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Home / Opinion / Views /  Do not ignore livestock's contribution to climate change

India made the right noises at the CoP-26 summit in Glasgow. It pledged to attain net carbon neutrality by 2070, among other noteworthy announcements. However, India was also accused of lobbying for watering down the Glasgow Climate Pact’s language on curbing carbon emissions from coal plants and not committing to a reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions from its burgeoning animal-farming industry.

About 103 countries, including those with huge animal farming sectors like the US, took the Global Methane Pledge, which includes a commitment to reduce emissions of this gas by 30% from 2020 levels by the end of this decade. India did not.

With a livestock count of over half a billion, as per the 20th livestock census of the department of animal husbandry, India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases such as methane, which is produced by ruminant animals and has a significantly higher global-warming potential than carbon dioxide.

India’s official investment site proudly displays the following statistics: “India ranks 1st in cattle and buffalo population and is the largest producer of milk and buffalo meat, 2nd largest producer of goat meat and 3rd largest producer of poultry." Even if we, for a moment, keep aside the magnitude of animal cruelty that these statistics signify, from the perspective of greenhouse emissions and the climate spiral that India is caught in, these are not statistics to be proud of. On the Global Climate Risk Index, 2021, India stands out as an especially vulnerable zone, along with its immediate neighbours.

Two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion-plus population still lives in rural parts of the country. A sizeable number are dependent on animal agriculture (i.e. dairy, poultry and fisheries). The Indian government’s investments also prioritize animal agriculture as a livelihood option. Shifting to alternate means of livelihood that are both viable and sustainable may feel like an uphill task. But we don’t have an option but to find alternatives.

Animal farming will not be sustainable if India continues to rear such a huge population of cattle. Here’s what the statistics show. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, livestock production currently contributes at least 14.5 % of all greenhouse gas emissions. If current production levels continue on the same trajectory, it is expected to account for nearly 81% of emissions, possibly raising global temperatures by 1.5° Celsius by 2050. That will give our generation a front-and-centre view of a real-life doomsday scenario. Devastating floods, droughts, forest fires may all occur more frequently than ever. We are already seeing signs of this around us.

Just last year, India announced a 15,000-crore Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Development Fund, in addition to the Dairy Infrastructure Development Fund launched in 2018 to incentivize investment by the cooperative sector for the development of dairy infrastructure. In February 2020, the government announced a 4,585-crore scheme for dairy farming.

India’s global pronouncements are not in keeping with its domestic policies. The Indian contingent at CoP-26 defended India’s wordplay on a “phase-down" of coal by highlighting the country’s commitment to poverty eradication. But the very section of our population that is most vulnerable to the effects of poverty will also be the worst affected by climate change. Therefore, large investments aimed at boosting animal agriculture that will aggravate climate change are indefensible.

South Asia is currently blazing red on the Global Climate Risk Index and the region’s governments must recognize that apart from coal and fossil fuels, animal agriculture is central to the global discussion on climate change. We should transition from an economy that emphasizes animal-agriculture to one that promotes a lifestyle and diet based on plant nutrients. Of course, the whole world has to recognize this, and much of the developed world is not even talking about ending animal agriculture. But India could lead this conversation.

Research by reputed institutes like the University of Oxford indicates that a shift to a plant-based diet could free up 75% of agricultural land. Raising crops only for human use may boost available food calories by up to 70%, effectively feeding 4 billion people. Our huge population is a strain on the limited resources we have, and so depending on animal-based sources of food such as milk is not a solution. Note that India did not join the global coalition of 130 countries to reverse deforestation. Indeed, it cannot. Not unless the country confronts its domestic livelihood policy squarely.

India should envision a food system transition policy to help us grow and consume food differently. Instead of working in silos, India must develop a comprehensive policy that moves farmers to sustainable modes of plant-based food production, diverts subsidies from industrial livestock production and its associated inputs, and looks at job creation, social justice, poverty reduction, animal protection and better public health as multiple aspects of a single solution.

One sun, one world, one grid. This is the grand vision of the Green Grids Initiative, launched by India along with the UK at CoP- 26. India perhaps needs to look within. The country may discover that solutions to problems of poverty and climate change lie in ‘one justice’: for humans, for animals, and for the planet as a whole.

Bharati Ramachandran is the chief executive officer of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO)

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