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Stepping beyond the livestock sustainability debate

June 29, 2023

Editorial note: Long-time contributor Chris Smaje’s new book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future launches today in the UK. UK readers can order and find out more about it here. It will launch in the US on July 20, and US readers will be able to order it here on that day. To help celebrate the UK launch of the book, Chris sent us an exclusive piece, which we have posted below.

A lot of the debate about sustainability in agriculture – too much of it, in my opinion – focuses on livestock and animal-based foods. Opposition to livestock agricultures drives a good deal of the ecomodernist food agenda associated with writers like George Moniot, who I critique in my new book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future, published this week.

I don’t dispute that the present global livestock industry is a horror show on ecological and various other grounds. But to centre the sustainability critique around livestock is to miss the more important underlying factors driving it, wherein lie the more pressing needs for redress.

The most important of these factors is fossil energy, which buys us out of having to build our livelihoods sustainably on our local ecological base – and into the possibility of an overstocked, high-impact livestock sector. I’ve discussed this in more detail in a series of brief articles here.

The overproduction of arable crops is another important factor with deeper impacts than livestock per se. The relentless emphasis on the ecological bads of livestock (especially cattle) diverts attention from the excessive production of cheap cereals and grain legumes that not only drive a large part of the livestock industry as the source of fodder, but also damage wildlife through land expansion and agrochemical use while compromising human health and livelihoods. Redressing this arable overproduction would cut livestock numbers and improve human and wildlife wellbeing.

The third factor underlying livestock impacts is a consumerism based around the dynamics of capitalist demand. If you assume that existing patterns of consumerism are baked into the future, that societies of the future will be energy and capital-rich, with few farmers and many consumers demanding high-impact farm products at the lowest prices, then livestock does loom large as a problem. If, on the other hand, you take the view that this pattern cannot persist and future societies will necessarily involve a turn to lower energy and lower-capital localism, then livestock stop looking like a global problem and start looking more like a part of local solutions to the problems of a low-energy local world. Still, on that front I’d suggest that some of the narratives around regenerative livestock farming tend to over-emphasize the importance of livestock as the solution. Generally, livestock are small but important cogs in the mixed farming systems that will predominantly feed a localized world. But they’re not the only or necessarily the most important cogs.

Laying out the arguments around all this in detail would take a book in itself. Here, I’m simply going to make some numbered assertions that get just a little further behind some of the familiar talking points about livestock agriculture. Further substantiation of most of them can be found in my book, or in the references cited therein.

