply chain is essential both to defeat hunger and malnutrition, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) n. 2 and 13, in the UN Agenda 2030. And for this purpose it is necessary, as seen (ISPRA, 2019), adopt a systemic approach.

Globally, to cite an example, the waste of 1 in 5 liters of milk produced has been calculated (FAO 2015). A circular bioeconomy model could allow the reuse and recycling of waste from agri-food chains (from farm to fork) and biofuels in feed production. Thus improving the efficiency of nitrogen use, reducing N2O emissions, freeing millions of hectares of agricultural land from the production of feed materials.

I by-products of slaughter and manure can in turn be transformed into biogas, reducing GHG emissions, bad smells and insects. And their subsequent residues in organic fertilizer.

3) Take advantage of nature-based solutions to increase GHG emissions offsets

Agriculture (broadly) and forests have the potential to offset their GHG emissions. But some agricultural supply chains, as mentioned, are the main causes of deforestation. It is therefore urgent to stop the expansion of grazing land and the production of feed on soils occupied by forests. (4)

Then we need to improve the management techniques of pastures and crops for the production of feed. Planting trees and supporting forestry-pastoral activities can help limit soil degradation, reduce biodiversity loss and promoteagroecology. It is also important to use renewable energies (not only biogas, but also wind or solar energy) to run the production plants.

4) Healthy and sustainable diets, alternative proteins

Health of the world population is threatened by malnutrition which expresses itself with apparently opposite symptoms, malnutrition and obesity. Among children under five, 1 in 5 is underdeveloped from malnutrition now aggravated by the Covid-19 crisis. Meanwhile, at least 40 million children of the same age are obese or overweight.

Nutritional benefits offered by meats and products of animal origin play a valuable role and yet their excesses, as well as i consumption of ultra-processed foods, are the cause of serious non-communicable diseases (Non-Communicable Diseases, NCDs), often chronic and incurable.

It is necessary therefore to promote consumption and carry out research on the sustainable production of alternative protein sources. Like legumes, essential for the nourishment of humans as well as soils (FAO 2019), algae and microalgae, fungi and microbial proteins, insects.

5) Policies guiding change

Public intervention it is essential to change farming systems. However, agricultural policies must follow an integrated approach (bottom up e top-down) and participatory, as well as being based on solid scientific foundations. FAO identifies direct payments as useful tools to encourage farmers to change. Instead, it expresses reservations on the carbon tax, also in the face of the uncertainties of measurement of emissions in individual contexts.

The above-mentioned measures to be used to discourage unsustainable farming practices may include the application of surcharges (or taxes) on commodities resulting from it. Taking into account the various factors on which it is possible and therefore necessary to intervene in order to improve environmental performance. The adoption of standards and certifications should also be promoted, in order to promote consumer awareness and stimulate sustainable production (SDG 12, Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns).

The impact of climate change on animal husbandry

Animal husbandry it is in turn threatened by the climate emergency. The increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere - in causing temperatures to rise, with unstable rainfall and natural disasters - is also harmful to animals, pastures and feed crops.

High temperatures and sporadic rainfall negatively affects crops and the metabolism of plants, which tend to lignify for defense. This reduces the quality and yield of forage and feed crops. And the pathogenic vectors responsible for zoonoses tend to survive even in the winter months.

Climate emergency, impact on the life of populations

Drought e desertification in some sub-Saharan African states they have caused the loss of 20-60% of herds of cattle over the past three decades. And heat stress can negatively affect milk production. (6)

These changes further aggravate the problem of food security, force populations to change the use of soils, increasing the agricultural area, and to migrate. In addition to causing resource conflicts, water in particular.

Sustainable Development Goals and Animal Husbandry

Animal husbandry - as the food supply chain as a whole - it must be transformed from a cause of the ecological crisis to a part of the solution. Without neglecting the livelihood needs of the populations, taking into account that the livestock supply chains employ about 1,3 billion people in the world (FAOSTAT, 2014). (7)

'It is important to note that livestock are indispensable for the achievement of the SDGs, partly because they play an essential role in the lives of the poor '. (1)

FAO studies therefore identify the potential of breeding activities as a possible driving force for achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs) in the UN Agenda 2030.

FAO, provisional conclusions

A reduction of 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in animal husbandry, according to FAO, is an achievable goal. However, its achievement requires a change, on a global level, in all supply chains. Taking into account their diversity and complexity, as well as their respective socio-cultural contexts and traditions. In general, at the operational level, some areas of intervention are identified:

- quality of feed. The use of highly digestible selected materials (such as those with a low protein content) can reduce emissions from enteric fermentation of ruminants. To this end, it is also useful to work on the maturation of the forage and the improvement of the haymaking and ensiling processes,

- land management dedicated to grazing. Agro-forest systems bring significant benefits in terms of CO2 sequestration in the atmosphere, recovery of biodiversity, greater production yield and animal welfare,

- selection of breeds more productive and control over the fertility of animals are identified as necessary steps also for the control of GHG emissions,

- waste management appropriate, to reduce the nitrogen concentration in manure, promoting proper composting, solid-liquid separation techniques and their use as organic fertilizer,

The biological system, in agriculture and animal husbandry, undoubtedly guarantees a better balance between emissions and carbon sequestration, with a net reduction of indirect emissions. Under the banner of respect for human and animal health, animal welfare, environmental protection. In two words, One Health.

The role of algae in animal husbandry

A great opportunity which deserves to be added to the FAO recommendations concerns the use of algae in animal husbandry. The addition of minimum quotas of some algae in feed, as seen, can allow extraordinary reductions in ruminant methane emissions (up to 99%).

Algae and microalgae they are also the subject of successful experiments in Italian farms and scientific studies, to strengthen the immune system of animals. With the aim of promoting animal welfare by reducing the use of antibiotics and other veterinary drugs. Further information to follow.

Dario Dongo and Marina De Nobili


(1) FAO (2019). Five practical actions towards low-carbon livestock. FAO, Rome. ISBN: 978-92-5-131985-7. http://www.fao.org/publications/card/en/c/CA7089EN/

(2) See also the UN report The World in 2050 (TWI 2050)

(3) Global agricultural production in turn tripled between 1960 and 2015 (UNEP, 2020). V. https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/mercati/agricoltura-industriale-i-10-punti-critici-da-affrontare-rapporto-unep

(4) The campaign should be noted in this regard Buycott! Palm oil, GMO soy and American meats, promoted by Égalité together with GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). v. https://www.egalite.org/buycott-petizione/https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/consum-attori/buycott-soia-ogm-palma-e-carni-americane-la-petizione

(5) Dario Dongo. Pesticides, antibiotics and hormones in milk US, the study. The label of origin is urgently needed. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 11.8.19, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/consum-attori/pesticidi-antibiotici-e-ormoni-nel-latte-usa-lo-studio-urge-l-etichetta-di-origine
(6) Also therefore work is underway, in Camel Milk research project, to the development of the camel milk supply chain in the Mediterranean. As part of the PRIMA project (Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area), in Horizon 2020
(7) Animal husbandry represents about 40% of agricultural revenues in high-income countries, 20% in low-middle-income countries (FAOSTAT, 2014)

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