A livestock and environment researcher has criticised the assumption that lower food production in “sustainable” systems in countries in the global north would lead to more emissions globally.

Senior researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Theun Vellinga currently works in the field of specialised, highly-productive dairy farms which produce up to 14,000L per cow.

The belief that lower production in “sustainable” countries would lead to more global emissions due to increased production in regions with a higher carbon footprint is “very popular” in industrialised countries and in the agri-food industry, he said.

Using this reasoning ignores the “large potential” to reduce emissions by improving efficiency in countries such as in Africa, the researcher said.

He added: “There is still a tendency to increase efficiency even in specialised, highly productive livestock systems partly based on the narrative that we need to contribute to global food security.

“We need to find a balance because the global south needs to be able to feed itself – that [food] should not come from intensifying specialised dairy in other countries.”

Exporting produce from industrialised countries makes regions more dependent on external production and withholds their opportunity to develop their own production systems, he said.

Vellinga was speaking at the launch of the expert panel on livestock methane which included scientists and academics who work on peer-reviewed science on livestock methane and climate change.

Food security and global emissions

Intensive, specialised systems work on a highly technological basis with a high input of chemicals, he said, therefore the focus should be on systems that could reduce methane emissions in a “simpler way”.

A previous study by the university compared an increase in milk production in Ethiopia based on sustainable intensification to higher production in The Netherlands, including the export of milk powder.

There is a large emissions reduction potential in countries with low animal productivity, he said, adding that milk production in Ethiopia can be increased while reducing methane.

“There is the risk of intensification because the industry is now pressing us to reduce the carbon footprint per kg of milk, and it appears that this works better by using chemicals in very intensive systems rather than in more nature-based systems,” he said.

Taking the example of India, he said there is large potential for improving feed efficiency in Indian livestock, however, technical support and an overhaul of the production structure is required.

Increasing production from 100kg up to 3,000L in India would allow higher consumption of animal protein in south Asian countries, while reducing the carbon footprint of milk, he said.

Ways to reduce methane emissions are needed in the global south according to professor of sustainable, tropical agriculture at the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco, Ngonidzashe Chirinda.

While most livestock production in the global north is oriented towards the market, he said that in the global south, there are more crop livestock systems in which a cow is kept long-term for purposes other than the market.

Often produce imported from the global north does not reach the people who don’t have market access or financial means, senior scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, Claudia Ardnt said.

It is very important that there is livestock in these marginal lands and rural areas to improve nutritional security and to avoid any deficiencies related to non-nutritious food, she added.