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Lately, we have been seeing a number of new definitions of sustainability being presented, all intended to move us forward from the 1987 Brundtland Report definition in the UN document Our Common Future.
Some discuss conserving the ecological balance by avoiding a depletion of resources, enhancing social capital or calculating a level at which things can be safely maintained. None really add anything helpful or help with the perceived defects in the Brundtland definition – mostly that it was too general. It is not a surprise that the best sustainability courses have stuck with Brundtland’s definition:
Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future. Far from requiring the cessation of economic growth, it recognizes that the problems of poverty and underdevelopment cannot be solved unless we have a new era of growth in which developing countries play a large role and reap large benefits.
The second sentence of this is often overlooked, but the Commission was clear that the plan must be to find ways to end poverty that do not harm the future of the planet.
In a recent webinar, Fernando Bellese, Chief Sustainability Officer at Prime Asia, showed a slide in which the first bullet point says livestock employs about 1.4 billion people globally. This does not include those involved in the leather and leather using industries but does include over one billion small farmers.
One billion smallholder farmers depend on livestock for food and income
According to Antonio Rota, lead global technical specialist at the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development, “an estimated one billion smallholder farmers in developing countries depend on livestock for food and income. Their production frequently generates up to 40 percent of agricultural GDP. Livestock provide food for families, generate an additional income and act as a buffer where a crisis arises. Livestock also supply manure for crops, and draught power for tilling, and transport for products and families.”
What is more, he says that “demand for livestock products is expected to more than double during the next 20 years. This offers an immense opportunity for a profitable and sustainable increase in livestock production – in particular in Africa – by smallholders who already produce the lion's share of the continent's milk, meat and eggs. Further development of the livestock sector could spur employment and economic growth in rural areas where millions of young people are currently unemployed.”
The onslaught against livestock farming and eating meat that we have seen over the last 20 years ignored these one billion marginal livestock farmers (and their families that depend on them) around the world. It fabricated a highly biased, and scientifically inaccurate, narrative against livestock. The 2006 FAO paper, Livestock’s Long Shadow, appeared to legitimise a fight to end livestock while not giving a thought to the livelihoods of this huge part of the planet’s population. By crazily globalising figures, they were blamed for water and fertiliser consumption that they could never access if they wanted.
How the FAO allowed itself to walk into such a harmful position is hard to credit; it has led to incalculable harm.
The current discussion about regenerative farming and ‘good soil’ is as much an emerging world matter as it is for the developed areas. The UNIDO leather panel’s meeting in Addis Ababa a decade ago heard about long leases being signed on huge areas of land to overseas farming industrialists. From all reports, the outcomes have not been good. There are tales of palm oil plantation failures, cotton plantations collecting 2% of the crop and “idle assets” where the lease was taken only to get hold of government grants. The land is largely abandoned and degrades, and the soil gets swept away in storms and dustbowls. We have seen such failures throughout the world.
Some enlightened aid organisations have realised that industrial farming of huge areas creates equally huge problems. As in Ethiopia and in Sudan, indigenous and nomadic populations are ignored and displaced – part of the reason for the Darfur wars that started in 2003. Unemployed and homeless youths are food for militia and extremism. Creating agricultural monocultures such as palm oil and cotton, as tried in Ethiopia, destroys biodiversity and endangers the land with pesticides.
These organisations have been quietly working to improve education and training to ensure that grazing does not destroy the grassland by becoming too intensive, and husbandry improves so that the animals yield more and incomes can increase. In Africa in particular, meat yields and successful reproductive rates are far below what they should be.
In reality, historical pastoral activities are close to what we are now calling regenerative agriculture, with animals constantly being moved after grazing and naturally fertilising an area in the way that buffalo once roamed the American plains in bygone days. A concept now called “mob grazing”.
While the world has been fixated on saving the planet by planting trees, the importance of grasslands for biodiversity and carbon dioxide sequestration must not be ignored. If in doubt, read the excellent papers and blog to be found on the website at UC Davis CLEAR Center. Trees are vital but cannot alone counterbalance the major sources of climate change which come from our addiction to fossil for industry, transport and household living. Really suitable land for trees is in short supply, and many of the tree plantation schemes offered are in places where both the integrity and long-term future of planting is in doubt. Too often, the new tree plantations are single species commercial areas, killing diversity and lasting only a few years before being cut down, or succumbing to fire as global temperatures rise.
Throughout the world, large areas of damaged former grassland are not suited for trees, but are still no longer doing their job of sequestering carbon. Patagonia, with 780 000 km2, is one with a third of the region degraded, largely due to poor grazing management. This was largely caused by overgrazing for many decades, with large numbers of sheep (they peaked at 21.2m in 1952). With regenerative techniques, indications are that a major improvement can be achieved with appropriate grazing techniques. But other landscapes through the U.S., the Brazilian Cerrado (which covers 20% of Brazil), through the Scottish Machair to huge swathes of Asia are being returned to health with the aid of livestock.
In the UK, 97% of the wild-flower meadows have been lost since the 1930s. Yet, they are essential to the provision of shelter and food for important pollinators, including bees. Without these meadows, we lose not only pollinators, but other insects and animals that eat insects, such as birds, hedgehogs and bats.
We cannot protect nature, or end poverty, without livestock and leather
The more diversity we have in our natural habitats, then the more bees, birds, animals and other insects there will be. Last year, the UK Minister of the Environment, Zac Goldsmith, stated, "we cannot solve the climate crisis without protecting nature. There is no path to net zero without a major effort to protect and restore nature", and this will be a major theme at the COP26 talks at the end of this year.
We should not forget that just as these hugely important grassland areas are vital to biodiversity and a healthy planet, grazing with livestock is an essential element in their maintenance. We cannot solve the climate crisis without nature, and we cannot protect nature, or end poverty, without livestock and leather.
March 30, 2021
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