Cattle ranching has been put on the hot seat, accused mainly of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as its impact with respect to soil degradation on marginalized lands, and deforestation.
On the other hand, the meat that comes from cattle ranchers can be part of a balanced diet, offering worthwhile nutritional benefits for overall health. According to the FAO, in order to combat malnutrition and subnutrition in an effective manner, one should consume 20 grams of animal protein daily or 7,3 kilos annually; this can be achieved by consuming 33 kilos of lean meat or 230 liters of milk, for example.
If ranching is to keep growing, it must find intelligent solutions to those “negative effects.” The association of livestock with forests that capture part of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere could be one such solution.
Central and South America’s pasture-based livestock account for 40% of the worldwide production, playing an important role in foreign trade for various countries, such as those in the Southern Cone. Given this, the solution lies not in decreasing the number of pastoral livestock, but rather a growth in energy-efficient ranching: less greenhouse gas emitted per kilo of meat produced, and improved conservation of natural capital, including less soil degradation and less deforestation.
What are the available solutions? Few countries can consider themselves to be as invested in ranching as Uruguay. More than 70% of its area is occupied by pastures that feed 12 million head of cattle, or 3.4 bovine for every person, one of the highest cattle-to-people ratios in the world. The country exports 70% of its production, representing some 40% of its total exports. At the same time, of Uruguay’s total methane emissions (799 kton), agricultural activities are the principal source of emissions, with cattle farming in particular responsible for 93% of methane emitted via enteric fermentation.
In the 1980s, a forest development plan was implemented that led to an increase in the forest mass, which, according to data of the Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture, and Fishing (MGAP, in Spanish), went from 100.000 hectares in 1990 to 1 million hectares in 2016, attracting foreign investment from Finland and Spain, among others. These countries invested in cellulose pulp plants, generating a sustained demand for the wood that’s produced.
In light of that opportunity, public and private institutions alike have been promoting the development of traditional silvopastoral systems, in which the same surface area combines tree farming with livestock grazing. In an earlier post, Michaela Seelig shared worthwhile information and perspectives about these systems and their development throughout the continent. Nonetheless, these systems are advancing slowly, and some timber companies carry on, without considering them attractive.
Instead, other alternatives have emerged in Uruguay, include examples like Montes del Plata and UPM, which are negotiating contractual agreements between the cellulose producing industry and ranchers. It’s estimated that around 40% of the annual tree plantings done by these companies are found on cattle farmers’ land. These plantations don’t have a typical silvopastoral design, as they are plantations specializing in timber production. The ranchers give part of their land over to be planted with trees. Arrangements among the timber producers and the ranchers are varied, but can include one of these two approaches:
- Leasing: Via the payment of a fixed annual fee, with a long-term agreement;
- Partnering: The cattle farmer provides the land and invests in the forestry project. Profits from the harvest are distributed proportionally.
In ceding part of his land, the rancher can reduce, either by selling or moving, his head of cattle, or can intensify production within a smaller area. By increasing livestock productivity via pasture cultivation and livestock management, distinct interests align:
The ranchers, who improve their income through the fees they receive for the forest, fees that, per hectare, are greater than the ranching income, and can maintain or reduce their livestock. In addition, with the improvement in the cattle’s diet and the increase in area planted with perennial grasses, say by a factor of 10%, they would manage to decrease by 12% the cattle’s enteric emissions for every kilo of meat produced, thanks to the increase in the digestibility of their diet.
The forestry industry. If the offer of additional income is incorporated with a technological support for the ranchers, the business improves its attractiveness and can access larger areas, and, by extension, a constant supply of raw material: the wood.
In addition, according to standards articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, in English) regarding the amount of CO2 that a species of tree is capable of absorbing, the National Forestry Corporation of Chile (Conaf, in Spanish) determined that, of the species planted in that country, the one with the greatest performance is the eucalyptus, which captures 29,9 tons of CO2 per hectare, per year. According to data from MGAP’s Agricultural Statistics Yearbook, of the million hectares planted in Uruguay, 726,000 hectares are eucalyptus.
Society at large. On the one hand, meat production, which is so important for the country’s nutrition and trade, would be sustained. At the same time, this would be done through more efficient models than the traditional ones, from an energy-oriented point of view. Finally, it would generate more jobs.
This is a new process that has developed along with market conditions; now, the task is to measure whether this increase in forested areas and the improvement in the energy-efficiency of meat production mitigates the “negative effects” of pasture-based ranching on the environment.
We are thankful to Heber Freiria for his collaboration on the preparation of this blog.