Challenging negative views of pastoralism in Europe: Q&A with Fernando García-Dory

On 27 September 2021, the online panel discussion ‘Are livestock always bad for the planet?’ will examine the role of pastoralism in controversies over food, diets and climate change. The event will launch a new report of the same name, co-published by the PASTRES project and 13 other organisations. The report argues that the global picture of livestock’s climate impacts has been distorted by assumptions that focus on intensive farming in rich countries. It calls for future debates, research and action on climate change and food to include extensive, lower-impact pastoralists and pastoralism around the world.

Speakers at the event include Antonello Franca (Institute for Animal Production in the Mediterranean), Ian Scoones (PASTRES), Veronique Ancey (UN FAO), Fernando García-Dory (European Shepherds Network), Fiona Flintan (International Livestock Research Institute), Engin Yılmaz (Alliance for Mediterranean Nature and Culture/Yolda Initiative).

Register for the panel event

Ahead of the launch event, PASTRES Principal Investigator Ian Scoones talked to Fernando García-Dory, pastoral farmer and the coordinator of the European Shepherds Network (see full bio at the end). They discussed the future of pastoralism in Europe, and particularly the impacts of views of an increasingly urban population that is detached from rural production and landscapes.

Fernando García-Dory

IS: How does the generalised narrative that livestock are bad for the environment affect European pastoral producers and the politics of the countryside?

FGD: The idea that livestock are bad has emerged at a particular moment. There have been various scandals about the safety of meat – for example mad cow disease (BSE). There is a popular sense that meat is full of antibiotics, and in the US pumped with hormones. There is a general discontent with the industrial, urban lifestyle by many groups, with such discontent promoted by environmentalists, vegan activists and others. The focus on alternative ideals of ‘wellness’ and personal and environmental health is important, rejecting ‘junk food’ and in some people’s perception, animal-sourced foods as a whole.

This comes with a dislocation in society’s attitudes to animals, especially as people become urbanised and disconnected from rural production systems, including pastoralism. Animals are seen as either pets or machines, but the caring relations with their herds and flocks that pastoralists show are not recognised. This all adds to a cocktail of ideas that frame the debates in Europe, and leads to pastoralists getting labelled in the same way as industrial producers, even though they produce meat, milk, cheese and so on in totally different ways.

Meanwhile, pastoralists feel under attack. What they produce, their work, their ways of life, even the way they manage the environment through livestock, is under fire. We feel that there is no market or cultural recognition for pastoralism and pastoral products. We often end up selling products to the same abbatoirs and milk processing plants as those who produce industrially, and do not get a price that recognises how we produce. With products dumped from the US, Argentina, Australia or wherever the prices drop further.

We now must seek out different markets, including in the Middle East, selling lambs for Eid rather than for Easter as demand drops in Europe. But the industrial meat producers are more flexible, they can just switch, and sell to Russia or wherever. It’s much more difficult for pastoralists as we have to seek out specialist markets where slaughter techniques or food quality are important, and this is challenging. So yes, reducing local demand is making things difficult.

Pastoralists feel that they are being condemned, morally judged by people from urban areas who do not know about the countryside, coming with ideas about environments and diets that don’t fit their realities. Pastoralists living in the mountains, herding animals, have often been cast as backward. For a long time it was a conservative, technocratic elite that criticised us, arguing for modern, industrialised agriculture. But now we are also criticised by environmentalists for destroying the environment, for killing wildlife that predates on our animals; by feminists who see pastoralism as part of a patriarchal control of ‘mother nature’ and the dominating slavery of animals and by animal rights activists and vegans for challenging the right to life of animals. We are attacked from all sides! It is painful!

It is no surprise therefore that sometimes pastoralists become attracted to those pushing right-wing, populist ideas that offer an alternative to what is cast as leftist urban environmentalism not connected to ‘the people’. So we see this in Spain, through the Vox party, and also in France, Germany and across eastern Europe. Such movements use the new media very effectively, creating viral videos, trolling on social media and so on. Authoritarian populist parties and movements are definitely making in-roads into rural areas, and among pastoralists who see no alternative, having been ignored by states and now are critiqued by environmentalists and animal rights/vegan activists. The Vox party for example even has a Union of Free Farmers.

