By Rob Verkerk PhD, founder, executive and scientific director, ANH-Intl
Fossil fuels and livestock – what do you they have in common? Quite a lot, as it happens. Especially when it comes to the typical industrial scales on which fossil fuels and livestock are produced, processed, distributed, used and consumed. The ‘peak oil’ concept, born in the 1950s out of concerns for fossil fuel shortages, has helped propel the energy industry in the direction of renewables. ‘Peak livestock’ is an emerging concept that proposes meat-eating, and beef eating in particular, will be forced into decline as it is a major contributor to climate change. More than this, it suggests that as the global population navigates its way towards less meat-eating and dairy consumption — and increasing adoption of veganism — people and planet will be saved.
In this article, we take a look at the underlying assumptions behind this view and suggest it isn’t all it seems. In fact, you can only hold this view if you’re content to seriously misrepresent what we know about animals, farming, environmental processes, nutritional sciences and human health.
Setting the seed for livestock demonisation
There is a widely held consensus view (although practice lags some way behind) that humanity must reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Not only is the black stuff going to run out some day and become increasingly difficult to extract energy from, our reliance on it as our primary energy source is widely regarded as the single most important contributor to anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change. Civil society, industry and governments are working hard (but not hard enough) to get to the other side of ‘peak oil’. Japan has made a commitment to become a hydrogen economy by 2040, the same year Britain has vowed to phase out petrol and diesel cars and trains.
Livestock, that was estimated in 2009 to provide around 17% of food energy intake and 33% of the protein in the human diet, is now being demonised in much the same way as fossil fuels. This view has had over 15 years to gain traction, since the publication of Livestock’s Long Shadow by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) in 2006, and other reports suggesting livestock may contribute over 50% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
A decade on, with the publication of the EAT-Lancet study in January this year, it’s widely accepted that livestock production is one of the single largest contributors to climate change. With this perspective firmly embedded in the minds of the public, demonisation of livestock farming is inevitable, especially given the opportunity for some corporate and political interests to benefit from it.
Not created equal
The trouble with this myopic view, as we have indicated before, is that it hides a multitude of gaps and variations in the available data. So much so that it gets in the way of finding solutions.
Livestock production systems are not created equal. If we blindly accept the premise that all livestock farming is bad, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In the current climate (pun intended) of livestock demonisation, is anyone hearing those farmers and sustainability experts who are suggesting that livestock production done right could be part of the solution, not the problem? Or that carbon neutral livestock production is already a reality when done right in the right environment, as demonstrated by Scottish livestock farmers?
Could we also soon see perhaps consensus developing around the overuse of pharmaceuticals?
Check out some of the definitions below – including one I’ve proposed for ‘peak pharma’. Let’s remember Peak oil’s origins came from Hubbert’s model from the 1950s that reflected concern about fossil fuels running out, but didn’t forecast the impacts either of climate change or the growth of renewables. Most market analyses suggest peak livestock has yet to occur. Livestock and animal product consumption are set to continue to rise to 2050 given the projected increase in population, urbanisation and incomes.
SOME PEAKY DEFINITIONS
Peak oil: "The term Peak Oil refers to the maximum rate of the production of oil in any areas under consideration, recognising that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion." - peakoil.net
Peak livestock: “The moment in time when livestock production reaches its peak and is consequently reduced due to factors beyond the control of the producers, such as lower demand or climate change disruptions.” - Jeff Anhang (the World Bank Group, USA), 2019
Here’s a new definition I’ve created for the purpose of this article, that we’ll address in a separate piece.
Peak pharma: “The moment in time it was recognised that the high level of economic, medical and social dependence on new-to-nature pharmaceutical products as the primary means of delivering healthcare was obstructing the widespread implementation of more sustainable approaches to healthcare that worked with nature, not against it.” Robert Verkerk PhD, 2019
But is it the farming of the animals themselves that is the problem – or is it down to the ways in which most production systems operate? We suggest the latter, especially given much of the data and information on which governments and citizens are dependent on is manipulated or misrepresented.
Four ways the ‘peak livestock’ concept is being manipulated
There are many ways in which information about livestock farming can be manipulated or misrepresented. However, four important ‘devices’ commonly used by governments, corporations and the agro-industrial complex are as follows:
1. Lumping all GHGs together. Livestock is widely cited as contributing 14.5% to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and all GHGs are grouped together and considered in terms of “CO2 equivalents”. A group of leading climate scientists, headed by Professor Myles Allen from Oxford University, showed in 2018 that this misrepresents the true impacts on climate change. The authors proposed a better way of determining climate impacts from long- and short-lived gases, like carbon dioxide and methane respectively – the latter being the key output from belching ruminant animals (beef, sheep, goats). But these game-changing ideas have yet to be adopted.
