As Colombia’s livestock industry eats away at the Amazon rain forest, the hidden environmental costs will be passed down to future generations, an expert said Thursday.
Carbon dioxide emission from slash-and-burn land clearing, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, and water pollution represent the major environmental costs of converting the Amazon rain forest into pasture for livestock, according to a recent study by Trucost on behalf of the UN-backed program The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).
Cattle ranchers do not bear the burden of these costs, known as “externalities,” because they take their toll on a large geographical scale over time.
Moreover, the environmental externalities dramatically outweigh the real profits of the livestock industry, said TEEB.
“We estimate the land use impact on ecosystem services from cattle ranching in Colombia at $1.5 billion, around 16 times the sector revenue in this region,” said Alastair MacGregor, chief operating officer at Trucost, in an email to Colombia Reports.
That is to say, the impact of deforestation and cattle ranching in Colombia can be valued at a $1.5 billion per year in the deterioration of goods and services, such as water purification, offered to human society by the ecosystem. Though these goods and services often have no market value, the TEEB study measured them with environmental valuations methods.
“Due to both magnitude of land use for cattle ranching… and the high value of ecosystem services of the virgin land used, the impact of cattle ranching in South America is especially high,” TEEB’s study stated.
“If externalities of cattle ranching were included… hamburgers could cost 18 times as much,” tweeted Pavan Sukhdev, leader of the UN Environmental Program’s Green Economy Initiative.
A policy brief from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) explains the deforestation process as follows: typically roads are cut through virgin forest to create access for the logging and mining industries; with greater accessibility, commercial and subsistence farmers move in and begin growing crops; but the topsoil of the Amazon is thin and nutrient-deficient so it cannot sustain agriculture for more than two or three years; after which, farmers let their fields go fallow and move on, and ranchers move in.
Initial returns for the livestock industry can be high, yet after five to 10 years, overgrazing and nutrient loss turn the land, which was once biologically diverse and crucial to the planet’s carbon cycle, into an eroded wasteland.
Conversion of forest along the agricultural frontier is driven by price incentives. After purchasing inexpensive parcels of low-productivity land on which cattle can survive, ranchers enjoy “economic flexibility and income generating capacity” because capital investment and risk are relatively low compared to raising crops.
“Deforestation causes incalculable environmental damage, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and driving thousands of species of life to extinction each year… In Latin America, in particular, most of the deforested land ended up as pasture used to raise cattle in extensive grazing systems,” the U.N.-backed study found.
On a global scale, deforestation generates a quarter of all human-induced carbon emissions, and contributes to the buildup of greenhouse gases by destroying “carbon sinks” which remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store them.
The “Latifundio” System
Octavio Rodriguez, a consultant in the Colombian office of Conservation International (a U.S.-based nonprofit with more than 30 offices around the world), explained the impacts of cattle ranching in Colombia during an interview with Colombia Reports. Rodriguez highlighted soil degradation and deforestation at the most visible impacts.
The prevailing livestock cultivation system in Colombia, according to Rodriguez, is known as the “latifundio” or extensive system in which cattle roam freely over large parcels of land generating inconsistent revenue.
“It doesn’t generate real revenue,” Rodriguez said. “Instead it’s more of a demonstration of land possession. That’s its function. The cost is really put on the ecosystem, and it can be very high… the costs may be in the millions [of dollars]. In comparison, the occasional revenue of latifundio ranching cannot be very high. Realistically? These people own cattle to demonstrate their dominion over the land.”
When contacted by Colombia Reports, the communications representative for Fedegan, the largest cattle ranchers union in Colombia, refused to comment and hung up the phone.
In addition to soil degradation and deforestation, livestock activities emit considerable amounts of three greenhouse gases: carbon monoxide, methane and nitrous oxide, according to the study, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” by the FAO.
“Belched methane from livestock constitutes one of the largest sources (roughly 30%) of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture,” a Green Peace study found.
According to a 2010 study presented by Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, almost 94 million acres (about the size of Montana) are designated for cattle ranching in Colombia. That is about 33% of the country’s land. Though, the Ministry adds, only half that amount is actually used for livestock.
“Colombian cattle ranching makes extensive use of the land and is technologically behind the times,” the government study stated.
The Ministry of Agriculture, along with many international groups including the FAO, recommends shifting expansive cattle ranching practices towards Silvopastoralism, an integrated approach to ecosystem management. By planting trees, fodder shrubs, and “live fences” in and around pasture, accompanied by other sustainable practices, farmers can increase the quality of their environment and the productivity of their livestock.
Trees and vegetation in the pasture serve as deposits for climate-warming carbon dioxide, and provide a rich habitat for birds, invertebrates and plants, conserving an area’s biodiversity. With more trees a pasture can retain more water which reduces erosion and maintain the quality and flow of water courses. The soil itself recycles nitrogen, providing root systems with nutrients.
The payoff for cattle ranchers can be substantial, according to the FAO study. Silvopasture systems can support more animals per square mile and provide them with a more nutritious diet, and, perhaps most significantly, “better fed livestock produce more milk and meat and higher profits for their owners.”
- Interview with Octavio Rodriguez
- Natural Capital at Risk: The Top 100 Externalities of Business (TEEB)
- Cattle ranching and deforestation (FAO)
- Livestock’s Long Shadow (FAO)
- Amazon Cattle Footprint (Green Peace)
- Una Politica Integral de Tierras para Colombia (Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development)