The challenge of increasing production of the animal sector while reducing its environmental footprint

January 29, 2015

Philippe Chemineau, President EAAP 2012-2016

Associated with a continuous decrease in the number of hungry people, studies looking at future trends predict an increase of world population over the next 30 years. This is associated with an increase of their buying power, essentially in emerging countries such as China, Brazil, India, Indonesia and to a lesser extent Africa. This combination will provoke a dramatic increase in animal product consumption (meat, milk and fish) in these emerging countries. At the same time, industrial countries will probably reduce their meat consumption per capita for a variety of reasons, which, coincident with stagnation of their population growth, will lead to decreased meat consumption in these countries.

Simultaneously, the demand for animal products with high nutritional, organoleptic and « ethic » qualities will increase all over the world. This « ethic » quality is a new concept coming from old Europe and is related to livestock production in specific areas where the conditions of production, i.e. use of local feeds of known origin, respect of animal welfare, reduced use of antibiotics, reduced environmental footprint, etc., are considered to be a significant part of product quality, which adds, rather than substitutes, to their organoleptic and nutritional values. This concept has emerged in Europe where the environmental footprint of livestock farming systems is now obvious, at either a global (essentially via Green House Gases (GHG) emissions), a regional (Ammonia in the air), or at a local scale (Nitrates in water and manure odours).  The value of the environment has also increased as it is perceived as a source of positive values, for example, remembering the good old times when parents lived in the countryside, and because it provides recreational and aesthetic benefits to urban or rural citizens. In this context, citizens are increasingly aware of the negative impacts of livestock farming systems such as water pollution, decrease of biodiversity, or degradation of air quality.

In recent years, the perspectives of climate change have become more pronounced and the expected local consequences of these changes in zones of high human density could be extremely severe. This can be assessed from the observed or expected increase in the frequency of abnormal local climatic events, increase in green algae proliferation at seashore, and biodiversity losses in many anthropized ecosystems. These consequences that anyone can observe around ones home location reinforce the impression of an impact of animal production systems on climate change.

Finally, in industrialized countries, green lobbies play a role in criticizing livestock production systems, asking consideration of farm animals as « animal beings » and denouncing (in some cases with good reasons) welfare conditions on farms and slaughtering conditions. These criticisms are reinforced by the distance between citizens and animals, since more than half of the worldwide population now lives in cities, in which livestock species are replaced by pets, at least in industrialized countries.

These global and local challenges can be, and should be, tackled at both global and local levels. I will develop the example of GHG emissions, but the same rationale could be used for other externalities.

In 2012, livestock produced about 16% of global GHG emissions, among which 10% are from enteric CH4, essentially from bovine, and 6% from manure. Livestock represented about 2% of the world’s GDP (75×1012 US $). In 2050, if all other sectors reduce their emissions by 70%, especially energy and transportation (which may be easier to accomplish), then the livestock sector would be responsible for 40% of global GHG emissions. This would represent a tremendous ecological and socioeconomic pressure for a sector accounting for less than 2% of the world’s economy.

Emissions should be reduced per unit of animal product (kg of meat and litre of milk), but also per country or production systems, if we agree that each country/production system should do the same effort as any other. This forces livestock farming systems to explore solutions for decreasing GHG emissions at different levels of the system: (1) at the territorial level by exploring complementarities between sub-territories, (2) at the farm level by exploring new systems of production which optimize positive outputs and mitigate negative impacts using a multicriteria approach, (3) at the individual level by exploring new feeding and management practices and selecting animals for a better feeding efficiency. These three levels must be explored in a systemic and holistic approach. A multidisciplinary approach is also required to propose science-based (top-down) and farmer-based (bottom-up) innovations.

Science is absolutely essential to tackle these different challenges and would be more efficient if developed simultaneously all over the world, since some questions are similar from Europe to New Zealand, from Africa to America and from Asia to Australia.

For example, organizing an efficient system of manure management at the regional level would allow better manure use by reducing the nitrogen impact on small areas with high densities of livestock, and fertilizing crops rather than using mineral fertilizers bought off-farm. This requires an important scientific and technical investment in terms of properly managing manure in order to impair nitrogen losses and make better use of its fertilizing properties. Organizing a whole system of manure management from the producer to the user also has socio-economic and sociologic implications.

At the farm level, research programs are clearly needed for feeding animals in optimal systems that will simultaneously reduce CH4 emissions by the rumen and N2O emissions from the manure, while utilizing feed resources that are not in competition with human food consumption. It will require a better scientific and technical knowledge of the value and availability of all sub-products, and of adequate processes to treat them for animal feeding.

At the animal level, the continuous improvement of the genetic capacities must be pursued, but with a different balance of traits and/or breeding goals; those related to environmental footprint, such as selection for reducing enteric CH4 emission or female longevity should have an increasing weight in selection indexes combining various traits. Hopefully, genomic selection will allow professionals to achieve this goal more easily.

Developing sustainable systems is possible in terms of economy. All farmers and associated partners make a living derived from and dependent upon a healthy environment. Thus the needs to reduce the local and global impacts of livestock farming systems are inherently valuable to those groups. In terms of society, the livestock chain must provide attractive and stable jobs, which in turn depend upon thriving livestock farming systems.

The proposition of René Dubos in 1972 at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment « Think globally, act locally », may be changed into « Think globally, act systemically » for putting the livestock sector in a better position to cope with the coming challenges. This change illustrates the need for an involvement of science and innovation at different levels of the agro-ecosystem to efficiently reduce the environmental footprint of the livestock sector. This also illustrates the need for an international network of animal scientists and industrial partners joining their efforts for solving these global and local challenges.