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Mike Redwood explains why we actually need more livestock in the world, albeit with better and more regenerative management.
I was surprised to hear an environmental expert from Spain proclaiming that we need more livestock and other grazing animals, not fewer, during a series of post COP26 sessions run by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford.
Livestock, wild or managed, are needed to maintain the world’s grassland, according to Pablo Manzano of the Basque Centre for Climate Change. Grazing animals improve biodiversity and the quality of our soils through fire prevention, the restoration of altered soils and maintaining the nutrient cycle.
For about 15 million years, most of the land that is not tropical forests was grassland, often with trees like a parkland, and this was maintained by a wide variety of herbivores such as buffalo, large ancient auroch cattle as well as sheep, goats, deer and many others.
During the last few tens of thousands of years, humans became hunter-gatherers, started pastoral farming and then moved to wholesale landscape management as urban centres and infrastructure was built. This fragmented the grassland habitat and, in many places, agriculture became heavily industrialised.
Most of the figures used to attack the livestock industry come from calculations related to this industrialised agriculture and are therefore misleading, quite apart from overlooking the global warming potential calculation which places the methane produced within the carbon cycle. Manzano thinks this has badly muddled the thinking around livestock and eating meat in many countries.
He notes that pastoral livestock does not need arable land, while vegan diets do. Although in some areas livestock may not produce much per hectare, grazing takes advantage of immense areas where crop cultivation is impossible or requires large amounts of irrigation, an issue proving problematic. Grass-fed livestock mostly uses only natural water sources, having a very limited impact on water used for irrigation or human consumption.
He adds that livestock can sometimes cause negative effects on biodiversity as with overgrazing in some areas of Africa and China but, with sensible management, livestock is hugely positive, hence the ongoing push globally towards regenerative agriculture. He suggests that wild grazing and browsing animals (like elephants) do well in far higher densities than limited historic research suggests, giving very high values of species richness and structural diversity of vegetation if good practices keep what is termed “the three strata” (tree, shrub and herbaceous) intact.
There has never been a need for Amazon deforestation, whereas there is a requirement for more intensive, better managed Brazilian Cerrado to enhance the soil and its ability to sequester carbon dioxide.
While Manzano opposes industrialised farming, much greater livestock intensification is possible through better husbandry, especially in developing regions. This includes better reproductive health and improved alignment of grazing patterns with the productivity of the pasture. In Africa, years of effort have not made much progress, but all the panel experts still thought there was considerable room for gains.
While the other panellists thought that some industrial farming would be needed to meet growing demand for meat and land, although it is not clear if their population projections include the latest reductions made by the UN as the global human birth rate continues to decline faster than expected.
All panellists discounted the idea of moving to vegan diets, although there was agreement that developed countries would have to moderate intake, especially of highly processed meats. It is important that meat be available to pregnant and nursing mothers and young children as well as to help eliminate malnutrition in impoverished areas.
Based on his studies Manzano indicated that if we took grazing on long term grassland seriously, we should be able to produce enough meat while improving biodiversity and maintaining the CO2 sequestration capacity of the land.
The Oxford Martin Post Cop26 series is available on YouTube. Dr Pablo Manzano’s Paper “Is it possible to feed the world only with grazing cattle?” can be found on theConservation.com
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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