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Brazilian cattle ranchers can help curb climate change

Brazil is the world’s leading exporter of beef, making the cattle industry a major part of the country’s economy and an important means of livelihood for many rural communities. However, livestock supply chains are responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and account for over one third of emissions in Latin America, totaling hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 emitted each year.

A new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder and the Climate Policy Initiative has found that providing customized training to Brazilian ranchers could both improve their livelihoods and mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse emissions. 

Through a randomized control trial, the scientists examined whether agricultural extension services could help restore cattle pastures in Brazil (unlike the cattle industry in the U.S., which is dominated by feedlots, almost 90 percent of Brazilian beef is pasture- or grass-raised). They discovered that customized assistance – in addition to educational training – successfully supported ranchers in sustainably increasing their cattle production.

The researchers recruited 1,369 producers from Cerrado in central Brazil, many of whom had never received previous training in sustainable practices. Over 700 of them attended a 56-hour course in practices such as restoration of pastures, rotational grazing, or the use of no-till agriculture, with 311 also receiving technical assistance, consisting of 24 visits (one visit per month for two years) from field technicians who gave them customized advice.

According to the experts, while training alone did not improve any of the measured outcomes, ranchers who also received technical assistance showed statistically significant increases in all of the outcomes. 

“The before and after was amazing,” said study co-author Barbara Farinelli, a senior agricultural economist at The World Bank. “You could see with your eyes the pasture with applied- and non-applied technologies. What’s behind this success is that farmers become the transformational agents for climate goals.”  

“We found that training plus technical assistance had significant impacts on the rate at which farmers restored pasture, on profits, and on carbon sequestration and emissions,” added study co-author Peter Newton, an associate professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The cost-benefit analysis of this program was impressive: incorporating the cost of carbon, the program generated a climate benefit of $47.6 million per year, making it cost effective even if the benefits only lasted for one year.

“There’s broad agreement among global food system scientists that we collectively need to dramatically reduce our consumption of beef. But it seems extremely unlikely that beef consumption is going to end in any near-term future. So, it’s also important to be grazing cattle in ways that have a lower environmental impact. If there are ways of producing meat and animal products in ways that reduce their climate impact, then that’s also a part of the picture, in addition to reducing consumption,” concluded Professor Newton.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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