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Brazil making efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of livestock

With more head of commercial cattle than any other country in the world, Brazil is striving to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions associated with cattle farming

Integrated pasture and forest at Canchim Farm in São Carlos, São Paulo, owned by Embrapa Southeast Livestock

Léo Ramos Chaves

Corumbiara farm, located in the Brazilian state of Rondônia near the border with Mato Grosso, has 16,000 head of Nelore cattle, the most common breed in the country, on its 16,800 hectares (ha) of land. Until six years ago, productivity at the ranch was low and few environmental sustainability practices were implemented. Pasture areas were degraded, suffering from increasing erosion, and the herd drank water from springs located in Permanent Preservation Areas (PPAs)—legally designated nature reserves that cattle are not permitted to access.

The change came with the adoption of a system based on integrated agriculture and livestock farming (IAL) conceived by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) in the 1990s. Under the IAL system, land use is alternated between agricultural and livestock activities with the aim of increasing the efficiency of natural resources and reducing the environmental impact. Well-managed crop fields and pasture areas can sequester carbon from the atmosphere, offsetting livestock emissions—cattle are a major generator of methane (CH4), one of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) responsible for global warming.

It did not take long for the results to become apparent. Today, every ton of meat produced at Corumbiara generates 11.5 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). Although still considered high, this volume is about 40% lower than the global average, which is estimated at 19.9 tCO2e. Carbon dioxide equivalent is used to represent the greenhouse gases in the form of CO2. The data are from a pioneering Brazilian study by the Institute of Forest and Agricultural Management and Certification (IMAFLORA), a nongovernmental organization that measured the carbon balance of suppliers of Minerva Foods in South America.

Corumbiara currently has 1,850 ha dedicated to IAL, equivalent to 22% of the property’s 8,400 ha usable for farming—the rest of the land, by law, cannot be exploited. Another 1,250 ha of the usable area is PPA, fenced off for recovery with the planting of native vegetation. The division between crops and livestock works as follows: in September, soybeans are planted, which are later harvested and sold. In February, maize is planted, together with a highly digestible grass, Brachiaria ruziziensis. The maize is harvested in May and used over time as cattle feed, complementing their grass-based diet. The combination sustains the animals in the dry period between June and August, when the IAL area is used by the cattle.

Alexandre Affonso

As well as absorbing carbon, the grass allows production in the area to be intensified, with three head of cattle occupying each ha, while the average in non-IAL areas is 1.5 head per ha. Good nutrition in the dry season helps cattle in the IAL area reach the ideal weight for slaughter in 22 months, about a year less than the standard. The shorter the animal’s life, the less GHGs emitted per kilogram (kg) of meat produced.

Growing grass offers other benefits too. Its roots and remains add organic matter into the soil, storing carbon as a result. At the same time, they help de-compact the earth after it has been trampled by cattle, promoting better recycling of soil nutrients. “The IAL system improves productivity and sustainability,” says agronomist Fábio Souza, manager of Corumbiara. “Over the next two years, we plan to expand the IAL area to 4,000 ha. We want to reduce our environmental impact even more.”

The impact of methane
The production system that integrates agriculture and forestation (IAF)—and a broader version that includes livestock (IALF)—is one of the solutions being used in the country to make cattle farming more environmentally friendly. Brazil has more commercial cattle than any other country in the world, with 218 million animals, ahead of China and the USA. In 2020, it exported more meat than any other nation, at 2.2 million tons (t), 14% of the global market.

An important source of foreign income, livestock is in the sights of the environmental movement due to the high volume of GHGs it releases into the air, particularly CH4. The digestive process of ruminants, known as enteric fermentation, produces methane in the rumen, one of the four compartments of the bovine stomach, which is then released mainly by eructation, better known as burping or belching (see infographic above). Its potential to raise the global temperature in as little as 20 years is 80 times higher than CO2—over the course of 100 years, it is 28 times higher. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest to make room for cattle pasture and crops also indirectly contributes to carbon emissions by the agricultural sector. Another gas generated by livestock is nitrous oxide (N2O), which comes from animal feces in pasture areas. Nitrogen fertilizers applied to crops to correct soil acidity also release the gas.

