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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

China Needs a New Type of Livestock Revolution

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While enjoying an impressive increase in meat consumption from 13.4 kilograms per person in 1980 to 53 kilograms in 2004, China is also experiencing the negative impacts of this “livestock revolution,” according to agronomists. When the country introduced livestock factory farms in the late 1970s to meet the rising demand for meat, milk, and eggs, few policymakers foresaw the “serious environmental consequences” of this intensive production system, Cheng Xu, a professor at China Agricultural University and vice-chairman of the Chinese Society of Farming System Research, observed recently.

Speaking in early December at a two-day food conference sponsored by the European Action on Global Life Sciences (EAGLES) in Hangzhou, eastern China, Cheng noted that the large-capacity “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), though highly efficient, “have broken the ecologically benign interlinks between crop cultivation, feedstuff, and manure handling in traditional livestock rearing.”

Cheng’s studies show that by the mid-1990s, such livestock factory farms, non-existent in China before 1979, were able to supply 15 percent of China’s pork, 25 percent of its eggs, 40 percent of its broiler chickens, and 50 percent of its milk. Yet these farms, constructed mostly near large cities, “also produced huge animal wastes, which, mostly discharged untreated, have caused serious pollution to water and air,” Cheng told workshop participants. The event drew more than 30 agronomists from Europe, the United States, China, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

According to presenter Wu Weixiang, associate professor with the Department of Environment Engineering at Zhejiang University, a total of 2.7 billion tons of livestock manure is produced every year across China, an amount 3.4 times the industrial solid waste generated nationwide. “Animal manure has become one of the main pollution sources in China,” he said.

In Zhejiang, Wu noted, the livestock industry, led by some 900 sizable pig, dairy, and chicken farms, produced 26.7 million tons of manure in 2000. This waste contained an estimated 687,000 tons of chemical oxygen demand (COD) and 512,000 tons of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD)—both indexes of water pollution—as well as considerable amounts of other pollutants such as nitrogen, ammonia nitrogen, and phosphorous. “Many of these substances were discharged directly, without any treatment,” Wu observed, adding that “animal manure has been a major contributor to surface water contamination in Zhejiang.”

Professor Cheng Xu, citing findings of a study conducted jointly by Qinghua University and China Agricultural University, said agricultural production accounted for an estimated 70 percent, 60 percent, and 35 percent, respectively, of the total nutrient load (including nitrogen and phosphorus) flowing into the freshwater lakes of Dianchi in Yunnan, Chaohu in Anhui, and Taihu in Jiangsu. The three lakes are among the worst-polluted freshwater lakes in China. “Much of the agricultural pollution should be attributed to livestock excretion,” Cheng said.

In Zhejiang, only 6.2 percent of animal manure is applied to cropland, according to Wu Weixiang. Overall, only about 5 percent of China’s manure is treated, due to limited facilities and treatment capacity. And Cheng noted that of the more than 20,000 livestock factory farms of medium and large size across China, only 3 percent has been equipped with waste treatment facilities.

In light of the many problems caused by factory farms, Cheng echoed the concerns of many international agronomists by pointing to the need to “reflect on the livestock revolution.” He suggested that what China needs is a “new type” of livestock revolution, featuring the full utilization of feedstock resources, the recycling of wastes and other materials, and integrated crop cultivation and animal husbandry, resulting in the production of biogas as a way to close the recycling circle.

Dr. Ge Backus, head of the section market and networks of the Agricultural Economics Research Institute of the Netherlands, offered his country’s experience with environmental management in the livestock industry. Of particular interest to the workshop’s Chinese audience was the 22-year-old Dutch manure policy, which is aimed at reducing nitrate and phosphate leaching from livestock wastes into groundwater, emissions of ammonia and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, and eutrophication of surface waters.

Backus also elaborated on how to develop an effective agro-environmental policy to regulate the livestock industry. “Modern agriculture is causing more environmental problems than industry, but is not as well regulated yet as to the emissions,” he said. “You have to have a sense of urgency to build up a public environmental policy for livestock.”

Several Chinese agronomists attending the EAGLES food workshop are feeling that urgency. “We lack the regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental problems caused by the livestock industry,” said Professor Li Ji, director of the Department of Ecology and Ecological Engineering of China Agricultural University. But Li noted that some big regions, including the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou, and Jiangsu province, have issued policy incentives to encourage farmers to treat animal wastes to alleviate the pollution.

Meanwhile, Chinese researchers have developed several new models of livestock farming, applying integrated technologies for ecological treatment and utilization of animal wastes, which have shown efficiency in removing CODs and BODs. “Environmental problems caused by the livestock industry can be alleviated with integrated technologies,” Wu Weixiang of Zhejiang University said, adding that “economic profits can be obtained from ecological utilization of animal wastes.” Wu has been involved with four such experimental models, and is well aware that the “development of cost-effective treatment systems for livestock wastes plays an important role in pollution control.”

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