The truth about livestock

Are livestock the biggest cause for the 6th mass extinction? Do livestock emit more harmful greenhouse gases than all cars, ships and planes on the planet? Are livestock responsible for large-scale environmental destruction?

The truth is: it depends. Which livestock, where?

While there is no doubt that industrial livestock farming has deleterious effects on the environment, not all livestock are always bad for the planet. Conclusions that focus on the livestock sector for climate mitigation are driven by assessments based on flawed assumptions and missing information. Moreover, they lump together different types of livestock production systems, generalising results and producing simplified narratives.

An infosheet uncovers the “Ten flaws in mainstream assessments of livestock and climate change.”

Most approaches to assessing the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock systems use ‘lifecycle analyses’ (LCAs). Firstly, the vast majority of LCAs look at industrial systems from high-income countries and hence do not represent a truly ‘global’ picture as vast parts of the world are marked by extensive and pastoral production systems.

Secondly, the major greenhouse gas emitted by livestock is methane which has a much shorter lifespan than other persistent GHGs such as carbon dioxide and therefore factors that create equivalence may result in biases.

Infographic showing the methane emissions per animal, directly measured for Kenya and industrialised livestock, and estimated for cattle in Africa

Thirdly, LCAs are based on per animal assessments rather than taking a systems approach that places the animal in context. They therefore exclude the benefits that accrue from the open grazing and management of livestock such as enhanced carbon sequestration, improved biodiversity, protection from wildfires and so on.

Lastly, initiatives such as ‘rewilding’, ‘land sparing’ or conservation fail to promote a justice perspective that protects the land and livelihoods of local, small-scale and indigenous livestock producers, and may not result in the desired benefits especially in areas such as drylands and highlands.

Extrapolating across different livestock production systems and drawing ‘global’ conclusions can be very misleading. The infosheet questions the narrow set of inputs and outputs analysed through LCAs.

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Drawing from the report “Are livestock always bad for the planet?” the infosheet is part of a series of material helpful for understanding the relationship between livestock, livestock keepers and climate change ahead of the COP27 of the UNFCCC. Read about the report briefing.

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