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Methane emissions and Asia: Ensuring food sustainability, security

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Curbing methane emissions is critical to reaching net-zero, but we mustn’t ignore the vital role that animal protein plays in feeding the world.

By Pushpanathan Sundram, PublicPolicyAsia Advisors

On the sidelines of the high stakes COP26, well-known personalities such as Prince Charles, Leonardo Di Caprio, and Sir David Attenborough were calling attention to a straightforward action to save the world – by reducing the world’s meat and dairy consumption. According to them, this action is key to saving the planet as it will lower the production and release of methane into the atmosphere.

Curbing methane emissions is critical to reaching net-zero, but we mustn’t ignore the vital role that animal protein plays in providing an essential source of healthy nutrition at affordable prices to the developing regions. This includes Asia, where more than half of the undernourished lives.

Asia is expected to lead the global consumption of meat and dairy products in the next decade as the population grows, disposable income rises, and urbanization expands.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations’ analysis warns that the pathways to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees must be accompanied by deep reductions in methane emissions. Out of the five key industries which emit the highest amount of methane - oil and gas, coal, agriculture, solid waste, and wastewater – the agriculture sector, which includes livestock production, rice cultivation, and biomass burning, makes up about 40 – 50% of global methane emissions.

Science and technologies needs to drive sustainability

To be sustainable, Asia’s growing consumption of meat and dairy products needs to be guided by science. The region needs to develop technologies that will lower the industry’s methane emissions. Most greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are non-CO2 gases such as methane which is short-lived, staying in the atmosphere for about 12 years. Therefore, reducing methane emissions should be a priority. It will have a more immediate impact on the temperature than gases like CO2, which could stay in the atmosphere for a thousand years.

In addition, as most of Asia’s demand for meat and dairy is expected to be imported from overseas, import regulations will also need to be updated to reflect the new sustainability goals. Trade should continue to be one key element of sustainable food systems so that those countries that can produce livestock and dairy products more sustainably and at affordable prices can support the nutritional needs and food security of those countries that are not.

Fortunately, the science to tackle agriculture’s environmental footprint is already present. According to a McKinsey report, the first step to reducing emissions from agriculture is to produce food as efficiently as possible. To this end, a set of proven GHG-efficient farming technologies and practices—which are being deployed—could achieve about 20 per cent of the sector’s required emissions reduction by 2050.

For example, dairy farms in California are using dairy digesters to reduce livestock manure emissions. Between 2015 to 2020, they estimate that it had reduced an estimated 2.2 million metric tons of GHG per year, equivalent to emissions from 460,000 cars on the road.

Similarly, Asia has made some inroads to reduce emissions. For example, in India, local start-up Stellapps received funding to develop an automatic milk production management system called “SmartMoo”. The system uses IoT technology to optimize the milk production, procurement, and cold chain process. Not only does this increase efficiency and profits for small-scale local farmers, but it also maximizes resources and shortens the supply chain from producer to consumer, contributing to lower environmental impact. 

Financing sustainability initiatives

The global methane pledge signed by more than 100 countries at the COP26 presents a perfect opportunity to start collaborations and investments in technologies that will revamp the current food and agricultural system.

It was also apparent at the conference that CEOs were eager to do more to push for quicker climate action as there is a growing understanding that climate risks will threaten their business continuity and competitive advantage. On the other hand, Asian governments had repeatedly raised the issue of finance to be the critical impediment for more ambitious sustainability goals. Therefore, it will be advantageous for both sides if governments can incentivize businesses to invest in actionable sustainability initiatives.

For example, Thailand’s Bio, Circular and Green (BCG) Economic model provides incentives such as tax reliefs for businesses that invest in technologies to increase farm productivity. There is also a focus on developing more plant-based meat and dairy products to meet local and export demand.

In the 21st century, a successful and resilient business will be defined by its ability to provide long-term value for its stakeholders, not just shareholders. In fact, businesses are expected to play a key role in financing sustainability initiatives.

A survey conducted by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) found that the majority of the respondents from various sectors in ASEAN expect businesses to bear the costs for climate change mitigation measures and adoption of green practices. The region’s sustainability agenda is thus an opportunity for businesses to demonstrate their value to governments and consumers alike through their commitment to reducing their products’ carbon footprint.

As executive director of the UN Global Compact Network, Faroze Nadar notes, “Moving forward [from the COP26], climate credentials may be the third consideration beyond price and quality, and this will result in a changed rule of engagement for global suppliers.” Businesses, therefore, cannot afford to slack on their sustainability commitments and implementation.

Integrated and cross-cutting solutions needed

Nonetheless, we will only be addressing part of the problem if we overly focus on the meat and dairy industries. Therefore, it is also necessary to reduce emissions from other sectors such as oil, coal, gas, and transportation.

We need to build on the collaborative opportunities at the COP26 and develop integrated and cross-cutting solutions across industries. Only in this way can we re-work the food systems to solve the issue of methane emissions into the atmosphere and guarantee the future of global food security and sustainability.

Pushpanathan Sundram is the CEO of PublicPolicyAsia Advisors, a premier business advisory firm in Singapore with expertise in food and agriculture issues in emerging Asian markets. He was the former Deputy Secretary-General of ASEAN.

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