Some of Latin America's major cattle-producing countries will begin working as a team in 2011 to quantify the greenhouse-effect gas emissions from their bovine industry -- and to come up with options for reducing them.
This news comes just as the 16th Conference of Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is under way in Mexico's Caribbean resort city of Cancún.
The planned consortium, made up of scientists from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic and Uruguay, was selected to receive financing from FONTAGRO (Regional Fund for Agricultural Technology).
The fund, whose members include 14 Latin American countries and Spain, issued a call for proposals for mitigation and adaptation to climate change and for strengthening food security.
The winner was a proposal called "Climate Change and Cattle: Quantification and Options for Mitigation of Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Pastured Cattle."
The project will begin by measuring methane using a conventional technique and another more elaborate approach, developed in Argentina, in order to compare the two, according to project coordinator Verónica Ciganda, a Uruguayan agricultural engineer.
Latin America produces just 11.7 percent of the world's climate-changing gas emissions, like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, among others.
But a look at the origin of South American emissions finds that most come from rural activities. In Argentina, livestock produces 41 percent of the country's emissions, while in Brazil it is 56 percent, Uruguay 78 percent, and Paraguay 97 percent, according to a study by Argentina's National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA).
Within the agricultural sector, it is cattle production that generates most emissions. In South America there are 312 million head of cattle -- more than 31 percent of the global total.
Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is generated in the digestive process of ruminant livestock, as the feed ferments. The gas is released into the atmosphere through cattle exhalation and belching, and in the anaerobic decomposition of the manure.
The principal source of nitrous oxide, meanwhile, is cattle urine. To measure it, the scientists will use closed flow chambers in which urine is treated with a known concentration of nitrogen to then measure the emissions of this gas.
Although the quantity of animal-origin nitrous oxide is less than that of methane, its relative contribution to climate warming is greater.
The region's challenge is to reduce emissions while maintaining its competitive edge in the agricultural sector, especially in the production of foods like beef and milk.
Once the measurement phase is done, the experts will study the results to determine how they can reduce greenhouse emissions caused by cattle, said Ciganda, who works at Uruguay's National Institute for Agricultural Research (INIA).
For example, the scientists may focus on a balanced diet for the cattle, better pastures, genetic improvement of cattle species and more efficient sanitary regulations.
"There are pastures that have more tannins and less fibre, and that is better for curbing methane emissions, but we have to be careful that in reducing the production of some gases that we don't increase others," Ciganda told Tierramérica.
The hypothesis is that nitrous oxide emissions are low, she said, but if the results of the measurements show them to be higher, then the experts will also have to work on the livestock's diet.
The research will take place in different areas of production, whether in corrals or open fields, where feeding can vary widely. The study will also try to determine how different types of forage affect the production of greenhouse gas emissions.
The project will put to the test a new and more precise methodology for measuring methane emissions, veterinarian Guillermo Berra, head of the Argentine section, told Tierramérica.
Three years ago, at the INTA's Patho-Biology Institute, Berra began using a device that is set up on individual animals to measure emissions.
The device, attached using a harness, has a system of tubes that run to the rumen, the first digestive chamber in the cow, where a flow sensor registers the volume of gas emitted.
The sensor sends an electronic signal via Internet to a computer to record the emissions. The method was proven in tests by several INTA units, and in 2011 will be implemented in a systematic way.
Berra noted that the greenhouse gas emissions reports that are presented periodically by the member countries of the Convention on Climate Change are "estimates, not measurements."
The regional project is aiming for concrete measurements, which are essential for progress towards mitigating climate change. "In order to reduce emissions, we have to begin with very clear measurements," said the veterinarian.
In the view of Edgar Cárdenas, professor at the National University of Colombia's school of veterinary medicine, the project will establish a baseline for international negotiations on milk and beef. Until now, he said, those emissions estimates put the blame on cattle-producing countries in international markets and hurt their exports.
Latin America is not included in Annex I of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which lists the specific emissions-reduction targets of the industrialised countries.
But the first period of obligations established by the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end in 2012, and in the talks taking place in Cancún (Nov. 29 to Dec. 10) there is growing pressure on the industrialised North to expand reduction commitments to the larger developing countries, like Brazil, the world's second largest beef producer, and first in beef exports.
Emissions mitigation options are under discussion across the region, but with care to ensure that they do not undermine livestock production, said Berra.
"It is extremely important to defend emissions reduction per unit of production, for example, per kilo of beef or litre of milk. If they demand an absolute reduction of emissions, it could lead to a decline in production," he warned.
The project also seeks to improve the consortium countries' position on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the United Nations to review and synthesise the most advanced climate science.
The experts hope to achieve this through the quantification of methane and nitrous oxide emissions of pastured cattle and determining the options for their mitigation in each of the countries.
To do so, in addition to the financing from FONTAGRO, sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank, the project will have backing from the government of New Zealand, said Ciganda.