2. Considering all production systems as equal. It’s often assumed all livestock production systems have the same GHG emissions and sequestration rates. This view is entirely bogus. Industrial-scale livestock farming often involves feeding genetically modified soya and maize, grown in distant places such as Amazonia, in which rainforest has been destroyed to make way for cattle ranching. This feed is then transported large distances to areas of high meat demand such as China, North America and Europe contributing to a huge net carbon footprint. If animals are not grass fed and rotated, they don’t help regenerate soils that can in turn act as carbon sinks. There is also a common tendency to ignore simple and low cost practices that can abate carbon emissions by over-one-third from ruminant and non-ruminant animals, even where such approaches have been documented by the FAO. Added to that, livestock management practices that mitigate GHG emissions through the development of improved soil organic content and microbial activity in grasslands and pastures is given insufficient emphasis.
3. Ignoring sinks and focusing on sources. Data citing 15% to over 50% contribution to GHGs by livestock is often quoted. Sometimes the higher values come from parts of the less developed world where GHG sources from industry, transport and housing are low, so inflating the relative contribution to GHG emissions from livestock. Total GHG emissions from agriculture in the US has been estimated at just 9% (given very high relative contributions from other sectors), with only one-third of this attributable to livestock. Also in the US, as determined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), emissions from crop cultivation have consistently exceeded those of livestock (see Figure below). Equally, emission data is very often quoted in the absence of data on the amount of carbon captured in the soil – or even more commonly, such data exclude soil types that have very high capacities to capture and store carbon. Soils in regenerative farming systems, where there is a focus on increasing organic matter content and soil microbial activity (especially mycorrhizal fungi), provide very effective sinks. It is quite possible for livestock systems to be carbon neutral (i.e. carbon emissions to the atmosphere equal sequestration within the soil), and even a subset of the Brazilian cattle industry has shown it can meet this target with the development of Integrated Crop-Livestock-Forest Systems (ICLFS)
4. Avoiding evidence that challenges ‘peak livestock’. This is really about keeping the good news about sustainable livestock production under wraps. The work of the Embraba in developing the concept of carbon neutral Brazilian beef should be big news every time livestock farming is demonised in the media. But it isn’t. There are a multitude of other examples of this, typically involving mixed, agro-ecological farming systems in which there is integration of crop, livestock and forest systems, each part of the system providing ecosystem services to the other. Protagonists of peak livestock similarly like to avoid considering all the agricultural land on the planet that is suited perfectly to pasture and grazing, and not to crop production. Some of these lands are viewed agriculturally as marginal, and are able to benefit from being used for regenerative agricultural production, including livestock. Peak livestock aficionados like to cite FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report of 2006, but are much less willing to share more enlightened views on livestock as part of regenerative systems of agriculture, information about which is included in FAO’s 2013 report, Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock (A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities). Britain’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has set an ambitious target, the first in the world, to become net zero by 2040. That might be too slow for some, but given that Scottish livestock farmers have already shown their ability to meet this target, it’s time to stop apportioning blame on those who farm livestock and other animals, and move forward instead on transforming systems of agriculture to ones that are truly regenerative in nature.
Cutting to the regenerative solution
Speaking as one originally trained as an ecologist, it’s no surprise to me that the evidence is pointing increasingly in our need to not eliminate whole parts of the farming ecosystem – namely animals. If you’re in doubt, talk to any farmer who’s seen what the addition of a healthy animal manure does to the organic content and health of soils as compared with synthetic NPK fertilizers.
There’s also the question of animal welfare and wildlife impacts. Here, in my mind, you once again come back to the farming system in question. Intensive, high input, industrial farming systems are notorious for their poor animal welfare standards. Intensive, industrial-scale crop monocultures are notorious for degrading soil quality, reducing biodiversity and obstructing the complex interplay of life that’s common to diverse and resilient agro-ecological systems of agriculture.
What we really need is diversity and resilience in the systems of agriculture we rely on to feed us. We need farming systems, that include crops and varieties, as well as breeds of animals, that are adapted to local conditions and environments.
When we stop trying to force ourselves on nature, and, instead, allow nature to inform us, we will likely find our way again. This requires that we learn to better match human created systems of land management to the scales and needs of ecosystems, not the other way around. We need, to draw from the title of Capra and Luisi’s 2016 book, a ‘systems view of life’.
Grass-fed, rotational pastured, livestock as part of a mixed farming system.
Along our journey, we need to be acutely aware of who might be manipulating or misrepresenting information intended to take us on a course that has little to do with a genuine desire to benefit either our planet or human health.
And if there’s one thing we can do today that gets the actors in the industrial-food complex to take note of our concerns, it’s thinking very carefully about what foods you decide to pick up the next time you’re in a supermarket. Industrially-produced meat should not be on your shopping list and can fairly be demonised, in my view.
However, assuming you indulge in meat eating from time to time, sourcing your meat from a farm dedicated to regenerative agriculture and the integration of crop, animal and even forest production systems, is quite another thing.
[Ed. Rob will talk to you about ‘peak pharma’ another time.]