Thursday, November 22, 2007

Livestock Casts Its Long Shadow Over Manitoba's Greenhouse Gas Levels

- by Larry Powell

Photo by PinP.

Compared to other provinces, Manitoba doesn't produce a lot of greenhouse gases, which cause global warming. (Only PEI, Newfoundland and the northern Territories emit less.)

But, when it comes to agriculture, we punch way above our weight.

In 2004, (the latest year for which figures are available) virtually one-third of Manitoba's emissions, 32.8%, came from farming. That's the highest percentage of any province in Canada!

The national average in Canada that year was just 7%.

Back in 1990, Manitoba agriculture produced 4,400 kilotonnes (kt) of emissions in * carbon dioxide equivalents." By '04, that number had grown to 6,350 kt, a whopping increase of 45% (compared to the national average of 23%).

Manitoba's growing populations of hogs and beef cattle are said to be behind the numbers.

Those numbers are buried in the almost 500-page National Inventory Report - Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada," which Environment Canada presented to a United Nations convention on climate change last year. To quote from the report, "The expansion of the beef cattle, swine and poultry industries, along with increases in the application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in the Prairies resulted in a long-term emission growth..."

The province's beef cattle population has been growing steadily in the past decade, to about 1.3 million today. As well, about five million hogs are slaughtered in the province each year. That number has more than doubled since the 90s. (Source; Government of MB.)

Environment Canada says a couple of factors contributed to the increases.

Gases produced from manure spread on cropland and pastures (which would no doubt include millions of litres of slurry from factory hog barns) jumped by more than two-thirds (68%).

But close behind was a source often made fun of, or ignored. That is the flatulence (euphemistically called "enteric fermentation") produced mostly by beef cattle. It went up 60%!

Cows produce a lot of methane and nitrous oxide which, as greenhouse gases, are way more potent than carbon dioxide, the most common one. (Methane is at least 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide; nitrous oxide - 310 times.)

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is also a significant source of nitrous oxide. Such fertilizer is being used more and more on cropland. 

And the figures on agriculture don't even include the emissions produced by farm machinery or the energy used to heat farm buildings.

Photo courtesy of FAO.

The impact of livestock on the ecosystems of the world is enormous.

A MAJOR REPORT last year by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is stark.

Ominously entitled "Livestock's Long Shadow," the report singles out animal agriculture, including intensive livestock operations, as a significant contributor to climate change, air pollution, the degradation of land, soil and water and the reduction of biodiversity.

The FAO ranks the livestock sector as one of the top two or three of the most significant culprits when it comes to environmental damage. It describes the problems attributable to livestock both on a local and global scale as "massive" and "urgent."

Livestock production, including land used both for grazing and growing feed-crops, covers a staggering 30 % of the land surface of the planet!

It is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America and in the degradation of range-land, mostly due to overgrazing.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation of all in the report is that livestock accounts for no less than 18% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, a higher share than transport! 

Domestic animals produce 37% of the world's anthropogenic (caused by human activity) ammonia, which is blamed for acid rain and the acidification of ecosystems.

The sector consumes an estimated 8% of the global water supply - already facing scarcity and contamination. Says the FAO, it is probably the biggest contributor to eutrophication (a process which robs water of its oxygen content), dead zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems, and the emergence of antibiotic resistance.

All of this seems even more bleak when one considers that meat consumption, already on the rise for some time, is expected to double by 2050!

Manitoba's livestock populations may seem puny in the overall scheme of things. But, according to at least one benchmark, we are pretty much in line with that dark picture painted by the Food and Agriculture Organization. That's in the category of greenhouse gas production.
The FAO says livestock produce 18% of the world's emissions, more than cars, trucks, planes and trains!

In Manitoba, we are hard on the heels of that figure - just over 17%! 
Unfortunately, the practices of too many producers are not helpful. Despite government educational programs urging them to provide a buffer along riparian areas (the banks of public waterways) to protect against the effects of livestock waste, these bulls have full access to such a waterway, a creek which flows into a popular fishing lake about a kilometre downstream from where these pictures were taken!


Given all of this, it will be interesting indeed to see how the Manitoba government fulfills its promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 2000 levels by 2010!

Does this government's warm embrace of the factory-farming model now need to be re-examined?

Will government officials like Agriculture Minister Rosanne Wowchuck now tone down their rhetoric about the livestock sector? (She recently referred to it as "an industry that is providing leadership to the rest of the country in environmental sustainability!")

Is it now time for the government to reconsider the directive it gave to a rural municipality this year, threatening to withhold approval of its development plan if it did not remove a cap on the size of animal operations?

I've been told it's "bad form" to brag. If it is, I'm about to display some.

When I ran as a candidate for the Green Party in the 2002 Manitoba election, my campaign brochure read;"Manitoba's support of the Kyoto Accord is commendable. But, at the same time, it is shamelessly boosting the establishment of more factory farms that produce massive amounts of methane, perhaps the worst greenhouse gas known!" I stand by those remarks and still believe them to be true.

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