Bovine Intervention: Colombia prepares to give unsustainable cattle production the hoof

An ambitious proposal from the Colombian government to make cattle production more sustainable could save over a billion tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions, while protecting forests, regenerating land and boosting farmer incomes.

If funded, the work will contribute to the country's commitments to tackle climate change agreed at COP21 in Paris last week. With around 23 million cattle grazing an area roughly the size of Germany, Colombia’s livestock sector accounts for almost all of its agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Poor practices have resulted in low productivity and extensive land degradation, which in turn have driven widespread deforestation as farmers seek new areas for grazing. Land degradation and forest clearance are major sources of carbon dioxide emissions.   The proposed Sustainable Bovine Livestock project will focus on the introduction of mixed, rotational grazing systems to boost productivity, regenerate land and ease pressure on forests. These “silvo-pastoral” systems will combine nutritious forage grasses that can can sequester high levels of carbon dioxide with leguminous plants and trees that improve soil health by fixing atmospheric nitrogen. By-products such as timber will enable farmers to diversify their sources of income. Rehabilitating pastures and restoring ecosystems is expected to capture around 167 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over the duration of the project (2018-2032). But enormous additional savings are expected as a result of “avoided deforestation”, as cattle farms become productive enough that farmers no longer need to clear trees for grazing. This could spare an estimated 2.5 million hectares of forest from being felled, averting a colossal 1.2 billion tonnes in new carbon dioxide emissions over the same period. Savings will also be made through efforts to reduce methane emissions along the beef and dairy value chains. Uses of the potent greenhouse gas as an energy source will also be investigated. “With more productive and profitable systems in place, significantly less land will be needed to raise the same number of cattle, freeing up areas for conservation, rehabilitation and reforestation,” said Daniel Escobar, part of a team at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) that helped calculate the possible emissions savings. “It could provide a great model for sustainable intensification, and clearly shows that smarter livestock production can be a major contributor to mitigating climate change.” “It could also help ensure that as Colombia edges towards ending its long-running civil war, there are plenty of options for rural communities held back by conflict to develop sustainably.” The proposal builds on a 2011 pilot project from Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, and Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, to investigate sustainable livestock production in the country. It was led by the World Bank and Colombia’s cattle producers’ federation, FEDEGAN, with support from the Global Environment Facility and UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. The research concluded that improved livestock production systems showed great promise for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, improving farmer livelihoods and increasing the resilience of ecosystems. The new proposal aims to introduce sustainable livestock production in 15 of the country's 32 departments. “There are so many ‘wins’ with this approach to sustainable livestock production,” said Andy Jarvis, head of CIAT’s Decision and Policy Analysis Research Program, and a research leader for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). “It mitigates climate change, restores soil, reduces deforestation, improves ecosystem health, boosts farm incomes; the list goes on. “In recent years Colombia has established an impressive track record of progressive thinking in responding to climate change and promoting sustainable agriculture. The new plans are a great example of the kind of integrated approach that’s badly needed all over the world – it connects government departments and research organisations with both national strategies for rural development and global commitments to tackle climate change. “The most encouraging thing is that they’ve successfully completed years of research to show that these approaches, when combined, are effective.” The Colombian government is now seeking international partners to fund and implement the project, which will cost USD$900 million. With support from CIAT, CCAFS and CIPAV*, sections of the proposal specifically relating to expected emissions reductions as a result of ecosystem restoration have been submitted to the United Nations as part of Colombia’s Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs). These are non-binding commitments by countries to tackle climate change. Colombia's NAMAs will in turn support progress towards achieving the country's Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which were agreed at COP21 in Paris last week. Sections relating to emissions reductions from avoided deforestation will fall under the country’s commitment to implement REDD+** strategies. IN BRIEF: Colombia’s Sustainable Bovine Livestock project aims to: • Restore a total of 1.6 million hectares of grazing land through intensive and non-intensive silvo-pastoral livestock systems. • Plant over 2 million hectares with improved, nutritious forage plants, reducing the amount of land needed for grazing. • Benefit around 200,000 farming families through more efficient cattle production systems, payments for environmental stewardship, and improvements in local infrastructure. • Capture 167 million tonnes of C02 through restored ecosystems. • Save around 2.5 million hectares of forest, representing avoided emissions of around 1,200 million tons of C02.


Teams from CIAT’s Soils Program and Forages Program also contributed to the assessments of emissions savings, and feasibility studies relating to the different livestock systems and technologies proposed under the new plans.


*CIPAV - Centro Para la investigacon en Sistemas Sostenibles de Produccion Agropecuaria **REDD - Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation