Despite the European Court of Auditors judgments, the Italian livestock model is an example of sustainability

While the European Court of Auditors blames agriculture for its poor environmental performance, the livestock sector, with its own money and without touching those of the CAP, has reduced emissions, water consumption, environmental impact, and antibiotics on farms.

It is quite a slap in the face of the livestock world and, more generally, agriculture from the European Court of Auditors in the fight against climate change. Some EUR 100 billion has been allocated to agricultural and livestock production through the CAP, the Common Agricultural Policy, over the past seven years. That’s the Court’s contention. Support aimed at reducing the environmental impact of agricultural production. But the results obtained are modest and lower than expected.

Finger pointed in particular on animal production, which the Court suggests to reduce to favour plant and biological one. All these quoting numbers that the entire scientific community does not agree with and do not consider specific realities, such as the Italian one. The Court’s document assigns to agriculture the responsibility of 26% of the total climate-altering emissions, to which animal husbandry would contribute for the most part.

At least in Italy, the situation is very different from that described by the Court. The ISPRA Institute analyzes confirm that the role of animal husbandry is less than 6% of the total (5.6%, to be precise), and it is constantly improving.

While the #EuropeanCourt of Auditors reproaches #agriculture, #zootechnics, with its own money, has reduced #emissions, consumption #water, environmental impact, and use of #antibiotics. Click To Tweet

Moreover, the Court’s complaints coincide with the European Parliament’s approval of the climate law, increasing the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 40% to 55% by 2030. It will be a crucial element for environmental policies and the CAP reform itself, which has just been adopted.

All these elements are part of the overall project of the Farm to Fork strategy, whose impact on food production could be harmful, as pointed out by some analysis by the USDA, the US Department of Agriculture. The risk is a reduction of the Union’s agri-food production, followed by an increase in imports, nullifying any benefit to the world’s environment.

Some of the choices made in Community policies, particularly those aimed at reducing livestock production, seem not to account for the results achieved with the Precision Livestock Farming – PLF, particularly in the poultry sector. Some recent data released by Unaitalia, the trade association gathering most of the Italian poultry supply chain. Let’s see the most significant.

In 2020 alone, the consumption of #antibiotics in the Italian #poultry sector was reduced by a further 6%, decreasing from 2011 by 88%. Click To Tweet

White meat production reached 1.39 million tonnes, with an increase of 1.8% in 2020. This increase has supported the rise in consumption even during the coronavirus health crisis. A balance between supply and demand is made possible by the efficient organization of this highly integrated supply chain.

What matters most is how these results have been achieved. First of all, with careful management of waste processing, recovered at 90% and with the production of biogas and biomethane for 17.3 million cubic meters per year. The poultry plants can thus boast 62 million kilowatts per year of electricity from renewable sources. So much to assume energy self-sufficiency in the coming years.

Significant progress on water consumption. The introduction of new technologies has allowed 9.2 million cubic metres of purified process water to be returned to the environment every year. Results, it is good to remember, achieved with the use of own funds of the poultry sector that has “taxed” itself to make available to these projects as many as 50 million euros. And the results, as well as on the environmental level, have also been seen on the health. In 2020 alone, the consumption of antibiotics in the poultry sector decreased by a further 6%. Since 2011, the use of these drugs has been reduced by 88%, a concrete response to the policies that inspire the One Health strategy, where human and veterinary medicine should be in tune.

The #cattle sector, which by its nature has the greatest impact on #climate, in Italy has net #emissions equal to 3.6% of the national total. Click To Tweet

With its six thousand professional farms and 64 thousand employees (for a total turnover of 5.7 billion euros), the Italian poultry sector can rightly be considered an example to guide environmental policy choices. The European Court of Auditors‘ criticisms does not belong to it because these results have been achieved through their resources.

But poultry farming is not the only livestock activity that is committed to reducing impacts. Even the cattle sector, which by its nature has a more significant effect on the climate, in Italy has net emissions equal to 3.6% of the national total. Besides, things are getting better and better here. Thanks to the increased efficiency of farms, producing today more than before with fewer animals and a reduced environmental impact. Not to mention that research has developed feeding patterns and new formulas capable of reducing methane emissions by 70%.

And what about swine? Here too, they focus on efficiency and then on the production of renewable energy. Not by chance, Italy is the fourth world producer of biogas, after China, the USA, and Germany. Of the 2,100 plants in Italy, almost a third are biogas plants that use biomass from livestock waste.

It may leave you astonished, but correct calculations of the #carbon balance show the #livestock #farms in a credit of one million tons of #CO2. Click To Tweet

In addition, the cattle sector has an ambitious project in progress to convert biogas into biomethane through upgrading plants and subsequent liquefaction in LNG, which can be used both for goods distribution trucks and for agricultural machinery, whose electric traction is not yet possible.

The overall result can leave you amazed. The carbon balance sees livestock farming on credit. Let’s do the math together. From the emissions of animal production, we have 19.9 million tons of CO2. The pastures, together with the meadows, woods (where they graze animals), and permanent grasses, absorb it (sequester, is the technical term) for 20,9 million tons. The amount is easy to calculate: farms are in “credit” of one million tons of CO2.

Let’s also talk about water, water footprint, to say it with a general English definition. Sometimes we read that to produce a kilo of meat is necessary 15 thousand liters of water. Nothing could be falser. The water used is confused with that returned to the environment. In the most efficient models, the water needed to produce a kilo of meat stops at just 790 liters.

For better #sustainability, a more decisive impulse and support are needed for #DigitalTechnologies and #innovation in every segment of #AnimalProductions. Click To Tweet

Despite these data, there is the fear that a short-sighted and prejudicial vision, inspired by incorrect concepts of environmentalism, can give a negative turning point both for the environment and the economy. It applies to all animal products, too often in the dock with pretext arguments. How well-founded the producers themselves expressed these fears through the campaign “The nine paradoxes of the Farm to Fork”.

The CAP reform, which has now reached its final stage after a long and challenging mediation process, has tried to avoid these dangers, but the final result seems to displease everyone. The environmental movements demanded more, aimed towards a romantic and sometimes utopian vision of agriculture, to the farmers themselves, who have seen a reduction in support.

The examples from Italian animal husbandry suggest other solutions, like a more vital impulse and support for digital technologies and innovation in every animal production segment, from management to feed, from genetics to health and animal welfare. In other words, a boost to Precision Livestock Farming, capable of balancing environmental and economic sustainability. The “game” is almost over, but we can still find remedies.

Professional journalist, graduated in veterinary medicine, director of journals dedicated to animal husbandry and editor in chief of journals in the agricultural sector, he has held coordination positions in publishing companies. Author of books on animal breeding, he is involved in the divulgation of technical, political and economic subjects of interest to the livestock sector.