A lot has been blamed on the world's cows. Any discussion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions nearly always includes a detailed explanation of the horror of methane-belching cows. Recently, however, a detailed -- and some might say more measured -- report on beef's place in the GHG worst-actors list was released by global powerhouse Rabobank and its RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness sector.
The report, "Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Beef Supply Chains," co-authored by Eva Gocsik, an animal protein analyst, and Justin Sherrard, an animal protein global sector strategist, explains that today, the world's beef supply chains account for an estimated 6% of GHG emissions, of which about half are accounted for by the production stage.
Gocsik, based in the Netherlands, told DTN new and emerging technologies and management practices offer the best opportunities to lower GHG emissions worldwide. She added that it's important to point out there is significant variability in emission intensities of individual beef-producing countries.
"The high efficiency levels we see in the U.S., for example, result from finishing cattle on a corn-based diet, which results in more efficient feed conversion, reduces days to market and leads to a more efficient metabolic process and lower methane emissions," she explained. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a United Nations agency, put U.S. total GHG emissions from beef at 141 CO2eq/kg in a 2019 report.
For comparison, the FAO gave Brazil a score of 330 CO2eq/kg and India a score seven times that of the U.S., approximately 987 CO2eq/kg.
Gocsik said one reason levels are higher in Brazil is due to the prevalence of pasture-based production systems. "That leads to a longer production cycle," she explained. "Recovering degraded pastures, supplemental feeding of cattle, improved cattle health and reproductive management, and integrated crop-livestock-forestry systems can all contribute to lowering emissions in these kinds of pasture-based systems."
In India, where emission intensity is seven times higher than that of the U.S., the report notes that in areas where cattle are kept due to religious belief, they contribute substantially to GHG emissions over their lifetime, while at the same time being very low in terms of productivity. These "idle" cattle, as the report calls them, are common in parts of Asia, northern Africa and South America.
The FAO estimated if the world's cattle production systems closed gaps between the highest and lowest emission levels, that alone would cut GHG emissions by 30%.
Moving forward, Gocsik reported genetics and the use of feed additives are poised to deliver some of the greatest reductions in GHG emissions when implemented. She and Sherrard also emphasized possible benefits from use of beef-on-dairy crossbreeding to optimize genetics; genetic selection for best-performing sires; and using genomics to emphasize those traits that can help lower GHG emissions. Regarding feed additives, the report noted increasing corn silage, tannin-rich forages and feed additives could boost efficiency.
Gocsik concluded two things will determine progress globally in reducing beef supply chain emissions. One will be the costs associated with reducing emissions, and the other will be the use of measurements to track carbon sequestration and GHG emissions.
Ultimately, the market, and perhaps regulators, will be in the strongest position to push GHG emissions down. A market-driven incentive is not mandatory, but it can be a powerful way to motivate producers to change and deliver a product to a supply chain that highly desires it. Regulation, the report notes, could be inevitable in the future if market-based incentives approaches don't work.
Victoria Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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