IS: In what ways can European pastoralists show that they are good for the environment, and reconnect with those living in urban areas? What are the examples of success on the ground?

FGD: In Spain, we are connecting through shepherds’ schools for those wanting to take up pastoralism, and we see a growing interest. We also bring our flocks to towns, creating flock-forest classrooms in cities. We engage with schools and with families who come and see. They see the animals, taste the cheese and take it home. They get a different view of pastoralism.

Of course, the biggest challenge is from those who take a hard-line animal rights stance, arguing that all animals must have the right to live and should never be slaughtered. Instead, we argue that pastoralists care for the flock as a collective, protecting thousands of years of breeding through conserving and indeed enhancing biodiversity. It is not so much about the slaughter of individual animals but caring for the collective – of the flock, the breeds and indeed the landscape. It is a symbiotic relationship of care, between pastoralists and animals. Many who do not understand pastoralism as a cultural system of production, intimately connected to animals and the environment, do not see this, and we need to show it.

We engage in different ways. We need to show how pastoralists contribute to nature, protect biodiversity and care for animals. Pastoralists are custodians of life, guardians of the environment and landscapes that people value. When the transhumance happens, people can see. Mobility is a key facet of pastoralism. We maintain bio-corridors, such as sheep trails and cattle droves, and animals live outdoors – all very different to the caged animals of industrial factory farming. And, when we bring animals to town, we can demystify what pastoralism is. We also work with environmental organisations. For example, we work with the European Climate Foundation, advocating an alliance for a new pastoralism. When Friends of the Earth in Spain proposed their campaign rejecting all meat due to impacts on climate change, we argued that we needed a focus on ‘more meat of better quality to keep the countryside alive’.

The students in the shepherds’ schools, coming from many different backgrounds, can connect their pastoral practices to the fight against climate change, and so not be vilified as climate polluters. We bring in migrants to the shepherd schools – for example from Senegal or Morocco – as migrants from within and outside Europe are so central to pastoral labour across the continent. And we really emphasise gender equity and the feminist ethics of empathy and care in pastoralism. Youth are especially important, as it is they who can advocate another agrarian system, with pastoralism central. This is a pastoralism that complements but doesn’t compete with arable food production and where pastoralism can protect mountain and rangelands landscapes for everyone.

IS: In Europe, what alliances have to be built with consumers, environmentalists and others? What are the challenges?

FGD: We are building alliances. There are for example fashion designers who are using wool from our farms in their products. You can look cool, fashionable in wool is the message, and that wool is natural and not reliant on petrochemicals. There was even a feature in Vogue highlighting cheese products from pastoral areas. Although limited, these images are connecting with consumers and others.

We argue again that pastoral production is about collective care, and that we must get over an imposed ethno-centrism around diets. As long as we are protecting environments, biodiversity and the collective of the flock and the breed, we reject that one type of diet is necessarily morally superior. If you eat tofu from a supermarket is this really the case? And getting beyond the ‘deep ecology’ environmentalism of some, we must make the case that environmental guardianship is central, but this is about agroecology, living in the landscape, making use of it, not simply preserving and protecting in some mythical idea of wild nature, where wolves, bears and predators have more rights somehow.

We do need to go beyond the image of the old, male traditional shepherd living in the mountains. Having young people, women and those from diverse backgrounds making the case for pastoralism is vital. And having alliances with others throughout the world, through WAMIP (World Alliance for Mobile and Indigenous Peoples) and other organisations, is essential.

But it is a challenge. There are divides in pastoral communities for sure. As we’ve discussed, some sign up to regressive, populist parties and movements and do not have this alternative view. They want to resist change, are conservative in outlook. Some identify the environmental movement as the core enemy, and ally themselves with the agri-food industrial system, mimicking their commitment to modernisation. There are others, including some who have come to pastoral areas, giving up urban jobs and lifestyles, who are very different. And the demographics of pastoral areas doesn’t help. We have an ageing population, movement of young people away, some coming in and a mobile migrant population being involved in herding. Integration and alliance building is hard.

IS: How can pastoralists have a wider voice in debates about climate change at national and European levels? What are obstacles?

