By Dr Heinz Meissner
Worldwide, many debates regarding the future of livestock farming tend to concentrate only on its negative impacts without considering the positives. These discussions focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, use of resources and land, industrialisation of systems, deforestation etc.
Also, people are worried about animal welfare and ethics and, in the most extreme cases, some even refuse both the slaughter and exploitation of animals. According to these activist groups, livestock farming should be abolished for a better world and a more environmentally friendly agriculture. So, what would our planet be without livestock farming? In the arguments to follow, the individual choice of eating or not eating animal products are not judged, but the public needs to be informed and the consequences of simplistic reasoning and dogmas not supported by facts, should be highlighted.
Food security perspective
More than nine billion people will have to be fed in 2050. About 40% of unfrozen land is covered by forests and a further one third by rangeland (Mongol steppes, tundra, African savanna, permanent grassland in mountain areas and dry zones), which cannot be used to cultivate crops. This leaves only one third as arable land which can be used to produce grains, fruits and vegetables. Therefore, in a world without livestock farming, one third of the rangeland that is available for the production of meat and milk, will not be utilised. According to the FAO, these territories produce about 25% of global meat.
This also raises the question of the future of millions of people who are living in these regions. The rangelands cover vast areas, in some regions up to 80% of the agricultural land. They contribute to the production of meat and dairy products, and some of them also to the cultural and food habits of the indigenous populations.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), 800 million people can survive only because of livestock farming. What would become of them without livestock farming? Would they migrate to countries where they could produce cereals, thereby creating a huge humanitarian crisis? In many developing countries, livestock farming largely contributes to women empowerment (e.g. according to the FAO, 25% of dairy farms are managed by women).
Furthermore, the European livestock sector employs directly (agriculture) and indirectly (processing industry) around five million people. What would become of these jobs and those that are related to them? In South Africa, as in Europe and elsewhere, these jobs are most often located in rural areas where livestock farming is one of the main contributors to the vitality of towns and communities.
Ecological and environmental perspective
Livestock farming contributes to the maintenance of ecological systems and soil fertility. For small and poor farmers, livestock provide natural fertilisers that farmers cannot buy (fertilising 40% of arable land worldwide, FAO). For these farmers, manure and urine as a resource of N and P, are almost as important in volume as synthetic fertilisers. Cattle are also the ploughing force as tractors are not affordable.
With the input of organic matter via manure and grasslands, livestock farming contributes to the storage of carbon in soils and thus to GHG mitigation. The replacement of animal products by plant products in the human diet, does not always have only positive impacts on the environment. The end of livestock farming would inevitably lead to the disappearance of rangeland that would no longer have a purpose.
Furthermore, ploughing rangeland in order to produce annual crops will inevitably release significant amounts of GHGs. In mountainous areas, the development of fallow land replacing managed rangeland would result in a huge loss of biodiversity. Soil erosion and desertification is a major threat to the productive capacity of agriculture.
The end of livestock farming would also lead to an increase in erosion and desertification, especially in arid areas. By their texture and grass coverage, grazed soils contribute to limit erosion, water filtering and water runoff, and support groundwater replenishment.
Livestock farming contributes to more efficient agricultural practices. Animals recycle products such as by-products from plant food chains (e.g. wheat bran, pulp, gluten feed, oilcake residue) and crop residues that cannot be used as human food. They also use marginal land not able to produce fruits and vegetables for humans. They transform these products into higher value proteins that contribute to the maximisation of human food production per unit area.
Consequently, much more land area will be required to feed a population without animal-derived foods in a nutritionally balanced way. This in fact was shown in a recent study from the US which showed the total US agricultural land would be insufficient to feed the current US population without livestock farming.
Agriculture without livestock farming would use much more chemicals: Increased use of synthetic chemical fertilisers, the production of which requires a lot of fossil energy, and increased use of pesticides, as the annual crop will increase at the expense of rangeland which does not need pesticides.
Man is an omnivore and therefore we should avoid restrictions of any kind of food. This is a precautionary principle as it is not known yet what molecules assist in regulating aging. Many studies have shown that the risk of micronutrient and vitamin deficiencies is greatly increased in low meat eaters. In addition, animal products are essential in the first 1 000 days of life and for the skeleton and brain development of pre-adolescents.
A world without livestock farming is both unjustifiable and impossible. This is a scientific fact which should be accepted. However, this does not mean that all parameters of animal welfare should not be improved. Research, innovation and improved ways of management should be pursued to reduce the negative environmental impact of livestock farming and increase the services it provides to society. In debate with activists and the uninformed this should be the basis of arguments. – RPO Newsletter