How Uruguay Can Have Environmental Sustainability – And Eat Its Beef Too

by CCAC secretariat - 19 September, 2019
Boosting agricultural productivity while reducing greenhouse gases is a tricky proposition but Uruguay shows that it can be done

There are so many cows in Uruguay they outnumber people four to one. This small South American country only has a few million people but as the sixth largest beef exporter in the world, it punches well above its weight. In fact, beef is such a part of Uruguayan DNA that the county is essentially one big cattle farm, with almost 15 million of just over 16 million hectares dedicated to livestock production.

For Uruguayans, it’s a major point of pride­­––but it’s also a massive liability. Livestock are responsible for almost 30 percent of global human-made methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas that is one of the most significant drivers of climate change. The primary culprit is a process called enteric fermentation, which is when livestock digest food and produce methane. While methane is a short-lived climate pollutant, only sticking around for 12 years once released, it’s very efficient at trapping radiation. On top of that, it also negatively affects human health and crop yields.

It’s a thorny problem that Uruguay takes seriously––and one that is familiar to small, agriculturally-dependent countries the world over. The nation’s agricultural sector is causes about 75 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and enteric fermentation is responsible for almost half of that. Beef, however, is a nearly $2 billion local industry; the economy quite literally cannot survive without it.

Moreover, Uruguay is a world leader in economic equality, boasting the largest middle class in the Americas and an almost total absence of extreme poverty. Without the livestock, this economic egalitarianism would flat line.

On the other hand, if climate change continues unabated then small, agriculturally-dependent countries like Uruguay will be the first to feel its most devastating effects. In 2008, a single drought cost Uruguay’s beef industry up to $1 billion. If climate change continues at its current levels, these kinds of extreme weather events will only get worse.

Luckily for Uruguay, not to mention mankind, there’s a solution. In fact, there are a lot of them.

If Uruguay made strategic improvements to its agricultural sector, particularly through managing its livestock, it could reduce its emission intensity by 23 to 42 percent, according to a 2017 report undertaken as part of a project funded by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the New Zealand Government, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in collaboration with the Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries, Uruguay. Even better, the same improvements could increase the country’s beef production by 80 percent.

This may seem to good to be true––but it isn’t. As one of 160 countries that have submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which shows how individual countries will address climate change, Uruguay has become a leader in the fight against a warming planet without sacrificing its status as one of the world’s foremost beef exporters.

The CCAC, along with partner organizations, is helping Uruguay become a model for how a country can reduce agricultural emissions without sacrificing productivity––or better yet, by jumpstarting it.

Potential interventions are myriad but the report focuses on the ones that could provide Uruguay, and many other countries, the most bang for its buck. In other words, how can a country slice the maximum amount of greenhouse gas emissions while still increasing beef production? Perhaps most importantly, the report focuses on solutions that are feasible for farmers, who tend to operate on slim margins under already tough working conditions around the world.

One of these is improving and increasing cattle nutrition. Almost 90 percent of cattle food in Uruguay is derived from poor quality, native pastures. Adding grass legumes or fodder crops could help cows grow faster and larger, producing fewer emissions by the time they reach maturity. This has the potential to reduce emission intensity by up to 51 percent.

Another target is breeding practices. Artificial insemination, for example, could reduce emission intensity by 29 to 40 percent by cutting the number of replacement breeding animals needed and improving the herd’s reproductive efficiency with superior genetics. Cross breeding could similarly increase cattle growth rates and weight.

In all likelihood, farmers would employ some combinations of these strategies, paired with other interventions like reducing fertilizer use or carbon sequestration from better management of grazing land. Used collectively, reductions could be even more dramatic.

Uruguay’s dependence on livestock makes it a particularly salient example but these methods have global applicability. In Argentina, similar strategies could reduce methane emissions by 72 percent. A 2017 CCAC report found that some of the same interventions in Bangladesh’s dairy sector, which contributes to 12 percent of the country’s GDP, could increase production by up to 27 percent while reducing emission intensity by around 17 percent. In developing countries like Bangladesh, where decreases in productivity can be a life or death proposition, these kinds of interventions are critical.

It isn’t just about livestock: The entire agricultural sector is responsible for over half of the non-carbon greenhouse gases created by human activity. Luckily, solutions exist in other areas as well. Regularly draining rice paddies in Vietnam and Bangladesh, for example, reduce methane emissions by up to 50 percent and water consumption by 30 percent. In India and Peru, developing alternatives to crop burning have reduced the practice by 90 percent in some villages. Collectively, these types of efforts could produce $33 billion in economic gains.

At a time when news about climate change is increasingly dire, including a recent report from the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights that suggests “Human rights might not survive the coming upheaval,” keeping in mind that feasible solutions exist matters more than ever.

One of the most difficult parts of the battle against climate change will be addressing short-term human needs to survive and thrive with the long-term consequences of a warming planet. Remembering that climate change interventions can be a win-win proposition, reducing emissions while increasing productivity, could be our greatest weapon.