Soil and water

Buenos Aires Hours | Breeding in search of a more sustainable horizon

In the era of the climate crisis and with a growing share of international markets in search of a guaranteed and verifiable sustainable feed, Argentinian livestock is seeking to improve its levels of productivity and traceability in order to reduce its environmental impact.

The national livestock sector contributes 20.7 percent of Argentina’s total greenhouse gas production, mainly caused by emissions from bovine enteric fermentation – a digestion process in cows from which the methane by-product is released. Livestock emissions come second to the energy sector at 54 percent.

Technicians and market analysts admit there is room for improvement in the livestock sector, but argue that not only is Argentina’s livestock industry not a major emitter, but that ‘it could also become neutral or even a sector with a positive impact.

To this end, they call for a review of the methodologies used to calculate Argentina’s emissions, and that the carbon captured in grasslands and pastures – on which the bulk of the country’s animal production is based – be counted in favor of the country. sector.

This is, however, questioned by environmental organizations, which designate cattle rearing as the activity responsible for deforestation in the northern provinces of the country, especially since 2010. There is still a long way to go for it to be ‘activity to be classified as sustainable, Greenpeace mentioned.

Forests, as well as wetlands, are important reservoirs of carbon dioxide, one of the main gases causing global warming. Globally, it is estimated that around 20 percent of global emissions come from deforestation.

Livestock in Argentina

Argentina has around 52 million head of cattle, according to data from the Instituto de la Promoción de la Carne Vacuna Argentina (IPCVA). There are some 130,800 farms dedicated to beef production, according to the latest national agricultural census.

The report Carne Argentina, sustainable carne published this year by the IPCVA specifies that more than half of the cattle herd is concentrated in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Santa Fe, the main agricultural region of Argentina. Pastures in this region are the basis of more than 50 percent of the country’s meat production.

Argentina produced some 3.17 million tonnes of meat in 2020, of which 900,700 tonnes were exported, 75 percent of which went to China. This year, in the first three months – ahead of five months of export limits and bans – China remained the main destination, with 109,000 tonnes, followed by Israel with 11,000 tonnes and Chile with 8,300 tonnes. .

Adrian Bifaretti is an agricultural engineer and heads the domestic department of IPCVA. According to him, there are “mature” export markets in terms of sustainability, such as the European market or, in part, the United States, where the demand for certain standards “is growing more and more”.

However, in the Argentinian domestic market, which consumes 70 percent of the meat produced, this consumer profile is not yet in place. “Some international markets require environmental standards, but for now Argentinian buyers are not asking for them,” said Pablo Preliasco, responsible for the sustainable breeding program of Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina, the Argentinian Foundation for Wildlife.

In China, the strengthening of sustainable consumption trends is driven by the younger generations, concerned with both traceability and food safety standards. The 20-29 age group is the most interested.

For Fernando Vilella, director of the Agro-Food and Food Program at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), although the overall percentage of the Chinese population who demand high-quality meat is still low, the emergence of young consumers more demanding could change the scenario.

“This requires a response in our livestock exports, which must evolve towards certification and traceability schemes for these products,” added Vilella. “Livestock must build a national brand associated with production with low environmental impact.

Deforestation and bad practices

Environmental organizations point to cattle ranching as the main driver of the “new” deforestation in Argentina, concentrated in four northern provinces: Formosa, Salta, Santiago del Estero and Chaco.

Hernán Giardini, Greenpeace Forest Campaign Coordinator, explained: “Today, cattle ranching is the main cause of deforestation in the country, and since 2010 more land has been cleared by livestock than by soy. When we look at the demands for deforestation in the Gran Chaco, there are more for livestock than for agriculture.

Greenpeace highlighted other environmental issues, including those associated with outdoor meat. They argue that animal feed for these approaches is linked to GM crops and other unsustainable practices, such as confinement of animals and contamination of water and soil.

“Livestock farming is not sustainable in Argentina in most cases. It is a lie that it does not generate deforestation, ”said Giardini. “It is currently the main cause of deforestation, just as soybeans were in the 1990s and early 2000s.”

