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RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 18 2010 (IPS) - The livestock industry has less economic clout than the oil industry, but ranchers say it has better arguments to defend itself from accusations regarding its share of responsibility for global warming.
The livestock industry represents 40 percent of agricultural production worldwide and provides a livelihood and food security to one billion people.
The fact that it provides a source of food perhaps goes some way towards protecting the industry from the argument that it generates too much greenhouse gases, which scientists blame for global warming and climate change.
“There is no scientific proof,” says Antenor Nogueira, president of the beef livestock forum of the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CAN), referring to reports that accuse the industry of being one of the biggest threats to life on the planet.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that the livestock industry accounts for 18 percent of all greenhouse gases worldwide – more than the transport industry, which is responsible for 13 percent, and is a major consumer of oil.
Cattle account for half of Brazil’s greenhouse gases, according to a study by researchers at public universities and institutes and the global environmental watchdog Friends of the Earth – Brazilian Amazon. A big proportion of that is indirect emissions from deforestation largely caused by the expansion of ranching in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest and vast Cerrado savannah.
In the latest edition of its State of Food and Agriculture report, released in February, FAO recommends improving the efficiency of livestock production through policies such as taxes or fees for land use or payments for environmental services, in order to curb the industry’s fast expansion and disastrous effects.
FAO says the world will have to double meat production by 2050 to meet growing demand, which would make pressure on natural resources unsustainable.
“Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80 percent of all agricultural land,” says the FAO report.
But Nogueira told IPS that “It makes no sense to tax livestock in Brazil; greenhouse gas emissions are five times higher in the northern hemisphere, which imports grains to feed its livestock because it lacks tropical sunlight.
“They burn the Amazon jungle and it’s our fault?” he grumbled, arguing that the livestock industry cannot exclusively be held responsible for the deforestation that is the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, and that ranchers cannot be blamed as a group for the illegal activities of a few who break the law.
He stressed that the CAN defends “zero deforestation” and penalties for those who break the law.
But the authors of the Brazilian report said three-quarters of the area deforested in the Amazon is now grazing land for cattle.
It would be possible to reduce the livestock industry’s “carbon footprint by three-fourths,” if greenhouse gases were cut from 300 to 75 kg per kg of beef produced, by curbing deforestation and use of the slash-and-burn technique for example, said Roberto Smeraldi, director of the Friends of the Earth – Brazilian Amazon, one of the coordinators of the study.
Smeraldi, who recommends these and other measures to improve the efficiency of livestock production and make it less polluting, takes a less radical stance than other environmentalists, some of whom argue that stockbreeding is simply not sustainable because it uses too much water and land, and eight or more kg of feed are needed to obtain one kg of beef.
It is possible to adopt measures like technological innovations, use “integrated, closed-loop waste management systems,” or combine different kinds of livestock like cattle, sheep, goats, poultry and even fish farming, to make production more sustainable, said Smeraldi.
He also argued that an across-the-board tax “would not be efficient” in terms of fighting global warming, and that the producers who cause the greatest damage – by emitting the most greenhouse gases or using the most natural resources, for example – should be taxed more heavily, while more efficient producers should be given incentives.
But João Meirelles, director of the non-governmental Peabiru Institute and the author of a book on the Amazon jungle and the destruction caused by stockbreeders, maintains that livestock raising is simply not sustainable because it does not use energy efficiently in a world where availability of land and other natural resources is shrinking.
He said the creation of a tax on beef would be “positive” because “everything that is inefficient” should be taxed, but added that in Brazil it would be sufficient to make more effective use of the already existing rural land tax to ensure that cattle breeders assume the cost of the vast stretches of land that they need.
Livestock is gaining ground in the Amazon because clearing the jungle “is cheaper” than occupying other areas thanks to numerous incentives, such as subsidised loans, he said. Moreover, unregulated land clearing and other illegal activities further reduce the already low costs, Meirelles added.
In 2008, Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, urged people to eat less meat if they wanted to have a personal effect on climate change.
But Brazilian ranchers argue that in this country, the livestock industry’s impact on the climate is reduced because pasture-fed cattle, which predominate here, produce no net emissions if you count carbon stored in the soil by grazing livestock.
Sebastião Costa Guedes, president of Brazil’s National Beef Cattle Council (CNPC), said a study by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) showed that certain kinds of grass absorb more carbon dioxide than what is produced by grazing animals.
However, the assertion that grass-fed beef has a smaller carbon footprint has been challenged by studies showing that feedlot animals produce less methane and gain weight faster, which means they are slaughtered sooner, thus generating less gas overall.
The Brazilian livestock industry cut its emissions 29 percent between 1998 and 2007, said Guedes. In addition, Brazilian farmers have reduced the average slaughtering age of cattle to two and a half years from four, which means animals emit fewer gases, while productivity was boosted from 27 to 47 kg of beef per hectare, he added.
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