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Mitigating climate change: the role of domestic livestock

  • M. Gill (a1), P. Smith (a2) and J. M. Wilkinson (a3)
Abstract

Livestock contribute directly (i.e. as methane and nitrous oxide (N2O)) to about 9% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and around 3% of UK emissions. If all parts of the livestock production lifecycle are included (fossil fuels used to produce mineral fertilizers used in feed production and N2O emissions from fertilizer use; methane release from the breakdown of fertilizers and from animal manure; land-use changes for feed production and for grazing; land degradation; fossil fuel use during feed and animal production; fossil fuel use in production and transport of processed and refrigerated animal products), livestock are estimated to account for 18% of global anthropogenic emissions, but less than 8% in the UK. In terms of GHG emissions per unit of livestock product, monogastric livestock are more efficient than ruminants; thus in the UK, while sheep and cattle accounted for 32% of meat production in 2006, they accounted for ∼48% of GHG emissions associated with meat production. More efficient management of grazing lands and of manure can have a direct impact in decreasing emissions. Improving efficiency of livestock production through better breeding, health interventions or improving fertility can also decrease GHG emissions through decreasing the number of livestock required per unit product. Increasing the energy density of the diet has a dual effect, decreasing both direct emissions and the numbers of livestock per unit product, but, as the demands for food increase in response to increasing human population and a better diet in some developing countries, there is increasing competition for land for food v. energy-dense feed crops. Recalculating efficiencies of energy and protein production on the basis of human-edible food produced per unit of human-edible feed consumed gave higher efficiencies for ruminants than for monogastric animals. The policy community thus have difficult decisions to make in balancing the negative contribution of livestock to the environment against the positive benefit in terms of food security. The animal science community have a responsibility to provide an evidence base which is objective and holistic with respect to these two competing challenges.

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Corresponding author
E-mail: m.gill@abdn.ac.uk
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