Sustainable futures for the Costa Rica dairy sector: optimising environmental and economic outcomes

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: Sch of Environment and Natural Resources

Abstract

Expansion of poor quality and low productivity pasture livestock production in Central and Southern America is a major cause of deforestation, and leads to significant environmental pressures including loss of natural capital, air and water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Trade liberalization is causing major structural changes to livestock sectors in Central American countries, with profound implications for the livelihoods of farmers and rural communities, land use policy objectives, climate change, air and water quality, and for other sectors such as tourism that are reliant on natural resources. In this multi-actor, proof of concept project we will integrate measurement and mined data to model a range of scenarios of potential transitions for the dairy sector in Costa Rica, in order to propose promising pathways of sustainable intensification for the dairy and wider land use sectors that balance socio-economic and environmental outcomes.

In this proposal we bring together an interdisciplinary team of researchers with proven expertise of delivering evidence that supports development of practical and cost-effective strategies for livestock production. The project consortium is complemented by a key industrial collaborator in Costa Rica that dominates the dairy sector, accounting for >80% of the dairy processing, and a stakeholder group comprising policy makers for agriculture and environment, other agriculture industry sector bodies, and farmers. Our joint expertise includes soil science; measurements and mitigation of diffuse pollutants to air and water; carbon footprinting and life cycle assessment; agroforestry and livestock production; socio-economics; agricultural economics and extension, and policy formulation. This unique blend of skills is essential to deliver our objectives and to meet GCRF and ODA goals, and to build the interdisciplinary capacity needed to deliver holistic solutions to promote sustainable land use for future livestock production in Central American LMIC countries.

The main aim of this project is to develop sustainable futures for food production in the tropics, using the Costa Rican dairy sector as a case study. The approach we develop will be an exemplar that can be rolled out to other agricultural sectors, to other Central American countries and beyond. To achieve this, the project team will collate existing data of trends in livestock numbers, sectoral greenhouse gas emissions, and other information on energy, water, tree-pasture-animal relations, genetics, and nutrient inputs and outputs, and determine their robustness and suitability for the models the project will develop. We will adopt the best protocols for measuring greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions to air, and nitrate and phosphorus losses to water, on the CATIE dairy farm, and then apply these protocols to three commercial dairy farms of various scales, along an intensification gradient. To build the legacy of the project, we will train Costa Rican and other Central American researchers in a range of diffuse pollution measurement methodologies, as well as in carbon foot-printing, LCA and farm-scale modelling.

Mined and measured data will be used to calculate environmental and economic balances for the CATIE and three commercial dairy farming systems (and their products), and model sensitivity to specific management practices and technologies that would be representative of trends in intensification, as well as explore more sustainable intensification strategies. The measured and modelled data will then be used to scale up and assess the potential trade-offs and synergies for specific dairy development pathways between environmental and productive/economic goals at the national and global level. These findings will be used to advise key actors (Ministries of Agriculture and Environment & Energy, National Milk Chamber - CNPL), via a final Workshop in Costa Rica at the end of the project.

Technical Summary

The aim of this project is to develop sustainable futures for food production in the tropics, using the Costa Rican dairy sector as a case study. Expansion of poor quality and low productivity pasture livestock production in Central and Southern America is a major cause of deforestation, and leads to significant environmental pressures including loss of natural capital, water and air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. Trade liberalization is causing major structural changes to livestock sectors in Central American countries, with profound implications for the livelihoods of farmers and rural communities, land use policy objectives, climate change, air and water quality, and for other sectors that are reliant on natural resources (tourism). Hence there is a policy imperative to understand the socio-economic and environmental consequences of alternative sustainable intensification (SI) pathways that will deliver both economic prosperity for the dairy industry (farmers and processors) whilst ensuring environmental targets (e.g. carbon neutrality) can be reached. In this multi-actor, proof of concept project we will integrate measurements and mined data to model a range of scenarios of potential transitions for the dairy sector in Costa Rica, in order to propose promising pathways of sustainable intensification for the dairy and wider land use sectors that balance socio-economic and environmental outcomes. The approach we develop will be an exemplar that can be rolled out to other agricultural sectors, to other Central American LMIC countries and beyond. To build the legacy of the project, we will train Costa Rican and other Central American researchers in a range of diffuse pollution measurement methods, as well as in carbon foot-printing, LCA and farm-scale modelling. Project findings will be used to advise key actors (Ministries of Agriculture and Environment & Energy, National Milk Chamber, and the major Dairy cooperative in Costa Rica), via Workshops.

Planned Impact

Policy beneficiaries: Costa Rican dairy production has a high ecological impact, expressed as carbon, nutrient and water footprints at the product and sectoral level - driving climate change and impacting on air and water quality and human health. The sector is under economic pressure to consolidate following regional trade liberalisation, pressure to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions owing to a national carbon neutrality target, and pressure to maintain good air and water quality from the country's important eco-tourism sector. Some of these pressures may pull the sector in different directions, and there is concern about the impact of structural change (e.g. farm technological development) on rural livelihoods. Thus, there is a policy imperative to understand the socio-economic and environmental consequences of alternative sustainable intensification (SI) pathways, and specific "Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions" (NAMA) proposed for the sector. This project will address that imperative through research, outreach and capacity building via a consortium of UK and Costa Rican academic organisations and the main Costa Rican dairy cooperative, and by working with key actors such as the Costa Rican Ministry of Agriculture, Environment & Energy and the National Milk Chamber (CNPL) via workshops. Through training in critical farm measurement and modelling approaches, the project will provide an exemplar of dairy SI evaluation and promotion that can be rolled out to other agricultural sectors and to other Central American countries and beyond, addressing GCRF and ODA objectives of strengthening resilience and response to crises, and promoting global prosperity.

Farmer/industry beneficiaries: The project will provide blueprinte for SI of the Costa Rican dairy sector that balances socio-economic and environmental outcomes, safe guarding rural livelihoods. Through a legacy of ongoing research, development and outreach this will be of benefit to farmers, farm suppliers, processors and cooperatives such as Dos Pinos throughout Latin America, and indeed across tropical livestock systems in other regions. The identification of effective NAMA options will also encourage markets in the associated consumables (e.g. seeds and fertiliser products for improved pastures, saplings for agro-forestry) and equipment (e.g. low-emission manure spreaders, biogas infrastructure). Costa Rica has a lucrative eco-tourism sector dependent on its image as a clean, green destination. By identifying SI development pathways and mitigation options for agriculture that minimise air and water pollution, the project will help safe guard the income and livelihoods that depend on tourism, and other sectors deriving value from natural resources.

Academic beneficiaries: Recent studies have quantified environmental footprints of dairy systems in industrialised countries, but there has been little focus on tropical dairy systems, nor on the evaluation of environmental consequences (vs static footprints) arising from structural changes to sector. The Costa Rican dairy sector represents a convenient microcosm and timely focal point for the application of consequential life cycle assessment (CLCA) to evaluate current footprints and environmental consequences associated with alternative SI pathways. The project will synthesise existing data and start to fill key gaps through field measurements, providing an evidence base for future research on tropical dairy (and beef) systems. The modelling approach will generate new data of relevance to a wide academic audience looking at SI, whilst also highlighting key data gaps (e.g. tropical/regional emission factors) that will need to be addressed in future field research to accurately evaluate environmental footprints of tropical livestock production. Similarly, the modelling will highlight key socio-economic data requirements for comprehensive SI evaluation, informing future researchers and proposals.

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