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A nuanced debate around livestock and greenhouse gases

  • by JW

“Not all milk and meat is the same. Extensive, often mobile, pastoral systems – of the sort commonly seen across the African continent, as well as in Asia, Latin America and Europe – have hugely different effects to contained, intensive industrial livestock production.” [Agricultural ecologist Prof Ian Scoones]


Is there such a thing as ‘sustainable livestock’? Do grazing livestock have a role in a world of climate change?

Can agriculture make radical changes to cut harmful emissions? Some farmers fear their livelihoods will be obliterated: “In farming, as with car manufacturing and in other industries, meaningful progress towards net zero will only come if those at the sharp end are persuaded to come on board for the journey.”

There are options: “100% organic could mean 70 % increase in food emissions”… whilst ‘Silvopasture’, or raising livestock and growing trees might be a way ahead.

It is clear that we need a nuanced debate on the issues – and here’s a good look from the ALEPH 2000 blog:

Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: 10 arguments for more nuance

The production of animal source foods (ASFs) creates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is a serious challenge for future food systems. However, arguing that climate change mitigation requires a radical transition to plants overlooks that dietary change has a minor impact on fossil fuel-intensive lifestyle budgets, that enteric methane is part of a natural carbon cycle and has different global warming kinetics than CO2, that rewilding would generate its own emissions and that afforestation comes with limitations, that there are still ample opportunities to improve livestock efficiency, that livestock not only emits but also sequesters carbon, and that foods should be compared based on nutritional value. Such calls for more nuance are often ignored or overlooked.

This subsection contains the following topics:

  • Situating the problem
  • Argument 1: global data should not be used to evaluate local contexts
  • Argument 2: further mitigation is possible and ongoing
  • Argument 3: restricting animal source foods offers a small net gain on carbon footprints
  • Argument 4: dietary focus distracts from more impactful interventions
  • Argument 5: nutritional quality should not be overlooked when comparing foods
  • Argument 6: co-product benefits of livestock agriculture should be accounted for
  • Argument 7: livestock farming also sequesters carbon, partially offsetting its emissions
  • Argument 8: rewilding comes with its own climate impact
  • Argument 9: large-scale afforestation of grasslands is not a panacea
  • Argument 10: methane should be evaluated differently than CO2  

Yes, the debate could be more nuanced.

During COP26 two years ago, a delegation of pastoralists, members of the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous and Peoples and Pastoralists network aimed “to highlight the more complex story around the links between livestock and climate change – going beyond the standard narrative that all meat and milk is bad.”

Also at COP26, further nuance was called for, arguing against intensive livestock production: that “not all milk and meat is the same. Extensive, often mobile, pastoral systems – of the sort commonly seen across the African continent, as well as in Asia, Latin America and Europe – have hugely different effects to contained, intensive industrial livestock production.”

This assessment from last year by the Wiley Climate Change academic research site argues against “the generalized narrative that frequently prevails, which argues for major shifts in diets to reduce meat and milk consumption and a reduction in livestock production worldwide, releasing land for conservation uses and rewilding:”

Livestock, methane, and climate change: The politics of global assessments

The relationship between livestock production and climate change is the subject of hot debate, with arguments for major shifts in diets and a reduction in livestock production. This Perspective examines how global assessments of livestock-derived methane emissions are framed, identifying assumptions and data gaps that influence standard life-cycle analysis approaches. These include inadequate data due to a focus on industrial not extensive systems; errors arising due to inappropriate emission factors being applied; questions of how global warming potentials are derived for different greenhouse gases and debates about what baselines are appropriate.

The article argues for a holistic systems approach that takes account of diverse livestock systems—both intensive and extensive—including both positive and negative impacts. In particular, the potential benefits of extensive livestock systems are highlighted, including supporting livelihoods, providing high-quality nutrition, enhancing biodiversity, protecting landscapes, and sequestering carbon. By failing to differentiate between livestock systems, global assessments may mislead. Inappropriate measurement, verification and reporting processes linked to global climate change policy may in turn result in interventions that can undermine the livelihoods of extensive livestock-keepers in marginal areas, including mobile pastoralists. In the politics of global assessments, certain interests promote framings of the livestock-climate challenge in favour of contained, intensive systems, and the conversion of extensive rangelands into conservation investments. Emerging from a narrow, aggregated scientific framing, global assessments therefore can have political consequences.

A more disaggregated, nuanced approach is required if the future of food and climate change is to be effectively addressed.