Sep 7, 2015

The Uncertain Emission Figures and Enterprising Solutions!

by Nirma Bora

The major greenhouse gases emitted by livestock are methane and nitrous oxide. Livestock mainly emit
methane due to anaerobic fermentation in their digestive system while nitrous oxide is released from its manure. These emissions became widely talked about when in 2006 the United Nations concluded that the livestock industry was a big contributor to climate change. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger, in its report titled ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ quantified the emissions from livestock as 18% of the total anthropogenic emissions of the world.[1] Ignoring the contamination and emission by industries and transport, it held livestock business among the ‘most damaging sectors’ to the earth’s increasingly scarce resources, contributing among other things to water and land pollution. However, if the trends in global GHG emissions are considered by sector, it is the electricity/heat that contributes to 42 percent and transport that contributes to 23 percent of the global GHG emission (IEA, 2014).

Much later after seven years, the 2013 Assessment Report of the FAO, revised figures for livestock emission. It now estimates that the global livestock sector accounts for as much as 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent every year, representing 14.5 percent of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions (Gerber, 2013). Nevertheless, the revised model too calculated livestock sector emission by assessing all sources of emissions along the livestock supply chain. The figures by FAO included not just emission from the animal but the total the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from ‘every aspect’ of raising meat and dairy, including feed production and meat processing. FAO did not do the same when estimating the greenhouse gases from cars (Lutey, 2012). The latter report ignored greenhouse gases actually created during the car’s production and instead zeroed in on tailpipe emissions. Besides, it is not livestock per se which are responsible for increased greenhouse gasses; it is the corn/ soybean/ chemical fertilizer/ feedlot/ transportation system under which industrial animals farming is practiced.

Even among the specialized agencies of the United Nations, there exists large discrepancy on global emissions figures from livestock. In 2013, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN estimated the total global emissions from livestock sector as 14.5 percent (Gerber, 2013). This number was quite low in the 2012 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report that measured the total emissions from agriculture as 11 percent of which livestock emissions were mere 4.7 percent (UNEP, 2012). Another UK based environmentalist reports that direct emission of methane and nitrous oxide from livestock makes up around 9 percent of total man-made greenhouse-gas emissions. It is emissions from elsewhere in the livestock supply chain, such as transport and feed production that boosts this figure to 18%. (Kalauher, 2014). Due to large variations in the emissions figures given by different UN agencies and scientists, neither validity nor reliability of the data could be established.

The ambivalent emission figures, however, have paved way for enterprising opportunities in the name of addressing the issues of rising emission and food insecurity.  These have ranged from providing ‘meat alternate’ as in Europe and the US to the very bizzare proposal of mass culling of feral camels in Australia (which was later called off by the government). As food choices impact both health and the environment, entrepreneurs have come up with ‘Meat Substitute’[2] made mainly from plant-based food like soy, pea, and amaranth. However, the fake meat business, which has been around for decades, could never really take off as products are usually expensive and, to meat lovers, taste as bland as they look. As flesh seems hard to fake, another approach has emerged which is to grow actual meat in a lab – animal muscle tissue sans the animal itself– and this is being pioneered in Europe. The Dutch Scientist, Mark Post’s, innovation in 2013 of a burger made of cultured beef, biologically identical to beef, is the latest meat sensation for the future (The New York Times, 2013). [3]

While the world has not yet adequately understood the effect of genetically-modified crops on health and environment, one can only imagine the consequences that 'lab-grown meat' would have. The presence of significant amounts of antibiotics and anti-fungals for storage, and hormones to promote meat-growth, would provide over-exposure of humans to antibiotics and build resistance to medicines, hence, making humans take in larger doses of antibiotics to combat infectious diseases. The cultured meat is expected to be available in 10-15 years and ultimately replace the reign of industrial meat as happened with wool since synthetic fibres arrived.

While livestock shares part of the blame for rising global temperatures, its industry continues to grow stronger than ever. All efforts to deal with the crises seem to favour science, technology and corporate than actually reduce emission and provide food security. If the trend of dairy and meat business continues to expand through factory-farm and lab, it will deprive livelihood for 987 million or about 70 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion “extreme poor” (Livestock in Development, 1999).  With efficient practices available that manage livestock through better feeds and feeding techniques, improved breeding and animal health, manure management techniques as well as changes in human dietary plan by cutting down on meat; solutions like devising lab-grown animal or their mass-culling is an undesirable answer to reducing emission, removing global hunger, and ensuring food security.


[1] Global emission from transport stand at 13% based on 4th Assessment Report of IPCC (2007).
[2]  It is known by different names like meat alternative, mock meat, faux meat, imitation meat, or vegetarian meat or vegan meat. 
[3] Cultured Beef is created by painlessly harvesting muscle cells from a living cow. Scientists then feed and nurture the cells so they multiply to create muscle tissue, which is the main component of the meat we eat. It is biologically exactly the same as the meat tissue that comes from a cow.


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