Livestock: The good, the bad, the ugly!

In order to remain healthy, livestock needs to be able to move around. In order to be happy, animals should be kept in family groups. Pastoralists know how to do this.

The trouble for livestock started with the publication in 2006 of  “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, the FAO’s detailed study of this sector’s startling environmental impact, identifying it as a major culprit in climate change, besides polluting rivers, oceans, groundwater and the atmosphere, as well as wiping out biodiversity. These widely broadcast results caught the imagination of both the media and the general public. The automobile industry suddenly compared its emissions to that of “farting cows” and prided itself on being better for the environment than the beef industry.

One of the unintended consequences of this game-changing analysis was the wariness of donors to fund any livestock related development projects. It resulted in a dearth of funding for animal husbandry – which suddenly seemed to have become almost a toxic word. Over the years, this scenario precipitated several damage control initiatives, for example the Global Agenda on Sustainable Livestock (GASL), a multi-stakeholder platform anchored by the FAO to lead to “practice change” towards more sustainable livestock, and the Global Livestock Advocacy for Development (GLAD), a project of ILRI, the International Livestock Research Institute. These initiatives are somewhat in an overcompensation mode: while they rightly emphasize the many beneficial effects of livestock especially in poorer parts of the world as source of livelihoods and nutrition, their blanket endorsement of livestock obfuscates a crucial point: livestock can be both “good” and “bad”, and its impact is entirely dependent on us humans and how we manage our farm animals.

It is quite simple: If we keep livestock in a way that it mirrors nature and imitates the herds of wild herbivores that once created the world’s most fertile soils , then its impact is positive. If animals are kept moving, are deployed to convert roughage or waste into protein, raised in family groups contributing to their well-being, then this is an ideal situation. It is the model of livestock keeping exemplified by nomadic pastoralists.

The situation changes when livestock no longer moves around and forages on its own but is fed with especially grown fodder. Although this is the standard that most of us have grown up with, it is  already much less desirable! For one, living creatures that get no exercise and are totally stall-fed cannot really be healthy, as we know from ourselves. Furthermore, it costs fossil fuels to grow and transport the feed and it is usually no longer possible for animals to be in a herd – they are separated  by sex and age. Still, from an environmental and farming perspective, such systems are essential and acceptable as long as livestock remains integrated with crop cultivation, its manure is fed back into the local soils, and animals have the opportunity to exercise.

But it gets really ugly when we intensify this system in order to maximize output, confine and isolate animals, keep them in huge numbers for the sake of “efficiency” and profit, pay no heed to their social needs. We not only turn living beings into processing machines, we have to bring the feed from very far away (other continents), amass the excreta (which have turned from valuable organic manure into a toxic pollutant), dispense antibiotics to suppress diseases, add some hormones to make production even more “efficient”. And then – surprise, surprise – we have to deal with antibiotic resistance, animal rightists, tasteless food, stench in the air, rural poverty, what have you not.

Initiatives such as GASL and GLAD that aim to make livestock more sustainable, or give it a better press, are welcome – but they need to be brave enough to spell out under which conditions livestock is good, bad, and ugly. They should not excuse the ugly systems because they are supposedly “efficient” and necessary to feed the world (which they are not). They need to revisit the efficiency paradigm that they adhere to because efficiency can have many negative side-effects and undermine sustainability.

They must read the writing on the wall: the steep rise in vegetarians and vegans, the fact that supermarket and fast food chains are now the ones pushing for better animal welfare standards, the amount of funding going into developing artificial meat. In such a global scenario, blanket endorsements of livestock are no longer credible. Instead, a more differentiated approach is the need of the hour, even if it alienates some of the stakeholders in the livestock sector. If we try to please everybody, we end up without profile and impact, and will not make progress towards our goal of livestock sector sustainability.

5 Replies to “Livestock: The good, the bad, the ugly!”

  1. I’m really impressed by your views regarding the future of livestock rearing and the challenge of safe and healthy food. Unfortunately, there are lobbies, they are strong and have an influence on the local, regional and international policies regarding agriculture. Though we are weaker in influence but stronger with the values and arguments. I hope, this world will be a better place if we adopt the agroecosystems of livestock agriculture.

  2. Hi Ilse – I’m pleased to have found your blog through your response on Science magazine’s recent online partial-publication (abstract only) of “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers.” I am a committed omnivore and from my research, have come to believe that humans need animal protein and fat to thrive, so there’s my bias. As you are someone with clearly a lot of research and thought behind your pro-pastoral livestock positions, I would love to get your perspective on one comment you make in your article (“it gets really ugly when we intensify this system in order to maximize output, confine and isolate animals, keep them in huge numbers for the sake of “efficiency” and profit, pay no heed to their social needs”) and specifically, some people, especially animal rights activists, it seems, seem to want to “herd” (pun intended) livestock agriculture into this very format, as being environmentally superior (allegedly fewer GHGs, requiring less inputs). Have you noticed this before, and if so, what do you make of it? Is it simply a rhetorical trap, to try to trap us into agreeing with god-awful CAFOs?
    Thanks in advance for considering my question. Kind regards.

    1. Dear Wendy, sorry I have only just now seen your comment. Yes, I have noticed this before that some people want to do this, including apparently George Monbiot. I get very upset about it – in some cases it may be ignorance, in others it maybe a rhetorical trap…

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