A Soviet cow-fattening complex pictured in 1982.Credit: Nikolai Akimov/TASS
by Quirin Schiermeier
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a huge drop in greenhouse-gas emissions because the resulting economic crisis meant many people stopped eating meat.
Meat from domestic livestock farming was a main food staple during communist rule in the region. In 1990, Soviet citizens each consumed an average 32 kilograms of beef a year — 27% more than Western Europeans and four times more than the global average at the time.
But meat demand and livestock production in the region fell drastically when the prices of everyday consumer products soared and the purchasing power of the rouble dwindled in the post-communist economic crisis. An estimated one-third of late-Soviet cropland has been abandoned since.
These changes in the food and agriculture system in the former Soviet nations resulted in a net reduction of 7.6 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases in carbon dioxide equivalent from 1992 to 2011, researchers find from an analysis of data on livestock consumption and international trade1 (see ‘Soviet shocks’). The drop is equivalent to one-quarter of CO2 emissions from Amazon deforestation over the same period. Russia currently emits about 2.5 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (CO2 equivalent) per year.
The figure considers emissions that result from domestic production of livestock and imported livestock, as well as carbon locked in soils and plants on abandoned Soviet cropland.
“There was a large drop in industrial production and emissions after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so it should be no surprise the same happened with food consumption and production,” says Glen Peters, a carbon-budget specialist at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, who was not involved in the analysis. “The study highlights the potential for carbon uptake in the former Soviet Union but also the risks to that carbon being released if agricultural production returns.”
Today, animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions globally. Beef is the most emissions-intensive food because pastures are often created by clearing forests and savannahs.
Meat consumption — especially beef — and land-use changes in Russia and central Asia are a widely overlooked factor in calculations of greenhouse-gas emissions from land around the globe, says study author Florian Schierhorn at the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies in Halle, Germany.
Trends in international trade suggest that emissions associated with meat consumption are on the rise again: Russia has over the past decade become a top destination for beef exported mainly from South America.
1. Schierhorn, F. et al. Environ. Res. Lett. 14, 065009 (2019).