  1. Methane #1. A lot of attention is paid to the climate negatives of ruminant livestock (cattle, mostly) because their digestive processes cause them to release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Arguably, the complicated and fast-turning biogenic methane cycle (encompassing wild organisms as well as human livestock) is less significant for climate change than has often been supposed. Leaving that aside, the short atmospheric persistence of methane means that it doesn’t add to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the way that carbon dioxide does. The bottom line is that only if ruminant herds are increasing do they have a major climate heating effect.
  2. Methane #2. However, if ruminant herds are decreasing, the reduction has a climate cooling effect. So in view of the climate emergency that’s upon us, there’s a case for cutting herds. But there are complicating factors that must be carefully weighed when considering that case. For example:
    (a) There can be countervailing implications towards climate heating caused by cutting herds (see Point 3).
    (b) There’s a strong case for prioritizing cutting methane from the energy sector, which is a bigger source of methane than agriculture – partly by plugging methane leaks (they can be enormous, but more importantly by cutting fossil energy use. Unlike a cut to ruminant numbers, not only does this cut the more persistent and important greenhouse gas of carbon dioxide at the same time as cutting methane, it also starts grounding agricultural land-use in the sustainability of the local ecological base.
    (c) Cutting herds affects often politically voiceless pastoralist communities, and has further impacts – potentially negative – in terms of what people from these communities do instead of keeping livestock, what the loss of their herds and farming skills might mean in the longer term, and who gains access to their lands for what purpose.
  3. Rebound effects of declining herds. It’s unwise to assume that cutting farmed ruminants will cut global heating proportionately. Heating potential may rebound in various ways, such as increased populations of wild ruminants or other methane-emitting organisms like termites. Or the accumulation of flammable biomass that promotes climate-forcing wildfires. Or climate forcing due to increased albedo from woodland. Or alternative climate forcing activities pursued by those no longer keeping livestock. Possibly, such factors in general are unlikely to outweigh the climate advantages of cutting ruminant herds, but they will reduce them, and in some situations may be contraindications. They’re also complicated, in my view to the point of being beyond human comprehension in many situations. To cut ruminant herds or not? There may not be a single right answer.
  4. Carbon opportunity cost. It’s becoming fashionable to talk about the ‘carbon opportunity cost’ of pastures or silvopastures which, in the absence of grazing livestock, could be forested to sequester carbon. But this is problematic. Both the livestock carbon source and the woodland carbon sink reach short-run equilibria, meaning that the strategy only has a short-term payoff for a long-term change of land use, which may be suboptimal for other reasons. There may also be a different kind of carbon opportunity cost in forgoing opportunities to sequester carbon in grazed soils.
  5. Don’t feed the world, feed your community #1. Try this thought experiment. Suppose the fossil fuel tap is turned off for good, tonight. Look around your neighbourhood and ask yourself where your food will come from. Most likely your answer will be ‘it won’t’. Probably it would then be best to get busy working with others nearby to secure a local food supply. If you do this wisely, what’s for sure is that you won’t be raising any livestock except animals that enhance the local possibilities for furnishing people with food – which is generally how they were farmed in premodern times. Monbiot says that to avoid catastrophic collapse the number one thing we must do is leave fossil fuels in the ground, but “right up there as number two or equal number one” is to stop farming animals. If we leave fossil fuels in the ground, right now – and I agree we should – we’ll create overnight agrarian localist societies. And in those societies we’ll farm animals in ways that complement local food production. Their impacts will be slight. Might as well start now.
  6. Don’t feed the world, feed your community #2. One thing that the vegan ‘efficiency’ critique of ruminant agriculture does get right is that you can’t raise a lot of protein or calories per hectare from grass-fed animals raised for meat – especially for choice cuts of meat from young animals while treating most of the coproducts as waste matter, as is the modern way. Raising them for their milk is more land-efficient, but still lags behind the returns from plant crops. There’s a place for ruminant pastoralism, but it’s not for ‘feeding the world’. It’s for feeding (and clothing, and providing other useful fibre) for pastoralist people. However, there’s scope for – and in the long term I suspect a need for – more people to be ruminant-keeping pastoralists. There’s also a need for less people to be ruminant meat-buying consumers.
  7. Pigs and chickens #1. Our present carbon and price-obsessed historical moment has focused attention on the allegedly high environmental and economic costs of food from ruminants. This allows pig and chicken farming to sneak under the radar, since these animals don’t obviously emit so much in the way of greenhouse gases and can be produced cheaply on intensive units that feed them arable grains. Globally, chicken numbers have increased more than eightfold in the last sixty years, and pig numbers over twofold (the corresponding numbers for cattle and sheep are x1.6 and x1.3). The cheapness of intensive commercial chicken and pig farming rests on the cheapness of arable grains, which is a function of global arable overproduction and the price drivers of global commodity supply chains. As mentioned above, along with fossil fuel use, it’s these two factors (arable overproduction and global commodity dynamics), not cows or sheep (or even chickens and pigs) per se, which fundamentally drive the ecocide of the agricultural system.
