Should we blame livestock for climate change?

Livestock are essential to rural economies and livelihoods across the world. But are these animals contributing to planetary destruction through greenhouse gas emissions? Estimates suggest that 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions are from livestock, and nearly all of this is from grazing ruminants. But what to do about it? This is a big debate, and one that much good science is focused on.

Are intensive systems of ‘factory farming’ the answer; or are extensive, mobile pastoral systems linked to local markets less damaging? Is the solution meat produced in labs or radical shifts to vegetarian or vegan diets? The conclusions are not straightforward. There is much uncertainty. It depends on what livestock, which production system and the nature of markets.

A few years back, a special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on livestock and global change offered some modelling data, and generated a minor storm of controversy thanks in large part to The Economist weighing into the debate, arguing that the best option was to abandon free range pastoralism and shift to a form of intensive factory farming. The answer The Economist believes is “intensive livestock farming, which is more efficient and environmentally friendlier than small-scale, traditional pastoralism of the sort beloved by many greens”.

Extensive livestock production it seems is bad news. This was in part the argument of the FAO’s controversial book from 2006, Livestock’s Long Shadow. And it has been picked up by many since, including another FAO publication that provided a rather more rounded perspective than its predecessor.

Uncertainty and the contested politics of scientific knowledge

The debate is actually hopelessly confused, and confusing. In an attempt to cut through this and provide some more coherent advice, a useful report – Grazed and Confused – was produced last year by the Oxford-based Food and Climate Research Network. The report offers a really useful summary of the contrasting positions (see Table 1), and highlights the deep uncertainties in the science. For example:

“Inevitably, these estimates [of GHG emissions] are inherently uncertain for many reasons, not least being the difficulty of putting accurate numbers on biological and biophysical systems that vary and fluctuate at multiple scales, from the animal’s individual metabolism through to the landscape and climate, vary widely by animal and manure management regimes, and problems of data absences and inadequacies. Caveats notwithstanding, the evidence clearly shows that livestock are major emitters of greenhouse gases. None of these estimates, however, take account of any carbon sequestration that grazing ruminants might help achieve, through the effects of their actions on the uptake of carbon from soils.”

In sum, inefficient feed systems result in more greenhouse gases being produced during production than more intensive systems (essentially more belching and farting). And white meat (pigs and poultry) are better than red meat and milk in this regard. But there are many uncertainties about how much, where and who or what is to blame.

It’s a clear and well-researched report, and well worth a read. But, as it points out, this debate is heavily influenced by different lobby groups, whether animal rights groups, radical vegans, re-wilders or large-scale ranchers and the meat industry. Framing is all, and the politics of scientific knowledge is much contested. The coverage of the report, for example, in the UK Guardian newspaper by columnist George Monbiot was extraordinarily one-sided, arguing for the end of livestock farming. Like The Economist, he has a few axes to grind.

What is clear is that a wider systems view is necessary that takes account of the political economy of different choices. Many assessments do not account for the costs of the other inputs of industrial farming, including fossil fuels used in feed production, housing, transport and so on. Traditional livestock systems are often very ‘low input’, with little fossil fuel dependency, and linked into markets not reliant on massively long supply chains.

Such systems make efficient use of marginal land and resources; as Tara Garnett puts it a ‘livestock on leftovers’ approach, focused on adapting existing systems rather than the simple focus on efficiencies. The trouble with many studies that make waves, especially in the media, is that the results and conclusions depend crucially on what ‘the system’ is, and what is being compared with what. These choices are crucial and can inject fatal biases, or encourage wayward misinterpretations.

In Meat: a Benign Extravagance. Simon Fairlie argues – with masses of data and careful argument – that meat production if done in an ecologically sensitive and humane manner is fine on a whole range of counts, and should not be discounted as a form of production and source of livelihood. It just depends on who produces it and how. This is a theme picked up in a paper that questions many of the data assumptions used in FAO’s livestock climate assessments.

In the exchange of comments following The Economist article, the lead author, Mario Herrero, distances himself from the claims made by The Economist, arguing that they never claimed that “we should get rid of pastoralism” (they didn’t!). Instead he argues that small-scale intensive systems are the best way forward, as part of a diversity of approaches.

This is all well and good, but it raises many more questions. How can the extensive savannah grasslands of the world be best used? This is not where intensive small-scale systems are likely to emerge. Should they be turned over for carbon sequestration as some argue, or wildlife, with people and their environmentally destructive animals forced off the range; a position supported by those advocating ‘re-wilding’? What then happens to the many livelihoods of often very poor people who are dependent on livestock? And if livestock are not consuming the grass, fires or termites might result in less production and perhaps even larger emissions.

Don’t simplify complexity

The problem with so many scientific studies on this subject – and perhaps especially the media and policy commentary that follows – is the way that complex systems are simplified. I see four problems being repeated, again and again.

First is the way the accounting is done, with often limited data and missing out key aspects. What is included in the model and how it is bounded makes a huge difference. Focusing only on food conversion efficiency gives a distorted picture of climate impacts of different livestock based production-marketing systems, for example.

Second is the interpretation that focuses on the accounted for measure – in this case greenhouse gases – and excludes the complexity of the wider system. Any assessment of costs and benefits must look at the whole picture, including the array of opportunity costs and trade-offs, and so crucially must involve the people concerned who know these best.

Third is the way uncertainties are dealt with; often put to one side, or in very long appendices of supplementary data. In the case of aggregate global pictures across all livestock systems, uncertainties can be massive. Inadequate data plagues agricultural policymaking, and particularly for extensive livestock. Add to that the uncertainties associated with climate change predictions and the data problems are compounded.

And fourth is the way alternatives are defined as part of policy narratives that are developed through such modelling efforts. By defining (narrowly) a problem, a solution (again narrow) is defined. Too often dramatic alternatives to the status quo are recommended, without thinking about the consequences.

Beyond the models

Pastoralism is a way of life adapted to dry non-equilibrium rangelands, and is a massive contributor to livelihoods and economies, as well as providing a route to land management – all themes that the PASTRES project is exploring in Africa, Asia and Europe.

The models may help think through the options, but they are no replacement for engaging with the realities on the ground. Surely the most appropriate response is to seek out more climate-compatible forms of livestock development, based on existing systems, and working with people and their animals, rather than seeking a dramatic transformation that would result in increased poverty and growing inequality in already poor areas of the world. Rejecting industrial systems of production that take their toll on the planet, and seeking out alternatives seems essential.

This blog was originally posted on the PASTRES website.