Interview with Dr. Muhammad Ibrahim, leader of the Livestock and Environmental Management program (GAMMA) at Costa Rica’s Tropical Agricultural and Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE)

Interview by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance

“I want to show the world that in Latin America, you can have a holistic approach to livestock production that is sustainable and conserves the environment, and that cattle ranches play an important role in producing ecosystem services and ensuring the well-being of rural populations.”

For decades, livestock production has had a bad reputation rooted in its negative environmental impacts — it is one of the main causes of deforestation, as 26% of the Earth’s land surface is dedicated to pasture. Moreover, a debate recently began regarding its contribution to climate change when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that cattle are responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions.

With support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in 2010 the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and the Livestock and Environmental Management Program (GAMMA) of Costa Rica’s Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) launched the Standard for Sustainable Cattle Production Systems, an innovative tool to promote economically viable cattle production that is compatible with biodiversity conservation and the well-being of both the workers and animals.

The new Sustainable Agriculture Network standards will help cattle ranchers implement best environmental, social, and animal welfare practices and to voluntarily pursue Rainforest Alliance certification.

Dr. Muhammad Ibrahim - Photo by CATIE

Dr. Muhammad Ibrahim, leader of GAMMA, talked with us about the scope of the standards and the transformation they expect to stimulate in the cattle production sector. With 20 years of experience researching ranching systems in Latin America, he played a fundamental role in the creation of these standards.

Question: What is CATIE doing with regards to cattle production?

Ibrahim: CATIE has worked in this field since the 1980s, when the extensive tropical livestock production sector began. However, in subsequent years, the negative association of cattle production with deforestation began, which led to a loss of funding for research and forced a revision of our approach. We knew that we had to reduce the negative effects of cattle production on natural resources such as deforestation, water pollution, and biodiversity loss, so we started to focus on sustainable livestock production that is more in harmony with natural resources.

We work in countries where cattle production predominates such as Colombia, Ecuador, and in Mesoamerica from Mexico to Panama. We investigate the benefits of silvopastoral systems and sustainable cattle production and are seeking improvements in cattle feed, biodiversity and water conservation, and carbon sequestration. All of this knowledge is being used by decision-makers to develop policy and formulate projects for sustainable livestock production.

Q: How did CATIE and GAMMA participate in the creation of the Sustainable Agriculture Network standards for sustainable cattle production?

IbCows - Photo by Rainforest Alliancerahim: The SAN approached us in 2007, and, to be honest, I wondered, “How are we going to set standards?” It was thanks to the persistence and motivation of another GAMMA researcher, Claudia Sepúlveda, who urged us to participate in the project. We contributed technical and scientific guidelines with information on productive, environmental, social, and animal welfare criteria based on our research; consensus was reached through workshops with SAN partners and producers from the region. We participated in meetings of the International Standards Committee, in public consultations, and, finally, in the publication and dissemination of the standards. Today, we are continuing to work together on their implementation.

Q: What are the key negative aspects of cattle production that the standards aim to improve?

Ibrahim: Continually advancing deforestation due to cattle ranching, which is very obvious in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon. This is associated with land degradation caused by overgrazing and the use of unsustainable production models based on monoculture pastures, which lead to clearing more forests for new pasturelands. Other aspects are watershed pollution and river sedimentation due to poor production practices and the loss of biodiversity. Moreover, cows have a digestive system that generates 18 to 20% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Q: How can the SAN standards help mitigate this gas emission problem?

Ibrahim: The standards incorporate the principle of “reducing the carbon footprint,” which promotes the use of native plants to feed cattle, along with better foraging systems such as the ones we have developed at CATIE using shrub species that are more nutritious than the usual grass species. We also promote on-farm reforestation and improved pasture management. In our projects, these practices have reduced methane emissions by 30 to 40% during digestion, increased carbon removal through woody vegetation, and even increased milk production and animal weight, which means that more meat and milk are being produced per kilogram of methane emitteRainforest Alliance Certifiedd.

In reducing emissions with better feed and by sequestering more carbon using enhanced silvopastoral systems, these practices could also help farms become carbon-neutral, meaning that the amount of emissions from their cattle are mitigated by the amount of carbon fixed, creating a balance.

Q: Some of the farms that adopt the SAN standards may also seek certification. How is a Rainforest Alliance Certified™ cattle farm different from a non-certified one?

Ibrahim: In meeting all the criteria of the standards, a certified farm is going to have many more trees and plant species than a traditional farm that has monocultures and degraded lands. It will have a reduced carbon footprint, whereas a traditional farm has high gas emissions and little carbon sequestration. A certified farm does not pollute aquifers and has better water quality and other resources. By improving production efficiency, a certified farm has higher, more stable income, which improves the livelihoods of workers. Moreover, animals are treated better on certified farms than on traditional ones.

Q: Have cattle ranchers been receptive?

Ibrahim: It has been well accepted in all of the countries where we work. At the end of a presentation I gave to the CORFOGA livestock production firm in Costa Rica, most of the questions had to do with when the first certified farms and certified livestock products would be on the market. Furthermore, we are already promoting a silvopastoral system project using the standards in the state of Acre, Brazil, which is very interested in achieving sustainable production and halting its high deforestation rates and gas emissions from cattle production.

Q: Have other institutions or NGOs developed similar sustainable livestock production initiatives?

Ibrahim: There have been organic milk production initiatives in Argentina and Mexico, but the idea of sustainable livestock production is more recent and really first appeared with the SAN standards.

Q: Is there a niche market for certified sustainable livestock products?

Ibrahim: With funding from the World Bank, CATIE did a study of market trends for certified livestock products, taking into account the differentiated meat and milk supplies and consumer Bull - Photo by Rainforest Alliancedemand in countries such as the Netherlands, Japan, and Costa Rica. One result showed that consumers are paying attention to two main criteria: food safety and environmental protection. Improving livestock production, whether by organic or sustainable means, is a very important and new topic in the market.

Q: When will the first farm be certified?

Ibrahim: There aren’t any certified farms as of yet. However, several farms have expressed interest in becoming certified. It is hard to say when we will see that first certified farm, but I think that it could happen in the medium-term.

The GAMMA program has studied farms in Costa Rica and Nicaragua to determine the current degree of compliance with the standards and the results are encouraging, with compliance levels of up to 80%. Moreover, work is already being done with CATIE’s commercial farm to attain certification under the SAN standards for its milk production.

Q: What is the greatest challenge for the sustainable cattle production standards?

Ibrahim: The big task is only just beginning with the publication of the standards. To do the work and take advantage of the enthusiasm there is now, we need a post-launch plan that outlines how we are going to focus on the market and get the first farms certified. For the standards to be effective, we also have to share them with the public and inform regional authorities, the private sector, and consumers. And obviously we still need a strategy for donors, transnational and national markets, and producer associations.

Q: After 20 years of work, what keeps you interested in sustainable cattle production?

Ibrahim: My motivation is that cattle ranchers have been wrongfully accused of destroying forests in recent decades, when the true culprits are policy and the decision-makers who promoted land tenure and credit models that caused environmental destruction. I want to show the world that in Latin America, you can have a holistic approach to livestock production that is sustainable and conserves the environment, and that cattle ranches play an important role in producing ecosystem services and ensuring the well-being of rural populations. Thanks to my relationship with professors, students, producers, and people in the field, I began to think that working in alliance with different institutions and stakeholders in cattle production, climate change, biodiversity, and conservation makes change possible.

This is a proud moment for CATIE and it is an honor to combine all of GAMMA’s years of work and research with the SAN initiative and to know that all the institution’s knowledge will have a real impact when the standards are applied.

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