UN Environment Assembly: Livestock 'fart' is back in focus

An advance note of UNEP’s executive director lists meat consumption as an unmanageable threat to global warming  

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 07 March 2019
Representational Photo: Getty Images
Representational Photo: Getty Images Representational Photo: Getty Images

Just three days before the United Nations’ Environment Assembly from March 11-15 in Nairobi, Kenya, a draft report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) executive director puts focus on the rising meat consumption and its global warming potential. At the core of this, as the report says, is the enteric fermentation or animal “fart”.

“Livestock is the largest source of agricultural anthropogenic methane, which has an acute effect on the global climate system. The main source of these emissions, enteric fermentation, is increasing rapidly,” says the report. This is also termed as a short-lived climate pollutant.

It is estimated that each year livestock production emits greenhouse gases that equal to global warming effects of 7 giga tonnes of carbon dioxide, tentatively same as that of the transport industry. Two-fifths of this emission, mostly methane, is produced during the digestive process.

This year the Environment Assembly will deliberate on “innovative solutions to environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production”. The advance draft from the UNEP executive director will be the “background document” for the high-level segment of the assembly attended by heads of state and ministers from member countries.

The assembly will focus on consumption as the official agenda shows. After the latest IPCC report on capping global warming to 1.5 degree centigrade, the assembly will be a major global meeting to look at ways to achieve this and include the ever-increasing meat consumption.

“We live on a rapidly warming, polluted planet that is quickly losing its biodiversity. The world continues to use a growing amount of resources to such an extent that we have now surpassed several of the ecological thresholds mapped by science,” warns the report.

Earlier, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-lived Climate Pollutants, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank had warned about the global warming potential of enteric methane. Reduction of this is already in many official strategies as potential climate change mitigation step.  

Worldwide there have been numerous experiments going on to reduce emission from livestock. These include breeding livestock that emit less gases, fodder that doesn’t produce much gas during digestion and also microbiome transfers.

The environmental impact of unsustainable agricultural practices costs an estimated US $3 trillion per year. Most of the environmental impacts of food production are due to the meat production; 77 per cent of agricultural land is dedicated to meat production.

According to estimates circulated in the advance report, the environmental impact of food production has to be reduced by two-thirds from current level by 2050. But to cater to the growing population’s food demand, production has to increase by 50 per cent.

The assembly will debate and potentially trigger country-level as well as global strategy to bring in change in the world’s food consumption sector to bring down emissions responsible for warming.

A “food systems” approach to policymaking allows food system actors across the whole life cycle to take a holistic view that values resource use efficiency, food security and nutrition, and environment and health, as well as ensuring the equitable distribution of economic benefits throughout the supply chain, says the advance report.

In December last, the report “Creating a Sustainable Food Future”, published by the UN Environment and United Nations Development Programme, brought out the emission from agriculture and land use change, and also suggested a “menu” to reduce emission to meet the 1.5 degree centigrade target.

This report projected ruminant meat demand to go up 88 per cent by 2050 (on 2010). “Closing the land and GHG mitigation gaps requires that, by 2050, the 20 per cent of the world’s population who would otherwise be high ruminant-meat consumers reduce their average consumption by 40 per cent relative to their consumption in 2010,” said this report which is now the main scientific document to be discussed in the UN Environment Assembly.    

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