GHG emissions in Brazil totaled 1,467 teragrams (Tg) of CO2e in 2016—one Tg is equivalent to one million tons. The data were contained in the report “Fourth National Communication of Brazil to the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change],” issued by the Brazilian government in 2020. Agriculture emits more GHGs than any other sector, with 33% of the total, and the subsector for enteric fermentation, which accounts for the methane released by ruminants (cattle, buffalo, goats, and sheep), represented 19% of the total. Cattle farming alone was responsible for 97% of livestock emissions. Cattle belching was the source of 18.5% of GHGs generated in the country (see infographic below).

Alexandre Affonso

At the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, last year, Brazil was one of approximately 100 countries that signed the Global Methane Pledge, an agreement to reduce emissions of the gas by 30% by 2030. To fulfill its commitment, Brazil will have to make its livestock industry cleaner.

“It is a major challenge, but the conditions needed to achieve the COP26 target are there. We currently have 165 million hectares of pasture and plenty of space to manage these areas in order to make them more sustainable,” explains Flávio Augusto Portela Santos, an agronomist from the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ) at the University of São Paulo (USP) who specializes in bovine production and nutrition.

According to the researcher, Brazil has several technologies available to make the livestock sector more efficient with lower carbon emissions. As well as the IAL system and its variants, which have already been implemented in an estimated 16 million ha of pasture, there are other techniques for correctly managing pasture and supplementing feed with additives to reduce methane generation (see report). Genetic improvement of pasture to produce more easily digestible grass, and of cattle so that they reach slaughter weight earlier (see FAPESP’s 50-Year Special) are also potential solutions.

“Research has advanced a lot in recent years. Now this knowledge needs to be put into practice and the technologies applied on a larger scale in the production process,” emphasizes Santos, who led a project funded by FAPESP on cattle feed supplementation in tropical pastures.

One of the agronomist’s current lines of research is the processing of corn and sorghum to improve feed efficiency and reduce the amount of methane generated per kilogram of meat and liter of milk produced. Another study, in partnership with multinational agrichemical company Syngenta, is focusing on genetically modified corn, given an enzyme called amylase that helps animals digest the grain. “With more efficient digestion, we were able to reduce methane generation,” he explains.

Léo Ramos ChavesExperiments conducted in the laboratory at ESALQ, USP, to evaluate nutritional ingredients that could potentially reduce methane emissions by cattleLéo Ramos Chaves

Mitigation Strategies
Guilhermo Congio, an agronomist who specializes in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in ruminant production systems, also believes it is possible to make Brazilian livestock more climate-friendly. “Several studies carried out in the country in recent years indicate that the sector can offset emissions by adopting new technologies that allow it to sequester more greenhouse gases from the environment than it emits,” he explains.

Congio earned his PhD from the Graduate Program in Animal Science and Pastures at ESALQ, USP, and was one of the coordinators of the recently concluded Latin America Methane Project (LAMP), an international research project that carried out a meta-analysis of 34 potential enteric methane mitigation strategies. The approaches were divided into three groups: animal genetic improvement, nutrition, and rumen manipulation.

“Of the 34 strategies evaluated, 16 reduced at least one metric related to methane emission without compromising animal production. Of these 16, three reduced absolute methane emissions from cattle, measured in grams per day, and 13 reduced relative emissions, measured in grams of methane per kg of meat or liter of milk produced or per kg of food ingested by the animal,” says Congio. The study involved 80 researchers from 26 institutions in eight countries across Latin America and the Caribbean. The results were published in the Journal of Cleaner Production in August 2021.

Congio explains that methods to make livestock more environmentally friendly generally focus on reducing enteric methane emissions and nitrous oxide emissions from the soil and animal feces, or on absorbing carbon from the environment to offset emissions by the sector. The use of additives in animal feed is an example of the former, while planting forests alongside pasture areas is an example of the latter. “Although cattle farming accounts for a considerable percentage of Brazilian emissions, well managed pastures and integrated production systems that include trees have a great capacity to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere,” says Congio. To offset 1 kg of methane emission by animals, 28 kg of CO2 need to be removed from the environment.

Alexandre Costa, a climate scientist from the State University of Ceará (UECE), questions the effort the country has made to reduce the meat industry’s carbon footprint and argues that the sector needs to review its practices. “The Brazilian model is not sustainable,” he says. Costa, who was one of the authors of the first report by the Brazilian Panel on Climate Change (BPCC), highlights that agriculture has expanded in biomes such as the Cerrado (wooded savanna) and the Amazon, causing widespread destruction. “As we know, deforestation results in CO2 emissions.”

