“Agriculture and livestock play a relevant role in climate change and should not evade their responsibility”
The impact of the agroforestry sector on the environment, as well as its contribution to climate change, are some of the challenges facing food production. The scientist Salvador Calvet, president of Red REMEDIA, focused on mitigating climate change in the agroforestry sector in Spain, and director of the Institute of Animal Science and Technology of the Polytechnic University of Valencia, explains these and other challenges of current livestock production .
How is it established that livestock production is sustainable?
The truth is that there is no official or scientifically clear definition that establishes where the limit is between what is sustainable production and what is not. Among other reasons, because the term sustainability itself has several components, not only environmental, but also social and economic. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to speak of degrees of sustainability.
There is no official or scientifically clear definition that establishes where the limit is between what is sustainable production and what is not.
What elements are considered to determine these grades?
the productions a priori The most sustainable would be those that are most linked to the territory, considering the mainly proximity origin of their food, and the return of manure to the field in an appropriate manner, that is, in the times, doses and manner in which each soil and crop requires. Obviously, the most extensive productions —considering that there are also degrees of extensiveness— are closer to that environmental sustainability, even with great collateral benefits in terms of environmental services beyond food production itself.
Where would intensive farming be?
Intensive productions, to the extent that they gain size and disassociate themselves from the territory in which they are located, both at the level of food production and manure management, have more difficulty reaching that sustainability and therefore greater control is necessary. It is important to highlight that intensity does not necessarily imply a lack of environmental sustainability, since there are intensive farms linked to the territory. For example, much of the bovine production.
What are the mechanisms to curb the environmental impacts of this type of livestock production?
The direct ones, generated on the farm itself, are known. There are also technical and legal mechanisms to reduce them. But we must not forget in any case the indirect environmental impacts, that is, those that are generated outside the farm itself, such as the production of food consumed by animals.
From a technical point of view, the emission processes are known and there are more and more strategies (management or technologies) that allow to reduce their emissions. On a legal scale, the regulations for the management of the most intensive productive sectors (pork in 2020, poultry in 2021 and cattle, foreseeably in 2022) are being renewed, in which the obligation for farms to reduce their emissions in a very significant way is contemplated. and other environmental impacts.
We must not forget in any case the indirect environmental impacts, that is, what is generated outside the farm itself, such as the production of food consumed by animals
And for indirect impacts?
These regulations are complemented by others of a more general nature that regulate the registration and reporting of the best available techniques used on farms (regulation to be published), the updating of the protection of groundwater against contamination by nitrates (approved in January 2022), or sustainable soil fertilization, which will also be published soon. What we must do is focus our efforts on ensuring that these regulations are complied with effectively, providing the scientific knowledge to make it so.
He has studied how the diet of animals, such as pigs, impacts the emissions generated by a farm. How does this influence the environment?
Indeed, the feeding of animals on farms plays a fundamental environmental role. In the first place, because depending on the composition and origin of the diet, it implies one or another load on the environment. It is something especially important in the intensive production of pigs and poultry, somewhat less in ruminants. Second, because depending on what they eat, animals produce more or less methane in their digestive process (very important in ruminants), they are more or less efficient in the use of nutrients (implying less or more feed consumption), they have more or less losses in the form of excretions and, therefore, generate more or less emissions associated with manure. In short, feeding plays a central role in production efficiency.
Depending on what they eat, animals produce more or less methane in their digestive process and are more or less efficient in the use of nutrients
How has the feeding of animals on farms evolved?
Considering the effects of genetic improvement and improvements in facilities together, animal production has greatly improved its efficiency in the use of nutrients. However, it is necessary to go beyond efficiency, especially in highly intensified sectors that, however efficient they may be, in aggregate can add significant environmental impacts.
He is president of Red REMEDIA, a scientific network in which researchers from different centers around the agroforestry sector collaborate. Where does this initiative come from and why is it focused on climate change?
The REMEDIA Network arises from a primer workshop organized in Bilbao in 2012, with the aim of bringing together research related to mitigation and adaptation to climate change in agriculture, livestock and forestry. It arises from the initiative of a group of young researchers who believed in a way of doing science that is closer, coordinated and committed to society. It focused on climate change as it is a discipline that is already being worked on in neighboring countries, but without scientifically coordinated coverage on a national scale. From that first workshop it was shown that in Spain we have a great scientific capacity to address the climate challenge in primary production. Not only because of the existing research groups, but above all through collaboration between highly intertwined disciplines, ranging from the production systems themselves to the consideration of economic and social elements.
What problems does Europe have to face in this respect (food security and climate change) in the future?
Climate change poses a great challenge for agriculture and livestock. Even though the burning of fossil fuels is clearly the largest emitting source of greenhouse gases, agri-food production plays an important role and must not evade the responsibility of reducing these emissions in the part that corresponds to it.
Secondly, agricultural and livestock production is very sensitive to the impacts of climate change, with the consequent risk of food security. They are directly, for example, increasing the thermal stress of animals or water stress in plants. And they are indirectly, for example, through the transmission of emerging diseases. This poses an important challenge, which is to guarantee food production in a much more environmentally friendly way, reducing dependence on raw materials of global origin.
Agri-food production plays a relevant role and must not evade the responsibility of reducing emissions in the part that corresponds to it
In addition to climate change, what other obstacles are affecting food production?
It faces other challenges such as reducing the impacts on nutrient cycles (especially nitrogen and phosphorus) or the effects on global biodiversity, which are probably the most affected by the agri-food system today. The strategy echoes all of them “From Farm to Table” of the European Commission.
What role does Spain have within the European Union in the study of the impact of livestock production?
The research centers have a high level, are highly relevant on an international scale and regularly participate in initiatives such as the Global Research Alliance, with coordination projects such as the COST shares, the framework program of the European Union or the programa LIFE. All of this is being done increasingly in an integrated way, that is, addressing all the environmental challenges of production, and not just climate change.