Environment / ILRI

Livestock and the environment: The pendulum swings back

A recent New Scientist cover story (17-23 July 2010), What happens if we all quit eating meat? Why eating greens won’t save the world, is the latest in a string of publications over many months that suggest that more considered opinions are forming around livestock-environment issues. Rather than demonizing animal production and advocating that the world go vegetarian, or, conversely, defending factory farming of animals and the right of those who can afford it to eat as much meat as they like regardless of the environmental and health costs, public opinion appears to be moving towards a middle ground. This is to be welcomed.

For example, if we were to remove livestock from the land, what might happen? The article quotes Phil Thornton, a climate and agricultural systems scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI):

‘Just how big a difference depends on what replaces the livestock and the land it grazes. Certainly, where pastures revert to forests – particularly in areas like the Amazon basin, for example, where 70 per cent of deforested land is now pasture – the regrowing forest will sequester huge amounts of carbon. The American plains, too, would accumulate carbon in their soil if grazing stopped. But in sub-Saharan Africa, any reduction in methane from domestic grazers is likely to be at least partially offset by increased emissions from wild grazers and termites, which compete with livestock for food. “It’s certainly worth someone spending some time to look at that,” says Philip Thornton, an agricultural systems scientist with the International Livestock Research Institute.’

And what would be the costs of giving up meat? The article quotes Tara Garnett, a British scientist currently spending six weeks at ILRI’s Nairobi campus on collaborative research:

‘It is true that most livestock today are fed grain that people could otherwise eat, but it doesn’t have to be so. For most of human history, cattle, sheep and goats grazed on land that wasn’t suitable for ploughing, and in doing so they converted inedible grass into edible meat and milk. Even today, a flock of sheep or goats can be the most efficient way to get food from marginal land. In a world where more than a billion people don’t have enough to eat, taking such land out of production would only contribute to food insecurity. Moreover, for semi-arid or hilly land, modest levels of grazing may cause much less ecological damage than growing crops.

‘Even pigs and chickens, which lack the digestive machinery to eat grass, don’t need grain. Instead they can subsist on leftovers and whatever they forage. “Your household pig was your useful dustbin,” says Tara Garnett, who heads the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK. “You give your leftovers to the pigs, they deal with your rubbish, and you get meat.” Fed in this way, livestock represent a net gain of calories and protein in the human diet while dealing with some of the estimated 30 to 50 per cent of food that goes to waste – a benefit that a meat-free world would have to do without. Most pig and chicken farms are missing a trick here, since the animals eat commercial, grain-based feeds.

‘Another downside would be the disappearance of animal by-products. A meat-free world would have to replace the 11 million tonnes of leather and 2 million tonnes of wool that come from livestock farming every year. Not only that, many farmers would miss the manure . . . .

‘Even ardent vegetarians acknowledge that dairy products and even meat may be a good thing in poorer countries. “Whilst there’s no doubt that considerable reduction of meat consumption would have an environmental benefit, we do have to be careful about saying it would be the best solution if the whole world went vegetarian,” says Pinner. For as many as a billion of the world’s poorest rural residents, an animal or two may represent their only realistic hope for a little extra income, and a little bit of animal protein can make a big difference to a marginal diet. . . .

‘So even though a meat-free world sounds good on paper, it is likely that a utopian future will still have some animal products in it. And we are talking meat, not just milk and eggs. The real questions, then, are how much meat do we want, and how will we produce it?’

Here’s one suggestion Garnett makes in the article:

‘[T]reat livestock as part of the ecosystem. Garnett envisions returning animals to their original role as waste-disposal units, eating food leftovers and grazing on land not suitable for crops. “In that context,” she says, “methane emissions per animal will be higher, but overall emissions would be less because there would be fewer animals.”

‘Fewer animals means less meat of course. Just how much less, no one really knows. As a first approximation, Garnett notes that about half of global meat production comes from intensive animal-only farms, and none of these would be allowed under the ecological approach. What is left would be those ranches where animals graze on marginal land and are not fed grain – about 10 per cent of the total today – and a larger number of mixed farms where the livestock feed off crop residues, milling wastes and other leftovers.

‘Such a future would require a major adjustment in food preferences. People would need to eat less meat, especially in the meat-hungry west. Not only that, but we would also have to change the kind of meat we eat. “You are not going to get your fat, heavy-breasted chickens by feeding them household scraps and letting them peck for worms. You are going to get a much scrawnier animal,” says Garnett.’

More . . . (New ScientistWhy eating greens won’t save the world, 17-23 July 2010)

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