Meat and climate action: Nuances about Costa Rican Cattle

Reviewing our ecological footprint is a path full of satisfaction and frustration. Our environment favors consumer-based climate action, that is, decisions about our individual lifestyle, such as rejecting certain products or modifying our diet.

Picture of people talking about NAMA in a pasture.
Photo: Facebook Estrategia Ganadera Baja en Carbono.

Reducing red meat consumption is actually one of those personal changes that are globally recognized. There is strong scientific support that links diets to human health and sustainability with climate change, and that consuming less animal protein contributes to significantly reducing agriculture’s pressure on the environment.

Of course, a large sector of people who do not consume animal-derived food does so with other considerations, not just environmental ones. That will not be discussed in this article.

What is not so common is to have dialogues on reducing the red meat consumption for climate reasons, based on contextualized information. The impacts of animal husbandry are usually illustrated with global data, distorted by the exorbitant, inefficient, and unnecessary consumption of animal protein by countries in the Global North. Therefore, the reaction is understandable.

But does our reality respond to that? Is the debate completely closed?

Picture of a cattle pasture with a forest in the back.
Photo: Facebook Estrategia Ganadera Baja en Carbono.

Between the pasture’s imaginary and climatic figures

The environmental, economic, and cultural impacts of cattle in Costa Rica can be traced back to the 16th century. There is a long history of crossing animal varieties and introducing pastures, as well as international trading. This process was not spontaneous or sudden but guided by state policies, and by the population’s own food changes.

From 2016 to 2019, per capita, the apparent consumption of beef was 14 kg per year. A 2017 study shows that almost nine out of 10 households eat it regularly, typically once or twice a week. It is shown that those who reduced their consumption, in general, were older adults, mainly for health and financial reasons.

Most meat products consumed in Costa Rica are grown locally. The country has achieved self-sufficiency in internal supply production since 1940. Almost 70 percent of those consulted in the aforementioned study stated that they had not consumed imported beef in the last twelve months.

Despite the clear economic importance of this activity and the complexity of its historical background, there is little that an untrained eye could affirm just by appreciating the typical livestock landscape, perhaps because as Costa Ricans, we have internalized certain pastoral imagery.

If we look closer, a Costa Rican pasture is more than just a “container” for cows. It has at least living fences and trees, and perhaps a small river, soil, and grass. This green cover, in principle, favors landscape and forest patches connectivity. The quality of this ecosystem service depends on the degree of biodiversity at the property. If we look away, we will see that almost 20 percent of the national territory are pastures with a large number of scattered trees.

Picture of a tree with a tag stating NAMA
Photo: Facebook Estrategia Ganadera Baja en Carbono.

Current panorama of livestock

It is true that livestock is responsible for about 23 percent of the country’s gross greenhouse gas emissions. In this sense, livestock is a significant contributor to climate change. However, Costa Rican livestock production captures more carbon dioxide than it emits, and therefore, is carbon positive.

Forests are essential for mitigation. Costa Rica has 25 percent of its territory set aside under the National System of Conservation Areas. However, it is not very well known that 18 percent of the national forest territory is managed by ranchers. Secondary forest and isolated trees from farms sequester almost 70 percent of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions.

In recent years, there have been important changes such as the reduction of the total area in pastures due to the advance of other crops such as pineapple, oil palm, and sugar cane, as well as the transfer of pasture areas to the growing forest. Furthermore, the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock has intentionally set out to reduce the total area of ​​pasture at an annual rate of one percent.

In other words, current data suggests that Costa Rica, at least as long as current demand is maintained, has a contrary trend to that which worries climate activists globally in terms of land-use change.

In addition, approximately 95 percent of farms use grass-fed raising techniques where the animals feed on the forage available in the paddocks. However, there are some very important challenges, because almost 97 percent of the farms do not treat the solid and liquid waste generated by the activity. In some cases, this has led to criminal complaints about appropriation and contamination of water sources.

In the framework of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, a voluntary mechanism was created for countries to join global mitigation goals, according to their own technical abilities and capacities. These Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions are more commonly known as NAMAs.

Costa Rica has its Livestock NAMA, which is the operational arm of the 2015 Low Carbon Livestock Strategy. It has promoted technologies to reduce emissions and costs, increasing productivity. For example, rotational grazing, fencing small areas, planting better pastures, using live fences, protecting water sources, and adapted genetics. Emphasis is also placed on processes that are more focused on animal welfare, such as reducing stress by providing shade, higher quality food, and nearby water sources.

Informed participation is key

The debate should not be completely closed. Without a doubt, the fight against climate change and the search for climate justice must consider the transformation of our agri-food systems. But climate activists in Costa Rica have a debt to the rural areas. Having a better understanding of where we have advanced and where our main challenges lie will be a tool to make our advocacy more precise and more powerful.

Beyond our personal food preferences, we must remain committed to climate action based on scientific evidence. Even though at a productive level, livestock farming in Costa Rica has experienced a significant contraction in the last thirty years, a considerable portion of the Costa Rican population will not replace its consumption of meat in the coming years, nor will an elimination from the national meat chain (pre-production, primary production, agro-industry, market, and commercialization) will be viable for the economy.

So what transformations could we look for? In our next submission, we will explore alternatives for the co-existence of rural livelihoods and climate action with high scientific and peasant movement support.

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