A South African perspective on livestock production in relation to greenhouse gases and water usage

A South African perspective on livestock production in relation to greenhouse gases and water usage

The issue of livestock farming in relation to climate change is a highly charged area of debate, attracting sharp criticism from many environmentalists and animal rights groups. Yet much of the information in the public sphere is misguided, misinformed, or propaganda. That is the argument of this paper, which seeks to quantify, clarify, and analyse greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the livestock sector in South Africa. The study was published in the South African Journal of Animal Science, and is supported in part by the Red Meat Research and Development South Africa, an initiative by the soon to be closed Meat Board of South Africa in 1997.

Following the 2006 publication of the Food and Agriculture Organisation report Livestock’s Long Shadow, in which 18 per cent of the world’s GHG emissions were attributed to livestock production, there has been a general perception that the sector is a major contributor to global warming. Subsequent research has shown this figure to be an over-estimation, since it included indirect contributions such as deforestation, and failed to differentiate between differences in production systems and efficiencies. The most recent global figure estimates the true contribution to stand nearer 5-10 per cent of global emissions.

Topics discussed in the report, which was drawn from a literature review, include: methane emissions, identified as likely to be targeted for reduction due to its particular impact potential; the differing levels of GHG emissions produced by different livestock production methods, shown to be higher in organic and pasture farming; water usage, and differentiation concerning the quality of water; and a future outlook, where it is suggested that reducing numbers, while increasing the per unit productivity, of livestock would help reduce GHG emissions, with crossbreeding a potential strategy to employ.

The report concludes by reiterating that current methods of estimating carbon and water footprints of livestock products largely fail to make provision for the different production systems used. Innovation and new methodologies must be developed to reduce GHG production from livestock, efforts that need to be supported by all organisations involved in the livestock industry. This support would greatly benefit from the establishment of a centre of excellence, with the objectives of sharing research expertise and information, building capacity, and conducting research.

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