Livestock has been vilified as one key sources of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas which has contributed to global warming.
There have been global calls for a shift in livestock production and even removing meat off the menu in favour of plant-based diets to save the planet.
But there is greater need to differentiate livestock production systems because not all milk and meat are the same, according to a new report by the PASTRES research programme published ahead of the COP26 climate conference.
Important decisions about climate mitigation, food systems and land use—including dietary shifts, tree planting schemes and rewilding—risk being based on partial or misleading evidence, states the report Are livestock always bad for the planet by Ella Houzer and Ian Scoones.
Warning that millions of people worldwide who depend on extensive livestock production, with relatively lower climate impacts, are being ignored by debates on the future of food, the report notes that low-impact pastoral farming in dry lands and mountains has been ‘lumped in’ with much more intensive methods like factory farming.
Animal-source foods are vital for nutrition in low-income populations, and in places where crop production is not possible, including in many dry and mountainous parts of the world. Changes in meat and milk consumption must focus on the most climate-damaging diets, which are concentrated among a ‘consumption elite’—often rich people in rich countries, the authors say.
IDN spoke to report co-author, Ian Scoones, an agricultural ecologist. Scoones is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex and a Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded PASTRES project. Excerpts:
Question: Are livestock always bad for the planet?
The short answer is ‘no’. We need to differentiate between different types of production system: some are more environment and people friendly; some are clearly not. The debate about the future of food and the climate needs to become much more sophisticated. Extensive livestock systems can provide a wide array of environmental and livelihood benefits and can show the way forward to a more climate-friendly future.
Q: You say that global studies of livestock emissions are skewed towards rich countries with an insignificant contribution from Africa; why is this so and how do we change this narrative?
Most of the evidence we have on livestock related emissions come from high input industrialised systems. There is far too little research from African settings. Even if methane production is lower per unit of product in industrial systems due to improved feeds, there are many other climate impacts—from importing the feeds, from the infrastructure, from transport and so on. Extensive systems, such as found across Africa, also have lower impacts than the assessment models assume.
In fact, some studies show that in mobile grazing systems, livestock can be in carbon balance through sequestering carbon in the soil. Extensive livestock systems such as mobile pastoralism replaces wildlife dominated systems, which also produce greenhouse gases. Pastoral systems may in fact not add extra emissions to this baseline, and so should not be treated as causing additional climate damage. Overall, we should not lump all livestock systems in together but differentiate between them.
Q: Could cows hold the key to fighting climate change in your view? Should we be getting rid of cars and keeping the cows?
The comparison between cows and cars is a false one. Both produce dangerous greenhouse gases and affect the climate. Cars rely on fossil fuels and so contribute to carbon dioxide emissions; cows produce methane from digestion. The difference is that carbon dioxide sticks around in the atmosphere effectively forever, while methane decays after about a decade, even though its effects on warming are significant.
So, we have to address both emissions from agriculture and from transport but deal with them in different ways. Within the livestock sector, in particular, we have to differentiate between industrial systems that have high emissions and extensive systems such as pastoralism that have much lower impacts. We need to focus on changing the processes of production not banning the products, such as meat and milk.
Q: Livestock are critical to livelihoods in Africa, they are part and parcel of the social, economic and cultural way of life and in some places, and the only means for livelihood, what insights does your study offer into the future of livestock farming?
Yes, in many settings livestock production is the central source of livelihood, a vital source of income and a contributor of high density protein essential for nutrition. Meat and milk are especially important in marginal areas and for the nutrition of growing kids. Livestock can make use of areas that are not suitable for cropping, and where there is no other alternative source of food.
And mobile, extensive livestock can also contribute to enhancing biodiversity, reducing wildfires and, under some conditions, sequestering carbon. Given their importance, simply saying ‘let’s reduce livestock production and the consumption of meat and milk’ doesn’t make sense. Again, we need to differentiate between production systems and contexts and have a more sophisticated debate.
Q: How do we include pastoralists in decisions about the future of food and in the climate change debate?
Pastoralists are almost completely excluded from the debate at the moment. The global debate is framed by western concerns, and the need to reduce meat and milk in elite, high consumption diets, along with reducing highly damaging factory farming of livestock. This is really important, as such systems are highly damaging to both people and the planet. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that all livestock production is bad.
As an alternative to damaging industrial production, pastoralists—whether in Africa or Europe—need to make the case that there are alternatives that are climate friendly and provide good, high-quality food. These voices are currently not heard and are drowned out by the anti-livestock rhetoric and the radical diet change advocacy of some, mostly in the west.