The global picture of livestock’s impacts on climate change has been distorted by faulty assumptions that focus on intensive farming in rich countries, according to a new report published by the PASTRES research programme.
Ahead of the COP26 climate conference and the UN Food Systems Summit, the report, Are livestock always bad for the planet?, warns that important decisions about climate mitigation, food systems and land use – including dietary shifts, tree planting schemes and rewilding – risk being based on partial or misleading evidence.
The report warns that millions of people worldwide who depend on extensive livestock production, with relatively lower climate impacts, are being ignored by debates on the future of food. Low-impact pastoral farming in drylands and mountains has been ‘lumped in’ with much more intensive methods like factory farming, according to the report’s authors, Ella Houzer and Ian Scoones.
Animal-source foods are vital for nutrition in low-income populations, and in places where crop production is not possible, including in many dry and mountainous parts of the world. Changes in meat and milk consumption must focus on the most climate-damaging diets, which are concentrated among a ‘consumption elite’ – often rich people in rich countries.
The report, published by the European Research Council-supported PASTRES programme and 13 collaborating organisations, argues that current debates fail to differentiate between ways of producing livestock products. The report identifies a number of assumptions and gaps in the data on livestock and climate change:
- Data from industrial systems in high-income countries are used to make assumptions about animals in other areas, where patterns of emissions are very different. For example, emission factor protocols proposed by the IPCC, the basis for many assessments, derive from studies of industrialised systems, mostly high-intensity dairy and beef farms. These are very different from the climate impacts of extensive livestock production.
- The impact of different greenhouse gases, with long and short lifetimes in the atmosphere, is also assessed in controversial ways. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but its presence declines quite quickly, usually over 9–12 years. By contrast, CO2 has less warming potential, but it can stay in the atmosphere permanently. This means that, for example, treating cows and cars as equivalent sources of carbon emissions is misleading in the longer term.
- Global studies of livestock emissions are skewed towards rich countries. For example, a review of 164 Life Cycle Analyses (LCA) of food production was dominated by data from affluent countries. 86% were from Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, 9% from Asia, 4% from Latin America and only 0.4% from Africa.
- In extensive systems, livestock replace wild herbivores, which also emit greenhouse gases. Pastoral systems may therefore not result in additional emissions from the ‘natural’ baseline. Indeed, some forms of extensive grazing can potentially increase soil carbon stocks.
Report co-author Professor Ian Scoones from the Institute of Development Studies, commented:
“The livestock sector has become the ‘climate villain’ of agriculture. But as global leaders make decisions about the future of food and farming, it’s vital to understand the differences between ways of producing animal products in different parts of the world. While richer consumers should undoubtedly rethink their diets, for many people throughout the world, pastoralism can and should remain part of a low-carbon future.”
The report recommends developing practical solutions to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions including manure management, grazing mobility and strategies for carbon sequestration. This means working with livestock-keepers, drawing on local knowledge and practices. The report argues that pastoralists must be included in decisions about the future of food and in urgent debates about climate change.
Pastoralism is practised by between 200 and 500 million people worldwide, in very different contexts to industrialised, intensive farming. Pastoralism is important in harsh, highly variable environments in nearly every country of the world, with rangelands making up over half the world’s land surface from the drylands of sub-Saharan Africa to the Arctic Circle.