- One direct, humane, and cost-effective way to bring down carbon emissions associated with livestock that few people are talking about is improving animal health.
- Lethal or not, diseases are directly responsible for driving up emissions from animal agriculture because farmers wind up raising more animals and using more resources to produce the same amount of food, fuel or fiber.
- Healthy animals can act as a potent tool in our global response to climate change – but only if policymakers act to better integrate animal health into climate strategies under the interconnected principles of ‘One Health,’ a new op-ed argues.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Among the ambitious commitments made at COP27 were plans for a methane monitoring satellite system that would improve tracking in the energy sector where the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions originate.
This high-tech system would eventually expand to smaller emitters like livestock, which would be beneficial in improving the accuracy of emissions data from cattle where methane is a natural by-product of production.
However, the UN climate talks largely missed a more direct, more humane, and more cost-effective way to bring down emissions associated with livestock: improving animal health.
Livestock diseases like bird flu, foot and mouth, and others kill around one in five farm animals every year, and impact millions more that survive but are held back from reaching their full potential.
Whether lethal or not, diseases are directly responsible for driving up emissions from animal agriculture because farmers need to raise more animals and use more resources to produce the same amount of food, fuel or fiber. Johne’s disease in cattle, for example, increases emissions by almost a quarter while bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) causes an estimated 16-20% increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
The livestock sector is increasingly recognizing and acting upon the link between animal health and climate goals. The Global Dairy Platform, for example, includes improved animal health as a core strategy in its pathway to net zero, while the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef sees animal health as integral to achieving its 30% emissions reduction target.
Controlling animal disease can significantly reduce emissions, leading to greater sustainability throughout global food systems and mitigating livestock’s contribution to climate change.
The animal health sector can therefore be instrumental to meeting climate goals and should be better integrated into climate strategies at national and international levels.
The greatest opportunity to bring down unnecessary emissions from animal disease is where the threat of preventable disease remains highest. In low-income countries, where veterinary services and infrastructure are limited, poultry losses to disease can be as high as 50%, generating disproportionally high greenhouse gas emissions.
On the other hand, improvements in animal health in the U.S. have brought down greenhouse gas emissions from raising chicken by more than a third since 1965, requiring 75% fewer resources.
Greater investments – not only in vaccines to prevent disease but in infrastructure that allow farmers to access them – would significantly reduce the environmental impact of livestock in developing countries while bringing better incomes and livelihoods for farmers.
At the same time, all countries would benefit from integrating animal health into national climate strategies.
A recent UN report found that the impact of improved animal health is not currently included in emissions monitoring or national climate goals submitted under the Paris Agreement. The report highlighted national vaccination campaigns as an example of climate mitigation efforts. Vaccination could prevent BVD, one of the most environmentally damaging diseases, which can impact up to 90% of animals during an outbreak with a mortality rate of 8%.
To fulfill the benefits of healthier livestock, climate finance should therefore be directed towards investing in better animal health, particularly given its implications on the environment and human health.
Long-term, upfront investment through public health and climate budgets is necessary to deliver ongoing veterinary research and innovation, as well as the markets, systems and infrastructure needed to ensure they effectively prevent disease at scale and reduce emissions.
Healthy animals can act as a potent tool in our global response to climate change – but only if policymakers act to better integrate animal health into climate strategies under the interconnected principles of “One Health.” Healthier animals can contribute to a healthier world for us all.
Carel du Marchie Sarvaas is executive director of HealthforAnimals, a global animal health association.
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