Greenpeace’s 2020 annual report on deforestation in northern Argentina mentions that over the past decade this practice “has been the main source of carbon emissions in northern Argentina”. The document indicates that in 2019, some 80,938 hectares were cleared. In 2020, the year of the pandemic, this area increased to 114,716 hectares, with emissions of more than 20 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Observers can however be encouraged by the announcements made at the UN climate summit COP26 in Glasgow, including the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use – to which Argentina was a signatory – which is committed to halting and reversing forest loss by 2030., eight financial institutions have pledged US $ 3 billion for deforestation-free beef production in South America, as part of the Innovative Funding for Amazonia, Cerrado and Chaco (IFACC) initiative.

Emissions, a key issue

Are Argentinian cattle ready to meet new export market standards? According to Bifaretti of IPCVA, the answer is yes.

“Our natural grassland system has a great capacity to store carbon and, if properly measured, it stores more than it emits,” says Bifaretti. “It is a struggle for meaning and communication that the national livestock sector must lead with scientific support.

For the livestock sector in Argentina, the main argument for questioning its supposed level of emissions is based on the fact that most of the production takes place on natural pastures rather than on deforested and cleared land. Argentina’s pastures, according to the IPCVA specialist, have an amount of carbon stored in the soil equivalent to what the country emits in 74 years.

Carbon accumulates as organic matter in the soil and can remain there for up to hundreds of years. Pastures contribute in large part by the abundant amount of roots they produce. In this way, they can remove carbon from the atmosphere by sequestering it in the soil and help mitigate global warming.

“Taking into account the carbon sequestration of the sector, and not just its emissions, is the key to changing the image of livestock and even moving to a positive balance. There is a scientific battle that the sector must wage, ”said Bifaretti.

Developing countries are required to submit their greenhouse gas inventories to the UN every two years, based on methods suggested by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

There is general agreement in the scientific world on these methods. However, the best way to estimate carbon sequestration by forests and grasslands is still under debate. It is precisely this divergence that opens the debate from the livestock sector.

In an article published in 2019, a group of Argentinian researchers concluded that the carbon sequestration capacity of pastures is underestimated in inventories, and that these lands generate excess carbon – meaning that the emissions produced by pastures animals and production are potentially offset by the amount of carbon that pastures sequester.

Miguel Taboada, one of the authors of the article, argues that grasslands store carbon at depths greater than the 30 centimeters recognized by the IPCC. There is also carbon in the root biomass of grassland plants, which is also not taken into account by the IPCC methodology.

“It is a technical or even academic discussion which, unfortunately, for some, has become a political dispute. It is worth discussing it, ”added Taboada.

For Víctor Tonelli, livestock market analyst and consultant, there is a disconnect between what the European consumer perceives and the reality of the Argentine system in which, he says, “the animal spends 85 percent of its life on the outdoors in fields with an average consumption that does not drop below 90 percent grass. It has been suggested that grass-fed cows have a lower carbon footprint than grain-fed cows, by stimulating carbon sequestration in the soil through grazing, although this remains disputed.

For advocates like Tonelli, “there is a lack of scientific work published in international journals, a lack of awareness in government agencies and a lack of better communication” on the issue of grazing and emissions. He added that this was one of the reasons for the creation of the Argentina Round Table on Sustainable Meat four years ago.

Conversion and traceability

According to Preliasco de la Fundación Vida Silvestre, walking the path to more sustainable production does not require large investments on the part of producers. “With the exception of a few cases which work on deforestation or the conversion of very large lands, most animal productions [in Argentina] is already sustainable, and the greater volume of meat production can already be characterized as deforestation-free with ease, ”said the expert.

Regarding traceability, Tonelli mentioned that although “there is always room for improvement” Argentina has a strong system. “It’s a good system, but we need to digitize it to reduce errors, make it faster and get QR codes on the packaging for the consumer.”

In addition, IPCVA recognizes that there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of kilos of emissions per animal per hectare. “If the technology is improved, emissions per unit of product are reduced, but there is still a technological gap to be bridged,” said Bifaretti, for whom this would not require large investments. What is needed more than this input, he says, is to improve the management of grazing systems.

For Preliasco, the main priority is to stop deforestation and ecosystem conversion, and to focus on numbers: “In Argentina, we have not increased the cattle herd for decades. A long-term policy might be to maintain current levels so as not to increase emissions. “

* Republished with permission from Diálogo Chino. Learn more on