A Brazilian study published in the scientific journal Communications Earth & Environment in 2001 showed that the Amazon produces 8% of the planet’s methane, with 11% of this volume generated by livestock (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 312).

The endeavor to decarbonize Brazilian livestock is not new. Universities and research centers have been searching for solutions to the problem for more than two decades, and in 2010 the government launched Plan ABC (standing for low-carbon agriculture in Portuguese). The plan was created by the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food Supply (MAPA) to increase the use of sustainable technologies and improve productivity in rural Brazil. It includes establishing the IALF system and its variants, as well as the recovery of degraded pastures and treatment of animal waste, as public policy.

Léo Ramos ChavesExperiments conducted in the laboratory at ESALQ, USP, to evaluate nutritional ingredients that could potentially reduce methane emissions by cattleLéo Ramos Chaves

Fernanda Garcia Sampaio, a zootechnician from MAPA’s Department for Climate Change and Conservationist Agriculture, explains that the government’s approach is divided into supporting technological developments, offering technical assistance to give producers access to innovations, and various funding programs. In 10 years, Plan ABC signed 38,000 credit agreements aimed at stimulating more sustainable practices in the countryside, worth a total of R$32 billion.

The plan, now renamed ABC+, has incorporated new practices for the 2020–2030 period, including a method known as intensive termination, which reduces the time taken for cattle to reach slaughter weight. The objective is to expand the agricultural land using the technologies outlined in the plan by 72 million ha—the area is currently close to 50 million ha—and achieve an estimated mitigation capacity of 1.1 billion tCO2e by 2030.

According to Plan ABC+, areas using the IALF system are projected to expand by over 10 million ha in the period. If successful, the integration of crops, forests, and livestock will account for around 23% of Brazil’s 112 million ha of pasture. Every ha of IALF pasture has the potential to remove an average of 3.79 tCO2e from the atmosphere per year.

Alexandre Affonso

A study led by José Ricardo Pezzopane, an agronomist from Embrapa Southeast Livestock in São Carlos, São Paulo, proved that planting eucalyptus in an IALF production system benefits the global climate. Seedlings were planted on 12 ha of land in simple lines, with 15 meters (m) between each line and 2 m between each tree, resulting in a density of 333 eucalyptus trees per ha. “The eucalyptus trees accumulated 65 tons of carbon per ha over eight years until they were cut, generating 225 cubic meters (m3) of wood—an extra source of income for the farmer. An article describing the study was published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment last year.

According to Pezzopane, which tree species to plant in an IALF system depends on several factors related to the pursuit of environmental, economic, and social benefits. “There are many options, including native and exotic species, as well as decisions to be made on planting density [number of trees per hectare],” he explains. Some types of trees, such as fruit or nut trees, theoretically remain in the environment for longer and can absorb more carbon than species destined for timber.

The IALF production strategy is also being adopted outside Brazil, such as Australia and New Zealand. In these two countries, the system is an important part of policies being implemented to achieve zero net livestock carbon emissions by 2050.

Other global meat producers are also investing in ways to make their livestock cleaner. In November 2021, Joe Biden’s administration launched an ambitious plan that includes the target of decarbonizing the USA’s livestock industry. The USA is also leading the Global Methane Initiative, an international partnership in which Brazil is participating that aims to reduce methane emissions in various sectors, including agriculture.

1. Cattle feed supplementation in tropical pasture (nº. 12/09535-1); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Principal Investigator Flávio Augusto Portela Santos (USP); Investment R$904,920.34.
2. Eucalyptus thinning in IALF systems: effect on microclimate and productivity (nº. 16/02959-1); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator José Ricardo Macedo Pezzopane (EMBRAPA); Investment R$148,986.52.

Scientific articles
CONGIO, G. F. S. et al. Enteric methane mitigation strategies for ruminant livestock systems in the Latin America and Caribbean region: a meta-analysis. Journal of Cleaner Production. Aug. 20, 2021.
BASSO, L. S. et al. Amazon methane budget derived from multi-year airborne observations highlights regional variations in emissions. Communications Earth & Environment. Nov. 29, 2021.
PEZZOPANE, J. R. M et al. Managing eucalyptus trees in agroforestry systems: productivity parameters and PAR transmittance. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. June 1, 2021.