“How much is my farm worth…. from an environmental point of view?” Reflections from Sardinia

Photo credit: Matilda Schirru

Antonello Franca, CNR ISPAAM, Sassari and PASTRES Country lead, Sardinia, Italy

A few years ago I had a chat with a highly innovative Sardinian farmer; I asked “what is the research topic that you think is important for pastoralism in Sardinia?”. Without hesitation, they replied “I would like to know how much my farm is worth from an environmental point of view!” I was very surprised by the precise answer, and I began to try to understand the reasons.

My first stop was the controversial FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, published in 2006. The report argued that the low levels of production efficiency of extensive farming systems were linked to high GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. This raised the alarm both around climate change and pastoralism worldwide. And it had big implications for the single farm activities too.

Ten years ago, with a group of CNR colleagues in Sassari, Sardinia, together with shepherds from island, we have developed a preliminary research, based on life cycle assessment approach, focusing on the environmental impacts of pastoral production, with particular attention to the production of sheep’s milk.  The CNR “CISIA“ project – Integrated knowledge for sustainability and innovation of Italian agri-food sector”-  examined livestock production in pastoral systems with limited use of cultivated fodder and competition with food crops and compared these with intensive systems with higher dependence on fossil fuels. Data on pastoral production began to be collected and the carbon footprint of the production of one litre of sheep’s milk was estimated, comparing different levels of intensification.

Photo credit: Matilda Schirru

The results were interesting. We discovered that pastoral farms that used natural pastures as the only source of forage had the same GHG emissions per unit of production (with a small range of variation – from 2.0 to 2.3 kg CO2-eq per kg of fat and protein corrected milk) compared to more intensive farms.  However, the carbon footprint per unit of area of the farm, the results change. One hectare of pastoral area emits significantly less GHG emissions than an intensive farm. As a result, the take-home-message changes depending on the type of functional unit considered.

The current debate about climate change and livestock production is often confused on exactly this point. And the lack of farm-level data makes it worse. There is an urgent need for verification with direct data collected in the farm. This must also consider the important function of soil carbon sequestration provided by grazing animals and grazed vegetation, especially in extensive system.

A poor understanding of the science, and highly selective use of data in big reports, can give a false impression, especially when the media wants a simple story. Across Europe there is a growing aversion towards the whole world of animal breeding, without exception and failing to differentiate between different production systems. For example, last year Italian public television broadcast a series of reports on prime-time TV channels condemning livestock production as a major cause of climate change. And for pastoral producers the timing was crucial –  just before Easter, exactly the period in which most of the lamb meat that is produced annually in Italy is sold and consumed.

Photo credit: Matilda Schirru

Of course a commitment to environmentally-friendly agriculture is essential, and European policymakers are seemingly committed to this in the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. How then can European pastoralism be positioned in this debate? How do we avoid the simplistic media narratives based on selective data distort public debate? Many European pastoral products (meat, milk, cheeses, mainly from sheep and goats), especially from places like Sardinia, contribute to sustainable production paths with strong territorial roots, supporting local economies and diverse livelihoods. Yet, at the same time, they are accused of causing environmental damage.

Solid, field-based research is needed to respond to these questions, and future blogs will share findings from our Sardinia research. At state, another European research project – LIFE Sheeptoship – is dealing with the environmental impacts of pastoralism in all its forms and the results will help identify effective mitigation practices that will reduce GHG emissions. Such research also will hopefully also inform public debate, allowing a more sophisticated, evidence-informed response. With certain types of pastoral production able to present a more ‘green’ image, demonstrating the sustainability of pastoral products, will allow producers in Sardinia and elsewhere target their products to environmentally conscious consumers on the market.

This blog post is part of a series on climate change, biodiversity and livestock.

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One thought

  1. Thank you for your informative posting. Hopefully, more policy types will catch onto the differences you are talking about.

    May I suggest a different way of putting your key point? You stress the false and distorting effect of the current narratives. Actually, your example suggests another way of putting the same point: “Even if the critics’ point is true, it’s only true as far as it goes and it must go further”, at least for comes to better policy and management.


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