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Industrial livestock production near cities often damages the environment

Incentives for more environmentally-friendly production required.

Livestock Policy Brief 02, Pollution from industrialized livestock production

Industrial livestock production in developing countries often causes severe environmental damages, especially when meat and dairy factories are crowded together around cities or close to water resources, FAO warned today.

In a report entitled Livestock Policy Brief 02, Pollution from industrialized livestock production the UN agency urged governments to create incentives for more environmentally friendly dairy and meat production practices.

Meat and dairy products have become more widely available and affordable in many developing countries. Between 1980 and 2004, meat production in developing countries tripled from around 50 million to 150 million tonnes.

Although consumers in developed countries still eat three to four times as much meat per person, developing countries now produce and consume well over half of the world’s meat.

The rapid growth of livestock production in the developing world has been concentrated mainly in a few large countries, including Brazil, Mexico, China and the countries around the South China Sea (Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines). Meat production in developing countries is expected to increase by about 110 million tonnes by 2030.

From cattle to pig and poultry

In many developing countries large industrial livestock operations with thousands of animals have displaced production on small farms that raise both animals and crops and recycle nutrients as fodder and fertilizer. New production has shifted increasingly from cattle that graze on grass in rural areas to industrial pig and poultry production on the outskirts of major cities. In Asia, large-scale industrial production accounts for roughly 80 percent of the total increase in livestock products since 1990.

In industrial production systems, large quantities of animal wastes accumulate far from croplands where they could be safely recycled. Dense concentrations of industrial livestock production create vast quantities of manure. Although much lower on a national scale, concentration of pig and poultry production in parts of China and Brazil is approaching and surpassing levels found in Europe and North America.

Pig and poultry production concentrated in coastal areas of China, Thailand and Viet Nam are emerging as the major source of nutrient pollution of the South China Sea, the FAO report said. Pig production accounts for an estimated 42 percent of nitrogen and 90 percent of phosphorus flows into the South China Sea. Along much of the densely populated coast, the pig density exceeds 100 animals per square kilometre and agricultural lands are overloaded with huge nutrient surpluses. Run-off is severely degrading seawater and sediment quality in one of the world’s most biologically diverse marine areas, threatening mangroves, coral reefs and sea grasses.

Major forms of pollution associated with manure management in intensive livestock production include:

  • Leaching of nitrates and pathogens into groundwater, which often threatens drinking water supplies.
  • Oversupply of nutrients that damages soil fertility. In several Asian countries, one quarter of the total crop area suffers from significant nutrient overloads. Almost half the excess phosphorus supply comes from livestock.
  • Destruction of fragile ecosystems such as wetlands, mangrove swamps and coral reefs. Threatened coastal areas of the South China Sea, for example, have provided the habitat for 45 of the world’s 51 mangrove species, almost all of the known coral species and 20 of the 50 known sea grasses.

Policy change

Government policies such as zoning regulations and taxes can discourage large concentrations of intensive production close to cities, the report said. Taxes, certification programmes and other policy instruments can support best practices in livestock production. In Thailand, for example, the high concentration of poultry production on the outskirts of Bangkok was significantly reduced in less than a decade, because poultry farmers within a 100 kilometre radius of Bangkok had to pay high taxes. Chicken farmers outside that zone enjoyed tax-free status.

Unfortunately, in many countries outdated and misguided policies actively promote environmentally unsustainable livestock production, FAO said. Many developing countries provide subsidies for chemical fertilizers, energy and credit. Such subsidies tend to be of greater benefit to large operations.

Eliminating subsidies, adjusting taxes and providing incentives for investing in technology to reduce pollution could reduce the environmental damage caused by industrial livestock production.

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