Improving Livestock Health Is a Net Positive Move Towards Net Zero

Reducing global livestock disease levels by just 10% through vaccination and other preventative health measures would bring down greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 800 million tonnes. Credit: Guilhem Alandry/HealthforAnimals
  • Opinion by Carel du Marchie Sarvaas (brussels, belgium)
  • Inter Press Service

In fact, all forecasts suggest global consumption of meat, milk, fish and eggs will continue to rise, with some parts of the world relying on animal agriculture to make up dire protein deficiencies and meet nutrition needs.

With production expected to grow, governments and global bodies must support livestock sector efforts to become increasingly sustainable and keep climate action on track.

Achieving net zero emissions while allowing for an upward trend in meat production and consumption relies on making wholesale efficiency gains, and this starts with the net positive step of improving animal health.

Emissions from the livestock sector are divided between those generated directly through the digestive processes of animals, and those produced indirectly through the provision of feed, land, water, medicine, transportation, and processing. Healthier animals are associated with lower levels of both direct and indirect emissions.

Reducing the spread of animal disease, improving fertility and breeding, and optimising livestock feed are all proven ways to meet rising demand while supporting climate goals. It is why the UN has urged nations to make “improved animal health…one of the key action points to reduce GHG emissions.”

And with additional benefits for improved animal welfare and human health, veterinary interventions offer only positive returns as part of national climate strategies, regardless of the social, political and environmental context.

Mounting evidence demonstrates a strong correlation between livestock disease and emissions from animal agriculture. Diseases drive up emissions by undermining productivity, causing more wastage, and requiring more resources to maintain production levels.

When animals fall sick, they fail to reach target weights or reproduce, meaning farmers must invest in treating the animal while also making up for the shortfall in output. And diseases with high mortality levels, such as avian influenza, mean farmers need more animals to produce the same amount of meat, milk and eggs.

Recent modelling indicates that disease outbreaks in low-income countries that affect 20 per cent of cattle in a herd, for example, result in an estimated 60 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Conversely, vaccinating livestock against preventable diseases can both protect animals from infection and reduce the emissions attributed to each kilogram of meat or litre of milk. Reducing global disease levels by just 10 per cent through vaccination and other preventative health measures would bring down greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 800 million tonnes – equivalent to the annual emissions of close to 200 million people.

Expanding access to animal vaccines, especially in low-income countries, and endorsing livestock vaccination as part of public policy should therefore be on the agenda as a climate solution at the upcoming COP28 climate talks.

Similarly, improvements in livestock breeding can also reduce the environmental footprint of animal agriculture while increasing productivity.

Digital health monitoring innovations, such as smart tags, can make it easier for producers to accurately assess when cows are in heat and therefore more likely to successfully conceive. Not only does this minimise the resources and emissions involved in livestock breeding, but it also reduces the stress on the animal.

Meanwhile, genetic assessments found the “top” 25 per cent of cows produced 10 per cent fewer methane emissions and required five per cent less feed, while also producing 35 per cent more milk. Investing in more efficient livestock breeding programmes that harness the advantages of genetic testing would also support national climate plans without compromising food supplies.

Finally, optimising the quality and quantity of livestock feed has also been shown to reduce both direct and indirect emissions. Growing evidence indicates that dietary inhibitors and feed additives can effectively reduce the methane generated when cows and sheep digest food.

And the animal health sector has significantly advanced scientific understanding of the essential nutrition needed by livestock, which means farmers and veterinarians can create evidence-based feeding regimes that eliminate waste and overconsumption. This eases the burden on feed production, minimising emissions caused by sourcing and transporting animal feed, while ensuring the animals receive the nutrition they need to support healthy growth.

Improving the health, fertility and nutrition of farm animals has no downsides. And, as a cornerstone of the “One Health” concept of integrated planetary wellbeing, it is directly linked to the health of people and the environment.

For climate negotiators looking for practical, proven, and effective ways to curb emissions while meeting future food needs ahead of this year’s COP28, livestock health measures offer the elusive universal win-win.

Carel du Marchie Sarvaas is executive director of HealthforAnimals, the global animal health association

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