26 de noviembre del 2000
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Cambio Climático

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Cattle Contribute to Global Warming

By Mario Osava

Cows are one of the top greenhouse gas producers in Brazil, which is home to the second largest national cattle herd in the world, after India.

RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil could reduce a large portion of its contribution to global warming just by making improvements in its cattle industry. Grazing animals, such as cows, produce a great deal of methane, one of the leading causes of the greenhouse effect.

Brazil holds the second largest number of cattle in the world, after India, with more than 160 million head. The number is equivalent to its human population and enough to inundate the international market with beef and milk - if its productivity were not so low.

In this South American country, an inventory of sources of various greenhouse gases is underway, but it is known that cows are one of the major producers, as is the burning of forests.

Cattle contribute an estimated 29 percent of the total volume of methane emitted within national territory, whether through internal fermentation in the digestive process or through defecation, Magda Lima, coordinator of the livestock division of the gas inventory, told Tierramérica.

Methane is also produced by fossil fuels, agriculture, and the natural processes of marsh areas, for example. In addition to grazing animals, rice cultivation is another major source of methane, with 90 percent of the world's paddies concentrated in Asia.

Worldwide, livestock emissions reach approximately 94 teragrams (Tg=one million tons) annually. Brazil contributed 9.97 percent of the total in the period 1986-1995, according to Lima's calculations at the governmental Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research.

But the country's portion of methane emissions could be reduced, given that Brazil does not need so many cows to maintain its current levels of food production. In the case of milk, for example, Lima estimates that one-fifth of today's total herd would be sufficient.

This would be possible if Brazil could achieve the level of productivity and efficiency of Australia and New Zealand, says Paulo Machado, professor at the University of Sao Paulo's School of Agronomy.

With breeds of cows like those in the United States, which produce seven tons of milk per animal per year, Brazil's total dairy herd could be cut to one-tenth its current size, Machado added.

The trend is towards a sharp reduction in the number of livestock animals, though for now it will be a slow process, and in a not-so-distant future, national consumption of milk is expected to double. Given these circumstances, the National Quality Program, already announced by the government, must have a role, said the professor.

Though he acknowledged the excess of livestock in Brazil and its role in the greenhouse effect, Machado stressed the importance of animals capable of transforming grasses, and other plants not edible for humans, into nourishing foods such as meat and milk, and into raw materials, like leather.

But cattle do not only generate gases that contribute to global warming. In Brazil, the animals are also associated with the country's top environmental problem: the burning of forests and the concentration of rural property in the hands of a few, which has proven to be a source of serious social conflicts.

In many cases, especially on the agricultural frontier, people burn forests in order to create pasturelands, and abandon thousands of head of cattle there just to ensure ownership of large tracts of land by showing it is occupied. Meat and milk production is not the central goal.

It is this phenomenon that most worries environmentalists like Rubens Born, head of the non-governmental group Vitae Civilis. Cattle ranching is the driving force behind the burning of the Amazon. The fires are Brazil's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, in this case, carbon dioxide, the most prominent gas in causing global warming.

Born, who participated in the Sixth Conference of Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, held this month in The Hague, said he awaits the conclusion of the national inventory of gas emissions to have a more precise idea of livestock's portion of Brazil's total methane output.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.

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