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CLIMATE CHANGE: Cattle, the Ignored Predator

Mario Osava - IPS/TerraViva*

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 11 2009 (IPS) - Because of its effect on the environment, cattle must be given the same priority in global agendas as nuclear weapons, wars and, in particular, climate change, says Brazilian activist João Meirelles Filho, author of two books on Amazon deforestation.

Activists urge people to go vegetarian.  Credit: Nasseem Ackbarally/IPS

Activists urge people to go vegetarian. Credit: Nasseem Ackbarally/IPS

Cattle farming in Brazil is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, as it is responsible for four-fifths of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and three-fourths of the burning of forests and vegetation throughout the country, besides emitting most of the country’s methane, an important greenhouse gas produced in the digestive system of cattle.

Brazil’s promise to cut polluting gas emissions is not believable because it is based solely on limiting deforestation, without touching the real cause which is extensive cattle farming, Meirelles told TerraViva.

According to this environmental expert – who heads the Peabirú Institute and is an advocate of sustainable and social development for the Amazon region -, by failing to address this issue, Brazil is not bringing a policy proposal to the Dec. 7-18 15th Conference of Parties (COP-15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, just unrealistic figures and targets.

José Miguez, coordinator of the Inter-Ministerial Commission on Climate Change, has a radically different position. “The leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil is not livestock production” but rather the “changes in the use of land and forests,” including deforestation, the government official told TerraViva.

But Meirelles’ theory, which for many years had fallen on deaf ears, has now been confirmed by 10 researchers from various universities and government institutes, plus one environmental NGO, who concur that at least half of all harmful gases emitted by Brazil from 2003 to 2008 came from cattle-related sources.

This finding is included in a study entitled “Estimates of Recent Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Cattle Farming in Brazil,” which will be presented Saturday in Copenhagen. In it the researchers warn that government authorities and some experts underestimate the incidence of certain greenhouse gas sources on environmental pollution.

Official government studies only consider three sources of pollution, namely deforestation, forest and grassland burning, and enteric fermentation (fermentation that takes place in the digestive systems of ruminant animals) from cattle, omitting other factors of cattle production, such as degraded pasturelands, animal feed, transportation and industrialisation.

While in 1970, Brazil’s Amazon region had just under one million head of cattle, it now has 80 million head, with a productivity of just one head per hectare, Meirelles said to highlight the correlation with the advance of deforestation over the past four decades.

The country has a total of nearly 200 million heads of cattle – one for every Brazilian – distributed throughout a fourth of the national territory, and occupying a surface area three times as large as the area covered by crops.

But it is not just a problem of the Amazon region, or even of Brazil. It’s a global problem. According to estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), livestock production occupies 40 percent of the world’s agricultural lands, Meirelles said.

The more than 1.2 billion head of cattle that exist in the world consume more food than the world’s entire population of 6.8 billion people, half of whom do not even include beef in their diet. A million people don’t eat beef for religious reasons, while almost all the rest of the non-beef eaters are just too poor to afford it, he explained.

The increasing trend in beef consumption is unsustainable. Consumption is growing most notably in China, where it’s still limited to six kg a year per person, far below the 36 kg consumed in Brazil and the more than 60 kg eaten in Argentina, Meirelles said.

In addition to being an inefficient protein producer, requiring eight kg of fodder for every kg of beef produced, cattle is an environmental and social predator. According to calculations by the association of large agriculture and cattle producers, there are 70 million hectares of degraded pasturelands in Brazil.

Ranching has pushed back the agricultural frontier in Brazil, along with sugar and coffee plantations.

Historically, cattle farming was the way into the Mata Atlántica, the extensive coastal forest area in eastern Brazil that has already lost 93 percent of its native forests, and into other ecosystems, such as the Cerrado, Brazil’s vast central savannah, half of which has been deforested. This depredation is repeated in the Amazon region, Meirelles warned.

Deforestation and soil degradation are compounded by erosion, river sedimentation and other damages.

The three million head of cattle that graze on the large, humid island of Marajó, in the estuary of the Amazon river, “alter the flatlands, open up streams, and change the water system,” the activist said. The damaging impact is worsened by the fact that many of them are water buffalo, which have an extremely destructive effect on nature.

In addition, the advance of cattle farming has enormous social costs, as it fuels modern forms of slave labour and violent conflicts over land, and is used by powerful landowners to illegally secure holdings of large landed estates with minimum employment.

It isn’t, moreover, a profitable activity, Meirelles noted.

In his opinion, the number of cattle head must be cut down drastically, not just in Brazil but around the world, raising greater awareness to bring down beef consumption. This is a cultural process that takes time, and time is something that humanity is sorely lacking, as the effects of climate change must be mitigated now, he acknowledged. Thus, government action and leadership are needed urgently to further solutions.

As it commits itself to reduce Amazon deforestation by 80 percent for 2020, Brazil must include cattle farming in climate change negotiations and promote policies aimed at preventing a foreseeable catastrophe that is somehow blurred by “an inexplicable blindness,” Meirelles said.

* This story appears in the IPS TerraViva online daily published for the COP 15 at Copenhagen.

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