The vegan craze: what does it mean for pastoralists?

Herders and their livestock. Photo: Matteo Caravani

by Ian Scoones

There’s a vegan craze in full swing in Brighton in the UK – and it seems more broadly. There was a vegan festival near my house the other weekend, and vegan graffiti (in washable chalk, I hasten to add) appears frequently in our local park. My daughter became a vegan for a period a year or so ago after a school trip to a local farm. I have nothing against veganism, and I see its potential health, welfare and environmental benefits, certainly for consumers in northern Europe. But what would a mass shift from livestock products mean for poor pastoralists living in marginal areas?

Journalistic narratives

The argument to change diets to save the planet appears regularly in the UK press. A flurry of articles is usually prompted by a new study that ‘proves’ that giving up meat and milk is a good thing. And so it was the case with the publication of an article in Science by J. Poore and T. Nemecek, titled ‘Reducing food’s environmental impact by producers and consumers’. The media bombardment was intense; perhaps even more so than previous rounds (see earlier blog).

In the Guardian, George Monbiot announced rather dramatically that ‘farming livestock for food threatens all life on earth’, while the Independent argued that not consuming meat and dairy could ‘reduce your carbon footprint by nearly three-quarters’. Damian Carrington, the Guardian’s environment editor, quoted the authors as saying that avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest’ way to reduce the impact on the earth. Newsweek was more direct, with the headline: ‘Want to save the planet? Go vegan, says study’.

The narrative of these journalistic pieces is clear: changing your diet (ideally to veganism, but with vegetarianism a second-best) is the most important thing you can do for the environment and reducing your carbon footprint. And in reducing the use of land by livestock you can help a process of re-wilding, improving biodiversity too. Sounds incontrovertible; but is it?

An interesting, but limited, study

A closer look at the paper (6 pages) and, more importantly, its supplementary material (76 pages plus the dataset) shows the argument (not surprisingly) is more subtle. It’s actually a useful paper, rather distorted by the press coverage. Unfortunately the authors failed to get this over in their interview snippets (or maybe these were selectively culled).

Their argument is interesting, but, as ever, limited by the data. They looked at data on five indicators of environmental impact from around 38,700 farm or regional cases and 1600 cases of processing/packaging/retail units, based on 1160 studies in 119 countries, where full ‘life-cycle analysis’ data was available (a tracing of all the impacts at each stage or production, transportation, processing and consumption) from ‘viable’ operations.

Inevitably, given the data requirements for their meta-analysis, the number of studies was restricted, both in number but crucially in location. Nearly all were from Europe, North America, Brazil, China and Australia, with very few from Africa and much of Asia (see the map in figure S2). In other words, the study focuses in particular on mostly northern, industrial-style farming systems. Fine, but let’s not extrapolate too far.

Interestingly though, even with this limited sample, there were huge ranges in impact along production-consumption chains. This was their main point, and the one that the measured Oxford university press release emphasised. There were very clearly high- and low-impact systems, each producing the same product. The differences were dramatic, often orders of magnitude. This, the study argues, has major implications for what might be labelled, and how. It’s not just the product, but the process of its production and its delivery to a consumer that needs a labelling system. One piece of meat or one kg of grain can have very different impacts.

Of course there were differences between different products. It’s well established that producing protein from meat, even in low input, free grazing settings, rather than plant protein sources, for example, has greater environmental impacts… in most cases. Although when soy farms – whether for food or feed – result in the destruction of Amazon rainforest in Brazil and the comparison is free grazing on established pasture elsewhere, the story is different. We have to be careful with meta-analyses coming up with simple narratives, and be aware that context matters.

Alternatives in dry marginal areas?

We also have to ask, what is the alternative use? The rewilding advocates assert that a rangeland emptied of livestock and pastoralists is a good one, because wild animals can roam freely once more, and (other) people can enjoy the wilderness. This, as argued before on this blog, is an often an elitist romanticism with colonial echoes, particularly in Africa.

While there are of course instances (again, contexts matter) when replacing livestock grazing with wildlife conservancies run by local people can support diverse livelihoods and employment, but the trade-offs are more complex than the wildlife proponents like to admit, as we found in Zimbabwe.

The bottom line is that extensive livestock production on open rangeland is a livelihood that supports people in some of the most marginal areas of the planet. In most cases there is no alternative. Growing vegetables and soy beans is simply not feasible. And in many respects (despite all the biased, negative imagery), pastoralism is probably the most sustainable, low impact use of such environments. There are impacts for sure, but there are also impacts from dispossessing pastoralists of land and livelihoods too (a facet ignored in the Science article and associated media commentary).

Pastoralism and environmental justice

As lower impact producers (and of course there are ways to reduce environmental impacts yet further without disrupting pastoral practices – an area for urgently-needed research), the Science paper offers some pointers.

Rather than reading the piece as a ‘livestock production must stop’ (as Monbiot and co would have it), pastoral producers and their advocates (including businesses along the value chain and consumers of livestock products from pastoral areas) need to be more assertive in marketing, and counter the rhetoric of a singular pathway for changing diets that closes down, excludes and potentially impoverishes through an ideologically-driven, narrow framing of the issue, often selectively using available evidence.

Why instead not have branded products from pastoral areas based on life cycle analysis, extended to a livelihoods assessment, that demonstrate the environmental and poverty-reducing credentials of pastoral products compared to other sources of milk and meat? And so make the case for a shift in diet – not away from milk and meat necessarily (although that’s always a choice for some) – but towards lower impact products that support people and their livelihoods in poor and marginal areas, based on arguments for environmental justice, not rather selective interpretations of a limited sample of life cycle analyses.

As VSF International points out a one-size-fits-all approach to dietary change potentially excludes 3.1 billion small-scale livestock producers across the world, where multiple opportunities lie for more sustainable livestock production; a point echoed in CELEP’s earlier response to The Economist’s earlier rant about meat and pastoralism.

A useful next step for the authors of the Science article would be to extend their case studies (which would require field research because it can’t be culled from the literature), and expand their criteria to look at both environmental and social impacts (so a more complex methodology). A rather different picture would emerge, for sure.

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