Livestock Diets, Not Ours, Should Be Improved To Reduce Agricultural Impact On Climate Change: Study

By Ben Wolford on February 24, 2014 5:28 PM EST

This sheep in Ethiopia grazes on low-energy plants. Feeding livestock richer food could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent by 2030, according to a new study. (Photo: International Livestock Research Institute)

This sheep in Ethiopia grazes on low-energy plants. Feeding livestock richer food could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent by 2030, according to a new study. (Photo: International Livestock Research Institute)

Animals aren't climate friendly. They take up space that could be used for trees, which cleanse the atmosphere, and their digestive systems (like ours) create a foul smelling, greenhouse gaseous byproduct: methane. As a result, many have called for dramatic reductions in meat eating. A 2012 study published in Environmental Research Letters argued that developed nations must slash meat consumption by 50 percent or face devastating global consequences.

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But new research published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences attacks the livestock emissions problem from a different angle. Instead of changing the way we eat, the authors say, we should change the way animals eat. "There is a lot of discussion about reduction of meat in the diets as a way to reduce emissions," says lead author Petr Havlík, of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, in a statement. "But our results show that targeting the production side of agriculture is a much more efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

The argument of Havlík and his colleagues is based on two ideas: that reducing meat production will only hurt the world's poorest and hungriest, and that feeding livestock nutrient-rich food means they'll need less space to graze. By their calculations, implementing new dietary and land-use strategies, like relocating livestock into more "efficient systems" instead of clearing more trees, could cut livestock greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent by 2030. By eating more nutrient-rich grains and less grass, cows, sheep, and goats grow more quickly and produce more milk, the researchers say.

"Most effective climate policies involving livestock would be those targeting emissions from land-use change," the PNAS editors wrote in summary. "To minimize the economic and social cost, policies should target emissions at their source — on the supply side — rather than on the demand side."

This idea isn't completely new. Ever since the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published a report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," in 2006, more groups have been focused on agriculture's impact on global warming. The UN scientists reported that 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from raising livestock. The Environmental Protection Agency said the agriculture sector accounted for 8 percent of greenhouse gases in 2011.

Subsequently, many have demanded policies aimed at reducing the global appetite for meat. But there are other ideas, too, including using fertilizers with less nitrogen, better manure disposal techniques, and improving livestock diets. "From the livestock sector perspective, limiting land use change seems the cheapest option both in terms of the economic cost and in terms of impact on food availability," Havlík says.

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