top of page

Can Digital Agriculture Practices Tackle Livestock Emissions?


Energy Review, Vol 5. Issue 03. 2023

The global livestock industry contributes significantly to Green House Gases (GHGs) and air pollution, emitting Carbon dioxide, Methane, and other harmful greenhouse gases. Approximately 14.5 percent of the total GHG emissions are attributed to livestock. Most of these emissions result from grazing, feed production, manure processing, transportation, and enteric fermentation emitted by ruminating animals like cattle. As a result of these sources working together, gases such as nitrous oxide (N2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4) are released into our atmosphere at an alarming rate.

During the past few years, global livestock emissions have gained considerable attention due to their significant contribution to climate change. Several countries play an important role in contributing to global livestock emissions, particularly those with large populations. According to various research studies, China, the United States, Brazil, India, and Russia are significant contributors. These five countries account for almost 60 per cent of global livestock emission production.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reports that China, Brazil, the United States, Europe, and India are significant contributors to global livestock emissions, accounting for a substantial portion of this sector's overall emissions. Other countries like Australia, Bangladesh, and Canada contribute significantly to the emissions list, adding to the sector's overall impact. These countries span four continents and are home to some of the world's most populous nations, making a list formidable.

According to FAO's latest findings, global livestock emissions are a staggering 7.1 Gigatonnes of Co2-Equiv per year, accounting for 14.5 per cent of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. This alarming figure underscores the need for drastic action to combat climate change. While FAO's previous assessment aligns with this latest figure, the two are not directly comparable since they were based on different reference periods and sources. Cattle are the most significant contributor to these emissions, accounting for 65 per cent. It is imperative to reduce global livestock emissions if we hope to make meaningful progress in fighting climate change.

The two leading sources of emissions in the livestock sector are the production and processing of feed, which account for 45 per cent of emissions, and enteric fermentation from ruminants, which accounts for 39 per cent. Manure storage and processing contribute 10 per cent of emissions, while the remaining 6 per cent arise from animal product transportation and processing.

In terms of production volume, the top five sources of food-related emissions globally are cereal crops (27 per cent), followed by pig meat (9 per cent), buffalo milk and meat (8 per cent), chicken meat and eggs (8 per cent), and small ruminant milk and meat (6 per cent). Emission intensities vary widely across different products, with beef emitting the most CO2-eq per kilogram of protein produced, at nearly 300kg. This is followed closely by small ruminant meat (165 kg) and milk (112 kg), while cow milk, chicken products, and pork have considerably lower emission intensities on a global average basis. However, at the sub-global level, there is significant variability between production practices due to varying inputs used during production.

Enteric emissions and feed production are the primary contributors to ruminant production's greenhouse gas emissions, with manure deposition on pasture also playing an essential role. In the case of pig and poultry supply chains, emissions are primarily attributed to feeding supply, with energy consumption being a more significant factor in poultry production. Of total livestock emissions, 44 per cent is CH4, 29 per cent is N2O, and 27 per cent is CO2, highlighting the urgent need to address these sources of pollution to reduce global greenhouse gas levels significantly. Further research into emission reduction practices is crucial to create safer conditions for humans and animals and more efficient farming systems.

As more individuals gain access to regular meat consumption, the detrimental effects of livestock emissions are anticipated to worsen. According to present projections, global demand for animal products will increase from 14 grams per person per day to 28 grams by 2050.

To mitigate livestock emissions, a range of strategies must be implemented. One fundamental approach is to enhance land management practices, including promoting less frequent grazing, cultivating fire-resistant vegetation, and implementing better tillage settings to improve soil health. Additionally, manure management practices should be utilized to capture essential nutrients and prevent excessive emissions that could contaminate nearby air and water sources.

Moreover, farmers can promote more sustainable livestock breeds better adapted to converting grass into energy efficiently and feed rations tailored explicitly to the species being raised and their production goals. If properly implemented, all these strategies will decrease greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock industry.

Although these emissions are predominantly inevitable, governments can aid in minimizing their impact by introducing policies that lower greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. Governments can also fund research into emerging technologies, such as feed supplements that decrease cattle emissions, advocate for more responsible agricultural practices that limit water and soil pollution or increase manure storage and management options. Investing in green infrastructure initiatives will also be crucial in reducing the environmental consequences of global livestock emissions while keeping costs at a minimum for producers.

The importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been made abundantly clear, and, as such, many efforts have been made to measure and analyze data around livestock emissions accurately. Fortunately, with reliable data about the state of our environment concerning livestock emissions available through NGOs and international organizations, it is now easier than ever to make informed decisions when evaluating how livestock production needs to be managed globally. With this knowledge readily available, nations can be better equipped to put strategies in place that address sustainability as both an environmental and public health concern.

Digitalization of Livestock Emissions:

Successfully reducing global livestock emissions requires multiple strategies: individual farmers engaging in sustainable farming practices to large-scale policy interventions that create incentives for improved animal health and welfare, manure management, and sustainable agricultural techniques.

New technology, such as digital agriculture and livestock practices, can help reduce livestock emissions and ultimately help solve this global problem. Digital agriculture uses information technology to help farmers better track the growth and health of their livestock, enabling them to make more sustainable decisions for the environment. For instance, digital agriculture tools allow farmers to monitor grazing patterns and optimize Livestock diets which helps them to reduce Livestock Emissions by decreasing enteric fermentation and manure management.

Remote sensing technology can detect livestock emissions from cows, sheep, and other livestock, enabling farmers to identify livestock emission hotspots on their farms and take corrective action accordingly. Data analytics allow a greater understanding of livestock emission sources within a farm and enable farmers to optimize their management practices to reduce livestock emissions.

With increasing temperatures and ongoing global warming, we all need to act by implementing digital agricultural techniques that help reduce livestock emissions. Proper management of livestock manure, the largest source of livestock Emission, can be managed more efficiently with the help of digitalizing manure management practices routinely.

With this knowledge, farmers can make informed decisions about reducing Livestock emissions from their farms by implementing best practices such as pasture rotation and feed management. The data generated from these practices allows researchers to study livestock emission trends further better to understand its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions.

As nations around the world face the urgent realities of climate change, recent initiatives by national governments to reduce livestock emissions have received greater attention. For example, the government of New Zealand is set to introduce a new tax on agricultural emissions, which will cover emissions from the burps, urine, and dung of livestock such as cows and sheep. The government hopes this move will enable the country to achieve its climate change objectives. The plan is to implement an "agricultural emissions-pricing system" in 2025.

These strategies vary in scope and complexity, from implementing environmental regulations to educational campaigns encouraging citizens to reduce meat consumption. In addition, some governments are taking innovative steps to promote sustainability in agricultural systems through subsidies for plant-based foods and renewable energy sources such as solar power.

To maximize digital agriculture's positive effects on livestock emissions, countries can help mitigate global warming and its impact by making a unified effort to reduce livestock emissions. Governments should collaborate with industry leaders to create policies that promote digital agriculture across countries. This will ensure that livestock emissions worldwide are reduced effectively and efficiently.

(Mr. Sunil Madan is an outreach specialist working with International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) at Michigan State University (MSU), USA, and Dr. Badri Narayanan Goplakrishanan is a Fellow and Former Head, Trade, Commerce and Strategic Economic Dialogue, NITI Aayog, Government of India.)■□■


bottom of page