In recent years livestock production has been criticized for contributing to the climate crisis. Several groups, including corporate lobbies and environmentalists alike, have called for a reduction in meat and milk consumption and a shift towards more plant-based diets. But these simplistic and one-sided narratives about livestock and animal products are misleading and dangerous.
As we approach World Food Day this Sunday (16 October), we ask how can the livestock sector contribute to an environmentally just future?
Through pastoralism! – answers a new primer, Livestock, Climate and the Politics of Resources, written by the lead researcher on the IDS co-hosted Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resiliance (PASTRES) programme, Ian Scoones, and published by the Transnational Institute.
Unlike industrial livestock production systems, pastoralists make use of variability in resources to improve animal wellbeing in ways that would not be possible without human engagement, especially through careful herding and mobility.
Pastoralism, food and the environment
Pastoralists can play a critical role in protecting the environment, sequestering carbon and enhancing biodiversity, while providing nutritious, protein-rich meals to often the most marginalised people. Failing to account for these benefits and focussing narrowly on emissions per animal, as climate debates often do, creates distortions in assessments and policies.
Consumption of animal source products is highly skewed, with wealthy elites consuming far more globally, while many of the world’s poor suffer from nutritional deficiencies and their consequences. Animal source foods not only provide valuable proteins but also, importantly, concentrated and affordable micronutrients, crucial for young children and pregnant and breast-feeding mothers. Pastoral systems make this nutrition available especially in areas where crop agriculture is difficult, such as highlands and drylands.
Often seen as ‘empty’, idle ‘wastelands’ thirsty for investment, these environments have become new frontiers of extraction and enclosure, dispossessing pastoralists of their lands and livelihoods. Thus, while the livestock sector has come under fire for its adverse impact on climate, especially from industrial systems, extensive livestock production through pastoralism faces new threats, eroding the benefits that it has to offer both to the environment and to poor people across the world.
Focusing exclusively on dietary change can distract us from a wider vision of food system transformation that reduces the power of corporations and puts political control of the food system into people’s hands. Therefore, as the primer systematically argues, moving towards an environmentally just future asks us to differentiate between industrial livestock production and pastoralism, and recognise its many contributions.
Join the discussion
Join PASTRES lead investigator Ian Scoones and our partners Fernando Garcia-Dory (WAMIP) and Kirtana Chandrasekaran (FOEI), moderated by Katie Sandwell (TNI) for a webinar on “Livestock, livelihoods and climate justice: what is the future of animal agriculture?” on October 26 at 14:00 CET. Register to attend this event.