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  • Writer's pictureLuiza Bruscato

Understand the challenges of agriculture in containing global warming.

Methane Agreement signed at COP26 puts pressure on livestock



The methane agreement, signed by Brazil and 102 other countries at COP26 in Glasgow, stipulated a commitment to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030 and raised challenges for agriculture, aiming for more sustainable production.


After deforestation, livestock farming is the activity responsible for the largest amount of carbon dioxide emissions and is also the main emitter of methane into the atmosphere—both gases contribute to global warming.


Brazil is the fifth largest emitter of methane, according to 2018 data, with the majority of emissions from agribusiness coming from so-called enteric fermentation. The gas is produced in the digestive tract of cattle and in natural processes. Another percentage comes from landfill waste and oil and gas production.


The agreement includes half of the 30 major methane emitters. However, China, Russia, and India did not commit to the agreement.


HOW AGRICULTURE IMPACTS METHANE AND CARBON EMISSIONS


Most emissions in agriculture come from cattle farming, with cattle burps and manure being the main individual sources of methane


Enteric fermentation


Nitrous oxide


Rice


Fertilizers


"It's a challenge, but Brazil cannot stay out of it. It's difficult to comply with, but we hope a great effort will be made, for the benefit of Brazilian exports," says José Augusto de Castro, CEO of AEB (Brazilian Foreign Trade Association). He emphasizes that agriculture may initially lose some competitiveness, but it is essential for the government and the private sector to strengthen partnerships. "Even though these changes may bother part of the sector, the country cannot turn its back on the world on environmental issues."


"The agreement was a step forward, and Brazil's commitment went beyond what was expected. We now need to show the market that we are capable of doing this; it cannot be just talk," says Eduardo Assad, a professor at FGV (Getulio Vargas Foundation) and an agribusiness expert.


"At the same time, the country could have taken a much firmer stance at the conference, committing to balanced agriculture, but we lost that standing in the world over the past two years. We arrived at COP26 on our knees."


Among the initiatives to reduce emissions, the government has highlighted the ABC+ Plan, which aims to control gas emissions (including methane). The goal is to avoid the release of 1.1 billion tons of equivalents by the agricultural sector by 2030.


The first phase of the ABC Plan included initiatives such as direct planting and pasture recovery; the second phase includes technologies, such as irrigated systems, and incentives for the adoption of these practices are provided through public credit, with the Harvest Plan. However, the resources financing low-carbon agriculture amount to R$5 billion today, or 2% of the total program for 2021 and 2022.


According to analysts interviewed by Folha, the volume of resources needed to meet the new targets will need to be increased in the coming years. Private investments are also expected to help meet the increased demand for investments. Luiza Bruscato, coordinator of GTPS (Sustainable Livestock Working Group), considers that, first and foremost, it is necessary to efficiently estimate methane emissions from the livestock sector. "We have various realities within Brazil, each with its own peculiarities, but the first challenge is to estimate emissions. Once that is done, the ABC+ Plan is very robust. If we can fully implement it, restoring degraded pastures without further deforestation, we will already be ahead." She also states that agricultural communication needs to be improved. "Brazil needs to better account for emissions, also considering carbon. Our result can be much better than that of countries that only do confinement and do not have preservation reserves."


"We need resources to continue preserving. It's not fair to blame ranchers for everything that goes wrong, including meeting international agreements without counterpart," says Francisco Manzi, from Acrimat (Mato Grosso Cattle Breeders Association).


"The government has to do its part, whether by regularizing land, promoting access to credit, calling on the international community, or overseeing and punishing the minority who engage in illegal activities," he adds.


During COP, CNA (Brazilian Agriculture and Livestock Confederation) argued that Brazilian producers are committed to environmental sustainability.


Muni Lourenço, vice president of the entity, stated that the country stands out in the world due to beef production using low-carbon technologies.


"We are one of the largest beef producers in the world and have the potential to increase this production with environmental sustainability, incorporating sustainable techniques into the production chain."


He also stated that low-carbon technologies have allowed for a reduction in pasture area and an increase in the number of animals per hectare.


MAJOR CHALLENGES AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS


Reducing production emissions


Avoiding expansion of crop and pasture areas


Demand reduction


From a technical perspective, Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) highlights that it has been developing strategies for methane reduction, such as plant genetic improvement, through the development of pastures more easily digestible by animals.


A second strategy involves genetic improvement of the animals themselves, so they can be slaughtered earlier, reducing the generation time of gases per head. Over the last decade, the slaughter time has been reduced from 48 months to 36 months.


One of the premises of the ABC+ Plan is the intensification of this practice. Another measure comes from the use of additives in animal feed, through the utilization of tannins and essential oils mixed with the feed. These studies are still in the initial phase. "Brazilian agriculture has been contributing to emissions reduction for at least three decades. By joining the methane reduction agreement, Brazil is willing to assist, along with other countries, in achieving the 30% emissions cut. We can contribute to this goal," says Embrapa President, Celso Luiz Moretti.


He also emphasizes that it is impossible to completely eliminate methane emissions from livestock farming, but through advancing integration of crops and forests, it's possible to offset these effects. "The first major front is methane reduction, and the second is compensation. There was initial concern about the agreement's effects on the sector, but it could be a stimulus for us to have a more competitive and efficient livestock farming in the next ten years."


In the view of Paulo Camuri, Senior Economist at WRI Brazil, although it is difficult to quantify the volume of resources needed to implement the transition agreed upon at COP, it is entirely feasible for Brazil to achieve a 30% reduction in methane emissions.


"The way to achieve lower-emission livestock farming, both methane and carbon, already exists. But having the technology alone is not enough to ensure the agreement is met. Farmers need access to these practices." He also evaluates that, based on the data from the last ten years of the ABC Plan, producers have shown willingness to adopt productive practices to increase sustainability, and there is room to expand financing for the plan. "Farmers have already discovered that available technologies for low-carbon production even reduce production costs. The next step is to ensure that the technologies available for producing meat with lower methane and carbon emissions reach more producers, both large and small, at affordable costs."


TECHNIQUES AND TECHNOLOGIES TO HELP REDUCE PROBLEMS


Carbon Neutral Meat


Bioinput


Biological Nitrogen Fixation


Genetic improvement


Sources: Embrapa and WRI Brazil

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