This great article has been written by Peter Mundy,
following a conference that was held last week in Bristol entitled Steps to Sustainable
Livestock. This conference held in Bristol, brought scientists and researchers
together to discuss the complexities and controversies that surround livestock,
their impact on the climate and food security.
For the link to the original article and website click here.
We face huge challenges in feeding the world
sustainably. But one thing is certain: Grazing ruminant livestock—and the
high-quality food they produce—can and should play a key role.
With ongoing reports and media headlines about the
negative impacts of livestock—particularly beef cattle—on the environment and
our health, this might seem like an unscientific statement. After all,
livestock are now widely considered to be unsustainable. So it might come as a
surprise to know this support for grazing ruminants was one of the key
conclusions from the first International Conference on Steps to
Sustainable Livestock—a ground-breaking multi-disciplinary
event involving leading scientists working to find solutions for global food
security, hosted by the Global Farm Platform and University of Bristol
Cabot Institute in Bristol, UK, on January 12-15, 2016.
Over the three-day conference, 50+ scientists
presented the stark realities of industrial livestock production and the
challenges we face in feeding the world: The significant direct and indirect
greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; the widespread erosion and degradation of
soils; the localized environmental pollution from concentrated output of fecal
waste; and the human health threats posed by widespread farm antibiotic abuse.
The list goes on. With the ever-increasing demand for meat and livestock
products from a rising global population, it’s easy to think that ending all
forms of livestock production—and adopting a plant-based diet—is the only answer.
But it’s not.
We’ve said it many times before, but the scientific
evidence presented at the Steps
to Sustainable Livestock conference confirmed that grazing ruminant
systems (in other words, managing cattle, sheep, goats and bison on pasture)
can not only help feed the world sustainably, but also provide a number of
important environmental and societal benefits.
Perhaps the most immediate take away from the Steps to Sustainable Livestock
conference was that industrial grain-based livestock production is simply no
longer justifiable—and may even be morally suspect. With over 800 million
people on this planet going to bed hungry, and more mouths to feed every day,
there was a near unanimous agreement at the conference that governments
urgently need to pursue a ‘food not feed’ strategy, reserving prime
agricultural land for growing human food—not livestock feed. Livestock
currently consume around 70
percent of grains used by developed countries, and a staggering one-third
(or 795 million tons) of all grain grown in the world, meaning that
industrially raised grainfed animals are competing directly with hungry human
beings for food. The very same concerns apply to the policy of using prime
agricultural land to grow crops for biofuel.
Underpinning the Steps
to Sustainable Livestock conference is the knowledge that ruminant
animals have evolved the unique ability to convert high-cellulose plant
materials (read grass and forage) that humans cannot eat into high quality meat
and milk that we can,
thereby allowing us to produce food from marginal land we could not otherwise
use to grow crops. But the benefits of grazing ruminants do not end at
utilizing vast areas of marginal land to produce much-needed food.
Grazing livestock are also a vitally important source
of high-quality, protein-rich and nutrient-dense food. While no one can deny
the excessive global consumption of industrially produced grainfed meat is
simply unsustainable (not to mention bad for our health), researchers at the Steps to Sustainable Livestock
conference praised the “extraordinary merits” of animal-sourced foods, arguing
that modest quantities of high-quality pastured meat and dairy products (as
part of a balanced diet) offer significant health benefits, providing a vital
source of lean protein, healthy fats–such as omega-3s and CLAs—plus a
smorgasbord of micronutrients essential for health, such as iron, magnesium and
selenium. Changes in animal food consumption patterns have already had notable
health impacts, with one researcher suggesting that a diet lacking the key
micronutrients found in plentiful supply in livestock products (and milk) is
resulting in serious emerging health problems—even in high-income countries.
We learned that grazing livestock systems result in
many environmental positives—from improved biodiversity (above and below the
ground) to the role of well-managed pasture and grassland as carbon sinks.
While it is true that grazing ruminants produce significant levels of methane,
researchers at the Steps to
Sustainable Livestock conference argued that we must stop comparing
livestock systems on methane emissions alone. Instead, we need to consider all GHG emissions and
environmental impacts associated with all stages of any given production
system—including the potential for well-managed grazed pasture to sequester
significant levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. New research is already
investigating the potential of alternative livestock diets to significantly
reduce the amount of methane emitted, including new plant varieties and dietary
supplements, while new livestock breeding strategies utilizing geonomics (not genetic engineering) can
also aid the selection for positive methane emission traits. Potential
solutions are emerging fast but we urgently need more research and support to
encourage adoption of such practices at the farm and policy level.
Reflecting the multi-disciplinary and holistic
nature of the conference, we were also reminded that animal health and welfare
related to our future food security. While welfare concerns might seem
secondary to matters like maximizing animal productivity to feed a growing
global population, researchers pointed out that healthy animals are productive
animals and produce healthy, nutritious food. Conversely, unhealthy animals are
not only less productive (and inevitably require routine drugs like antibiotics
to maintain productivity), but can present a real disease risk to humans—as we
are now learning at great societal cost.
The quest for sustainable food production is highly
complex and there will be no one-size-fits-all solution. Indeed, the necessary
solutions will inevitably be highly complex, multi-faceted and site-specific:
it comes down not simply to what
you eat, but fundamentally how
it is farmed. There is no single diet solution for everyone, and
consuming nutritionally appropriate levels of pasture-raised livestock products
as part of a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of sustainably produced
vegetables and fruits is not just an acceptable option, it’s a vital one. And
while developed nations urgently need to reduce the production and consumption
of unsustainable, low-welfare, intensively raised livestock products and highly
processed foods (there’s a good chance many of us would feel a lot better
for it), it is clear from current science that pasture-based livestock systems
will not only continue to supply high-quality, nutritious food to global
populations, but can help protect and enhance key ecosystem services and
mitigate anthropocentric GHG emissions.
Conference on Steps to Sustainable Livestock marks a very important
step towards sharing best practice on optimizing the sustainable use of
livestock in many regions of the world, and challenging the industrial farming
paradigm. As an organization that supports sustainable livestock farmers, it
was refreshing and reassuring to hear that leading scientists from across the
world believe that sustainably managed livestock have an important role to play
in feeding the world, and to know that AWA’s farm
standards already represent among the most sustainable methods available.