Climate, biodiversity and livestock: big debates for 2021

Written by Ian Scoones, PI PASTRES Programme, IDS, Sussex

2021 is going to be an important year for international affairs. In a few days, the US finally rejoins the international community under the Biden administration; in May China hosts the Biodiversity COP in Kunming; around June the G7 meeting is held under the UK presidency; in September the UN Food Systems Summit will be hosted by the UN Secretary General and in November the delayed Climate COP26 will kick off in Glasgow. Although not top of the agenda, all these events will affect the debate about livestock, climate change and biodiversity.

During this year, the PASTRES blog will be featuring an occasional series of contributions on the complex relationships between livestock production and climate change, with some detours into debates around biodiversity too. We have also commissioned some new research to help illuminate the discussion and, together with others, we will publish a major report on the theme of climate and livestock before the COP26 summit.

Surely, you may say, the discussion is settled. Livestock are bad for the environment: belching, farting cows cause climate change and sheep and goats destroy the environment. The solution is to stop eating meat (and milk and cheese) and turn degraded pastures over to rewilded woodland. Well, that’s the narrative you often hear in the media, and it’s become an increasingly popular campaign position for Western environmental NGOs.

Take Greenpeace for example. In 2020 it released a report, Farming for Failure: How European Animal Farming Fuels the Climate Emergency, with great fanfare and some snappy infographics that claimed animal farming in the EU emitted more carbon dioxide (equivalent) than all cars and vans combined. As with some previous reports, the message was that livestock are bad, and changing the livestock industry combined with shifting individual diets is the answer. The conclusions from these reports were taken up widely in the media with reports across the international press. Normally rigorous papers failed to interrogate the data and the underlying assumptions: the campaign narrative was adopted as accepted fact.

This increasingly dominant narrative is supported by many. Rushed journalists like a clear and simple story: good guys and bad, and in this case the bad guys are livestock. The environmentalists see a future of green and pleasant lands rewilded with trees. Climate change campaigners see the potential for emission reductions and carbon sequestration through removing livestock from landscapes, while the commercial offsetting companies see carbon cash flowing from new tree planting. Those promoting healthy diets see switches from red meat in particular resulting in improved health, while animal rights advocates look to reductions in animal slaughter.    

Well (perhaps inevitably) it’s more complicated than Greenpeace (and many others) suggest. The life-cycle models that generate the headline figures are based on a limited set of data, and tell only a very partial story. Alternative scenarios are hidden, such is the power of the currently dominant narrative. The blogs this year will attempt to dig into the story, and unpack the data, examining the politics of policy along the way.

While there is no doubt that livestock production produces greenhouse gases and so contributes to climate change, it’s very important to ask: which livestock, where, under what conditions? Equally, eating a lot of meat is associated with poor health outcomes in the West – average consumption of meat in the US is now well over 100kg per person per year, for example. But we must also ask how much is bad for you under what conditions, as many pastoralists eat a lot of meat, milk and blood (around 65% of dietary energy intake among some East African groups) and are comparatively healthy? And in contemplating dramatic changes in land uses in marginal rangeland areas, we must also ask what are the alternatives in such often dry and remote areas for those reliant on livestock for their livelihoods?

There is much talk of ‘climate justice’ at the moment, but we must also ask how a dominant (Western) narrative affects others, perhaps in far-distant places and without a voice. Where is the ‘cognitive justice’ around livestock-climate debates, when alternative knowledges, perspectives and ways of life are hidden from view? In particular, we will be asking whether certain types of extensive livestock production linked to local markets can be sustainable, and under what conditions? Many millions of pastoralists, reliant on meat and milk production across the world, and some of the poorest and most marginalised populations on the planet, are directly affected by a simplistic narrative that just says (all) livestock are (always) bad for the environment. The consequences of reducing demand for livestock products could be devastating for pastoralists’ livelihoods. Is such devastation, what we mean by climate justice?

In picking apart the debate and looking at the data in more detail, perhaps we can develop a more disaggregated response: livestock production that is good for the environment (or not so bad) contrasted with livestock production that definitely does need to change. Seeking an alternative narrative that puts pastoralists’ livelihoods at the centre, while thinking about multi-dimensional aspects of sustainability, is not so amenable to sound-bite driven campaigns and simplistic infographics, but it may be more just and ultimately better for the both people and planet.

For the 2021 climate, biodiversity and livestock PASTRES blog series, we have got some great contributions so far. They reflect on politics of policy processes around livestock farming in the UK; present new data from Sardinia on the contributions of extensive livestock rearing to carbon emissions; offer reflections on environmental improvement in cities through urban pastoralism in Romania and provide a commentary on EU reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy. And there’s much more in the pipeline too! Please feel free to contribute on the comments section on any blog, and be in touch if you want to contribute to the debate.  Below are links to two earlier PASTRES blogs on these themes to get you started:

This is the first blog post in a series on climate change, biodiversity and livestock.

You can see more and follow the PASTRES project on Twitter and Instagram

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