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4 ways Beef farmers can reduce greenhouse gas emissions

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, it is a well-known fact that the food system has been a significant contributor over the past decade. Reports indicate that food systems are responsible for approximately one-quarter to one-third of overall emissions. Within this sector, beef stands out as the largest contributor due to higher intrinsic emissions coupled with increased consumption. Taking a closer look at the production cycle, it becomes quite clear that the agricultural stage, which includes the digestive process, waste and feed production, and the associated land use change accounts for most of these emissions.  In 2010, annual emissions from beef production were about 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, comparable to the total annual emissions of India, the world’s third-largest GHG emitter.

Consequently, a natural question to ask would be, “How can we reduce emissions at the agricultural production stage?”. Although the overall emissions from the beef industry are quite high, they also vary depending on the different agricultural practices and farming methods used across the world. There is, therefore, a significant opportunity for reductions by implementing efficient and low-carbon farming methods.

So what are the practical ways beef producers can implement to reduce their emissions?

In the beef production systems, the primary sources of emissions are enteric methane (“cow burps”), manure management, feed production (whether pasture- or crop-based) and land clearing. Considering these sources, let’s discuss the key strategies for reducing emissions in beef production, which have the potential to reduce emissions from ruminant livestock by up to 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2050.

1. Improve Efficiency and Productivity

Improving efficiency is one of the best ways to reduce emissions from beef production. This includes more efficient land use which can eliminate the need to clear more land. Strategies to boost efficiency without compromising animal welfare include developing more digestible feeds, improving feeding practices, planting pastures with better grasses and legumes, breeding cattle for higher growth rates, enhancing veterinary care, and improving grazing management. A combination of these strategies can result in a lower carbon footprint per kilogram of beef. However, in order to implement these strategies and reduce emissions, it is important to have a system in place that helps monitor improvements in efficiency over time.

While these improvements have historically reduced beef production emissions intensity, total emissions have still climbed. Often productivity gains can lead to increased profits, potentially causing producers to expand operations and clear more land. Therefore, productivity gains must be paired with ecosystem protection to avoid the “rebound effect” of additional land clearing.

2. Reduce Enteric Methane Emissions

Although efficiency improvements reduce enteric methane emissions per kilogram of beef, there is also room for technological interventions that can further cut these emissions. Enteric methane inhibitors, such as the chemical 3-NOP and certain seaweeds, are promising options. Preliminary studies show these additives can reduce enteric methane by 20% to 98% without harming animal health or productivity. There is considerable amount of research going on to develop feeds that inhibit methane production. A breakthrough scalable solution in this field could largely benefit the industry.

Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

3. Improve Manure Management

Better manure management can lower both methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Practices include more frequent waste removal from barns and covering tanks containing semi-solid waste. Using animal waste as a nutrient source for crops reduces the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, thus avoiding emissions from manufacturing and transporting these fertilizers. Better use of manure on farms can therefore have multiple benefits not only to reduce emissions from manure but also for maintaining long-term soil quality.

In some places, suggestions to implement anaerobic digesters on farms are promoted. These digesters use collected manure to produce biogas for electricity generation. Large-scale producers can undertake projects like these which enable reducing emissions though methane capture from animal waste and reduce fossil fuel consumption by using biogas as a fuel. Although this approach is helpful, it is inevitably more expensive and might be quite challenging for small-scale farmers. In such situations however, it is mutually beneficial to form industry wide partnerships that can help implement such solutions and tackle the bigger problem together.

4. Stabilize and Sequester Carbon in Vegetation and Soils

Photo by Dylan de Jonge on Unsplash

Increasing soil carbon, known as “regenerative” practices have been known to improve soil health. In regions with poor soil quality and low beef output per hectare, such as the tropics, practices like rotational grazing and silvopasture can boost beef yields per hectare and sequester additional carbon in soils and vegetation.

However, the mitigation potential of carbon sequestration on grazing lands is limited, and the impacts on soil carbon are hard to predict. Soil carbon storage is difficult to measure and monitor, so ensuring climate benefits are real and permanent is crucial. In high-income countries with high soil quality and beef output per hectare, building on-farm soil carbon may have a smaller global climate benefit or even a net climate cost if it requires more land per kilogram of beef compared to the national average. The local climate benefits of soil carbon sequestration must be balanced against potential off-farm carbon losses from additional land clearing to maintain beef production.

Maintaining the balance between implementing these practices while ensuring a net carbon gain through carbon sequestration can be tricky and hard to monitor and measure. Nonetheless, in regions where the soil quality is poor, implementing regenerative practices will prove beneficial in the long-term and would enable sustainable farming to restore some of the balance in nature.

The strategies mentioned are some of the widely discussed methods within the industry. Implementing some of these strategies is a great starting point to begin our efforts to lower the emissions of the beef industry. These suggestions offer a significant opportunity for beef producers to plan their carbon emission reduction strategies that are increasingly becoming an important part of supply-chain assessments in the food sector.

Looking at the bigger picture, shifting high-beef diets towards plant-rich alternatives and reducing food loss and waste are also crucial strategies to lower emissions. However, it is equally important to reduce emissions where possible by improving beef production. As global beef demand increases and most of the world’s pasturelands cannot support crops or trees, making beef production more sustainable is essential.

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