  8. Pigs and chickens #2. All the same, intensive pig and chicken farming is pretty ecocidal in the way it helps drive arable overproduction and land encroachment, pollution through the over-concentration of its slurries, and the incubation of diseases and antibiotic resistances threatening to animal and human health.
  9. Pigs and chickens #3. An alternative to intensive pig and chicken farming is extensive pig and chicken farming. On the small local farm, pigs and chickens don’t eat primary arable grains but wastes that they turn into high grade food, while also providing useful and non-polluting manure, farm work and fibre.
  10. The right place for livestock. Building on that last point, the right place for livestock is in local, low energy input, small-scale, mixed farming where they are cyclers of fertility, soil improvers, mowers of fallows, pest controllers, upcyclers of wastes, providers of transport and traction, sources of craft and building materials, and – only after all that – direct sources of food. Worldwide, there are more people than is often supposed who rely on livestock from such mixed farming systems and it’s very important that their lifeways aren’t damaged by policies grounded in a superficial understanding of the harms of livestock agriculture. This is especially true because many of these people are retainers of skills and seedstock that will probably be vital in the future. Nevertheless, it’s also true that for many or possibly most people worldwide – and certainly most people in a rich country like the UK – it’s hard to get hold of food from animal sources deriving from such local, low energy input mix farms. And there’s a lot to be said for avoiding animal-based foods from commercial sources driven by arable overproduction, commodity price dynamics and fossil fuels. I’d caveat this strong case for a vegan approach to grocery shopping only by saying that ‘shopping aisle ethics’ of this kind largely make sense only within and don’t radically challenge a global commodity food system that’s unlikely to be sustainable in the long term – after which time it would be a good idea to develop low energy, small scale, local farming systems, a lot of which will be enhanced by livestock.
  11. Wildlife impacts. Any type of farming, or indeed any type of human livelihood-making of whatever kind, involves appropriating natural resources and modifying habitats, and will therefore involve wildlife impacts. Present human activities are affecting wildlife catastrophically, both through climate change and direct habitat and other impacts. Farming is a major player here, and probably the major direct player, climate change aside. I suspect I’m in agreement with Monbiot and the ecomodernists about all this, and about the fact that it’s a bad state of affairs. The differences arise in terms of what it’s possible and desirable to do about it. I’ve already covered enough material in this essay, so I won’t delve deeply into wildlife impacts here (see Saying NO…, Chapter 3). But in a nutshell I think Monbiot and the ecomodernists want to extricate humans as fully as possible from wresting their livelihoods from the natural world, in the hope this will protect the natural world as fully as possible from humans – and this view is boosted by the belief that farming and wildlife are basically incompatible. The bad news is that the technologies favoured by the ecomodernists are unlikely to extricate humanity nearly as much as they think, and even if they do there’s no guarantee this will lighten the burden on wildlife. Indeed, it’s precisely our human-extricating or agricultural labour-sparing technologies that seem to be leading wildlife into their present dire straits. The good news is that low-energy, job-rich, local mixed farming systems needn’t impact wildlife nearly as disastrously as the ecomodernists think. I believe it’s those systems that we need to build our future societies around.
  12. A punt on the future. Ultimately, one’s position in all these arguments about livestock and agrarian futures depends a lot not only on present judgments but also on future punts. If you think meeting present human food needs is incompatible with preserving sufficient wildlife AND you think most kinds of farmed food can be replaced with manufactured alternatives based on bacterial biomass AND you think that the present global energy economy can quickly transition out of fossil fuels to low carbon sources to provide at least an order of magnitude more energy than is currently used in order to produce that biomass AND you think that an urbanized humanity fed on bacterial biomass won’t extirpate wildlife in other ways AND you think existing patterns of global politics and trade will more or less persist, then I think it’s possible to entertain the kind of future projected by Monbiot and the ecomodernists. But if you don’t accept one of those contentions – or if, like me, you don’t accept any of them – then you’ll need to project a different kind of future. Absent those assumptions and, like it or not, the probable future in most places will ultimately involve agrarian localism and small-scale, low energy input farming. The more pleasant forms of that future for humans will usually involve livestock, though not in ways favoured by the present farm system. If you know people who are raising livestock in low impact and low energy ways that enhance your local food system, then hold tight to them because they are probably pioneers who will be needed as we enter new worlds of agrarian localism.

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, holistic livestock management, livestock farming