Breeding, more sustainable if intensive

The figures linking livestock and production of greenhouse gases reserve some surprises. The biggest amounts of GHGs are not due to the intensive farming of Europe or North America, but to the extensive breedings of Brazilian pampas, Argentine meadows, pastures of Asia and South Africa.

Aisha lives in Niger and knows all about hunger. In his plate he has only millet “pancakes” kneaded with water. Aisha talks about his tough life with Martin Caparros, a journalist who has written for Einaudi a nice investigative book with the emblematic title: “Hunger”. If a magician could fulfil your every wish, Caparros asks Aisha, what would you ask him? “I want a cow that gives me lots of milk” replies Aisha: “If I sell the surplus milk I can buy what I need to make more “pancakes”. But the wizard, replies Caparros, can give you anything you want. In a whisper, Aisha replies, “Two cows, that way I will never be hungry again.”

Caparros’s book was published in 2015. Hunger is still present, reaping victims. They know all about this at Cefa, a Bologna-based NGO that has made the fight against hunger one of its missions. Almost as if they had been inspired by Aisha’s story, a campaign was launched to donate a pregnant cow to populations struggling with hunger. This happens in Mozambique with the Afric Hand project. Neither Aisha nor Cefa worry about the gaseous emissions of these cows. In their circumstances it’s right this way. Hunger must be defeated. End of story.

Where there is no hunger we can and must worry about greenhouse gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, even those produced by bovines deriving from the fermentations that occur in their digestive tract and thanks to whom these animals are capable of transforming an indigestible blade of grass into meat and milk. But how much do we have to worry? And what are the real responsibilities of breeding farms in the formation of greenhouse gases?

We begin by considering the sources of methane. According to A.R. Mosier 30% of emissions are of natural origin (the marshes, oceans and much more, even termites), whilst the remaining 70% is of anthropic origin, i.e. a consequence of human activities. Approximately 14% of these emissions come from bovine breeding farms: so affirms some research reported by FAO. To make these calculations, the production of CO2 (carbon dioxide), also amongst the greenhouse gases, is used as a yardstick. In Italy, as we will see, these values are reduced and also by a great deal.

Observing the “numbers” that link the production of greenhouse gases and breeding leads to some surprises. Those who “pour” more gas into the atmosphere are not the intensive farms of Europe or North America, but the extensive ones of the Brazilian pampas, Argentine meadows, pastures of South Africa and Asia. Why? Many reasons, some of a certain technical complexity.

Let me try to explain, simplifying so much as to horrify the “experts”. In the rumen, one of the stomachs of bovines, vegetables become food due to the bacteria that inhabit it. A warm, humid and airless environment where they can multiply disproportionately. Each of these bacteria synthesizes proteins based on their DNA. From non-protein and even non-organic nitrogen (ammonia for example), proteins of the highest biological value are created. It is this bacterial protein that feeds the bovine (or the sheep, camel, buffalo and every ruminant). Those knowledgeable about animal feed come to affirm that it is not necessary to feed bovines, it is sufficient to feed the rumen’s bacteria.

Yet some gases are formed from the work of these billions of micro-organisms. One of these is methane. Right, but how much? If one hundred equals the greenhouse gas emissions in Italy, Italian agriculture emits a total of 7%. Of this seven percent, according to a research published by the animal production research centre (CRPA), which in turn cites Ispra as its source, 2.2% derives from the enteric fermentations of animals. Really not a lot. Even though the problem should not be underestimated.

The research world has been studying for a long time how to reduce the gaseous emissions of breeding farms. For those deriving from dejections, the solution is relatively simple. It is sufficient to use them in plants that produce biogas, thence used for energy purposes. For ruminal fermentations it is necessary to intervene at the “source”, that is at the place of production, the rumen and digestive tract. This is already done with feed, obtaining at the same time a better nutritional feed efficiency. The result, less greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and better production performances of the animals. Genetics can also help, by selecting animals that are more efficient in using feeds. But it takes time.

With more rapid timings it is by a greater efficiency of the “breeding system” that a decisive reduction of emissions is obtained. Today, with half the number of animals, the same quantities of milk and meat are produced in Italy respect to twenty or more years ago. Half the animals and half the emissions compared to then. Thus we discover that the reduction of emissions is obtained in confined farms, generally defined as intensive, as most of the Italian ones are. This explains why in Italy the values of greenhouse gases of livestock origin are lower than those highlighted by the FAO. Let’s not make confusion, therefore: intensive farming means respect for animal welfare, the environment and the breeder. Nothing else.

Angelo Gamberini

Professional journalist, graduated in veterinary medicine, formerly director of magazines dedicated to animal husbandry and editor-in-chief of periodicals in the agricultural sector, he has held coordination positions in publishing companies. Author of books on animal breeding, he is engaged in the dissemination of technical, political and economic topics of interest for the livestock sector.

The "Sustainable Meats" Project aims to identify the key topics, the state of knowledge and the most recent technical scientific trends, with the aim of showing that meat production and consumption can be sustainable, both for health and for the environment.