FGD: It’s difficult. The image of pastoralism is often captured by the industrialists who market their products with images of rangelands and pastoralists, but actually farm in factories. They have the power, the advertising, the media. The urban environmentalist lobby is powerful too, and they often have celebrity endorsements as well. We cannot afford the mass media, but must engage directly with consumers. We show the quality experience of transhumance, we engage with schools and in markets.

But pastoralists find it difficult to engage with organised action and mobilisation. There’s no time, people live in remote places, digital connection is not good, organisations are dispersed and lack capacities of administration, coordination and communication. There is a huge amount of work involved in family-scale pastoral production; and now also with a diversified economy needed to survive,  processing milk, running an agro-tourism B&B, supplying local markets and attending the animals is enormously hard. With rural depopulation, pastoralists are getting fewer and older too. And, as we’ve discussed, pastoralists often feel alienated by others who they should be linking with. The urban environmentalists are seen people with poor knowledge of nature and the countryside, who do not value their labour or their products. They are seen as elitist, domineering and telling pastoralists what to do in the places that they know best. Protecting predators for example is seen as an urban elitist concern and is very divisive.

So mobilising around particular themes is what we can do. This is mostly rear-guard action though. So we have engaged around the problems of e-identification of all animals, the issue of carbon offsetting favouring forests not rangelands and around predators, pushing governments and the EU to think about this in a more balanced way, protecting pastoralists and their animals too.

Regional governments are probably the most effective location for policy influencing. They know their territories better, so in decentralised political systems like Spain it’s easier. But in the end, given that decisions are made centrally, we have to coordinate with work at national and EU levels. At least at European level, there is a growing cultural recognition of pastoralism, including ideas about transhumance as ‘cultural heritage’, but this is not echoed in economic policies where it matters, and where the industrial lobby dominates. And thinking may not be joined up, say between advocacy of pastoralism and talk about reducing meat and milk and so-called ‘healthy’ diets, or between landscape management by pastoralists and biodiversity protection and the creation of reserves. In the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) reform debates there were lots of discussion, but also lots of smokescreens.  

IS: What would an alternative narrative for the future on livestock and climate change that incorporates pastoralists look like?

FGD: Pastoralism is about care – for animals, environments, landscapes. We are for high quality diets and local healthy food cultures, and want to encourage local markets and avoid the damage of free trade and industrial production.  We are at the forefront of mitigating the climate crisis through preventing fires, increasing biodiversity and sustaining resilient food systems with low carbon inputs. Our locally adapted and sustainable practices are safeguarding healthy ecosystems – we need this recognition to be translated into greater recognition and more sovereignty, so that we can continue working in interdependence with users of the countryside, the livestock and the environment. We want to keep the countryside alive, with people and animals!

The discussion event ‘Are livestock always bad for the planet?’ will be on 27 September at 10:30-12.00 (Rome/CET), streamed live on Zoom. Register here.


About Fernando García-Dory: Fernando García Dory grew up between Madrid and his family farm in the northern Spanish mountains, which is dedicated to the recovery of local breeds of cows and horses. He studied Arts and Rural Sociology and is now working on a PhD on Agroecology and the Cultural Strategies of Pastoralism.  Since 1999, he has been involved in the Spanish peasant movement, Plataforma Rural, which is part of La Via Campesina. In 2004, he started the Shepherds School, a project that continues today with two venues in Spain, training hundreds of young people entering pastoralism. In 2007, he helped coordinate a World Gathering of Nomads and Pastoralists that officially gave birth to WAMIP (the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples). From 2008, he was involved in the creation of the Spanish Shepherds Federation and the European Shepherds Network. And, in 2009, together with nine others he started Campo Adentro-INLAND, a non-profit cooperative. The coop combines training, mobilisation and cheese production using their flocks both in Madrid Casa de Campo park – the first urban shepherding initiative in Spain – and the northern Spanish mountains, where they are also rehabilitating an abandoned village as a Shepherds School. Currently he is also Regional Coordinator of the European Region for WAMIP and the Global Focal Point for Pastoralists at the Rangelands Initiative.

To find out more about the training for pastoralists, visit the Escuela de Pastores website.

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

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