Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The Contribution of Animal Health

Published on 26 July 2010 in Climate, water and energy , Food, health and wellbeing



The contribution of agriculture to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and hence the sector’s responsibility to reduce these emissions to help meet national targets has been well publicised. For Scotland, which carries 77% of the UK’s rough grazing, there is particular concern for the emissions from ruminant livestock. This is heightened because ruminants deliver greater emissions of GHGs per unit of product than other agricultural commodities due mainly to enteric methane production. However, it is important to ensure that the most economically efficient ways of reducing GHGs are prioritised. This has been addressed through the use of marginal abatement cost curves (MACC). To date, animal disease prevention and control strategies have not featured in the MACC. This briefing outlines on-going work to address this deficiency and highlights some related research issues that will need to be addressed if animal health is to realise its potential in this area.

Key Points

Climate change may increase the incidence of certain livestock diseases in future by encouraging the spread of pathogens. Increased geographical spread of liver fluke and blue tongue virus (Scottish Government, 2008) are recent weather related developments that are having significant impacts on agriculture. 

Farm animal disease lowers the benefits to society from the food chain in many ways. It causes death/infertility in breeding stock, reduced productivity on the farm, disrupted trade, wastage in food processing/retailing and harm through transmission of disease to people (zoonoses) and wildlife. All these factors reduce efficiency, raising GHGs per unit of product and per unit of resource devoted to livestock farming. Unfortunately the insidious nature of animal disease makes it very difficult to assess the full extent of environmental benefits from animal health. However, what we can do is identify alternative actions to improve animal health and assess their relative economic and environmental impacts.
Most actions to improve farm animal health require investment from farmers. The costs of these investments are clear and often substantial but the benefits must be measured in terms of future disease losses avoided, which may be very difficult to envisage, especially in comparison to alternative investment opportunities. To counter this, Scottish Government (SG) supports research to improve farmers’ understanding of the epidemiology and economics of farm animal disease.

Research Undertaken

SAC’s Rural Policy Centre has produced a summary of the potential impact on GHGs of improvements in specific aspects of cattle and sheep health in Scotland, drawing on work from the SG research programme. Most but not all examples suggest an improvement in farm profit as well as reductions in GHGs (‘win-win’). Savings in GHGs range from about 1% to 5% of current emissions. The report highlights the interconnected nature of diseases and farming systems and the socio-economic barriers to uptake of remedial actions, emphasising the need for a holistic inter-disciplinary approach to research in this field. 

Joint working between the SG research programme and the European research project ‘Paratbtools’ ( using the method of partial equilibrium modelling has shown that improvements in control of Johne’s disease in Scotland’s dairy sector could improve the balance of trade in that sector by over 3% and reduce GHGs by over 1%. Complete eradication of this disease would improve these figures to over 4% and 2% respectively.

Policy Implications

The world-leading Climate Change (Scotland) Act (2009) commits Scotland to an 80% reduction in GHGs by 2050 and 42% by 2020 (Scottish Government, 2010). Better animal health could make an important contribution to these targets and in many cases improve farm profits as well.


Dr Alistair Stott


Climate, water and energy , Food, health and wellbeing

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