Costa Rica: balancing environmental impacts and socio-economic performance of the livestock sector


By Mauricio Chacón Navarro, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Production of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a country located in Central America with an area of ​​51,100 km2 and a population of nearly 5 million inhabitants. With a wide diversity in agro-ecological conditions and landscapes, 25 percent of its surface is designated for the conservation of different types of forest, 47 percent of the land, for agricultural use. Of these, half is for livestock farms. Thanks to the national parks and conservation areas, and the context-specific agricultural production systems, forest covers 52 percent of its territory. This condition allows the country to host 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity while producing high-quality food to supply the domestic market and to compete successfully in international markets.

The pathway towards sustainable livestock

In the first half of the previous century, Costa Rica was characterized by a livestock model based on the conversion of forest land to pasture, with extensive management, low productivity, poorly-integrated value chains, and limited sectoral revenues.

Between 1980 and 2000, both a meat market crisis and substantive changes in economic and environmental policies caused the transformation in the livestock sector. The Forest Law approved at that time brought together two essential elements: it created the Payments for Environmental Services (PES) scheme and prohibited land-use change. The enforcement of this law led to economic structural changes in the production model, and an aggressive opening to export began. The dairy sector tended to specialize, integrated the value chain, and increased its products’ variety and quality. The meat sector showed a similar trend but at a slower rate. As a result, there was an increase in forest areas and an intensification of the country’s livestock load. Parallel to this, the absolute market value relative to all livestock goods showed a significant growth within the national GDP.

Today, livestock has an impact on the national economy, given the many interlinkages of production at the local and national level. According to some studies by the University of Costa Rica, 96 economic activities depend on livestock for their production inputs, while the livestock sector receive goods and services from 39 economic activities. Livestock supplies the national market, which has a per capita consumption of 14.4 kg meat, 212 kg/year of milk equivalent, and exports around USD 140 million annually to international markets. The current livestock model aims to achieve sustainable intensification, production cost reduction, and better management with a “One Health” approach.

National low-carbon livestock strategy: a new specialized approach

Costa Rica is committed to mitigating and adapting to climate change. One of the country's strategic objectives is to turn its economy low-carbon. The national livestock strategy looks into the many facets of sustainability with a climate emphasis. The strategy aims to create political, economic, and technological conditions to enable Costa Rican ranchers to achieve higher productivity and profitability while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per unit of product and maximizing carbon sequestration per hectare. The decoupling of sectoral GDP from the value chain emissions is the national livestock model’s guiding principle.

The implementation of policies occurs at the value chain level and as a priority at the farm level. The decarbonization of livestock is linked to greater efficiency in the chain by increasing value and improving efficiency at the farm level. Since 2015, Costa Rica implements a Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMAs) with national coverage through a sectoral approach to generate evidence. Based on the carbon neutrality country initiative, this proposal aims at economic efficiency, adaptation, and mitigation to climate change, and environmental benefits.

The Livestock NAMA completed its pilot phase after successfully assessing and monitoring 141 farms’ performance deemed representative of the main production systems. The results, stretching from zootechnical production data to profitability, and balance between emissions and removals of GHGs, allowed to validate the approach and go for a broader application involving 750 farms (i.e., 5 percent of the total farms in Costa Rica) as part of the first scaling-up effort. By 2030, Costa Rica expects to advance further with the model’s application and reach 27 percent of the country's farms. The program focuses on precision grazing and silvopastoral systems, improved pastures quality, soil carbon storage, and encourages efficient use of water and better livestock feeding practices.

Baseline studies of GHG emissions and carbon sequestration indicate that farm systems currently offset 70 percent of their GHG emissions from livestock. It is estimated that the selected measures’ uptake reduces the emissions intensity from 18 to 25 percent overall (business of the selected measures -as-usual scenario).

Livestock performance assessment and new tools

Decarbonization is a consequence of applying a sustainable livestock model; still, to demonstrate the results, it requires methodologies to measure the economic performance and the environmental performance looking into GHGs, soil, biodiversity, and water.

The country is currently working on the consolidation of the National System for Monitoring Land Cover, Land Use and Ecosystems (SIMOCUTE), making use of the FAO LEAP guidelines on soil carbon stocksand stock changes to assess the livestock component. SIMOCUTE is linked to the Recarbonization of Global Soils (RECSOIL) and the new PES scheme that seeks to pay back those farmers working with the better agricultural practices for soil carbon sequestration, monitored using the FAO LEAP guidelines.