I agree with George Monbiot - governments aren’t discussing livestock enough - but his calls to eliminate livestock are short-sighted and will cause more harm than good.
“There are just two actions needed to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown: leave fossil fuels in the ground and stop farming animals,” writes Monbiot. And as you can guess, here is where he and I deviate as keyboard warriors in the discussion of COP27, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, sponsored by Coca-Cola, the world’s top fossil fuel-based, plastic polluter.
He calls for the elimination of livestock and a farm-free future.
I call for the elimination of overly simplistic, techno-utopian visions that would undermine millions of people’s livelihoods, destroy local economies, and cause more harm than good, especially in places where livestock are an integral part of sustainable, agro-ecosystems.
Villainizing all livestock and advocating for radical shifts of diet and land use everywhere – and even being so bold to posit a future where protein is derived from large fermentation vats – is senseless.
Here are just four ways livestock matter and deserve a more nuanced discussion about the role they have in transforming our food, land and justice systems.
Well-managed grazing can lead to improved environmental outcomes and beneficial ecosystem services like improving soil health (manure fertilization) and nutrient cycling (returning nutrients to the soil via manure, reducing waste and runoff), preserving and restoring wildlife and pollinator habitat, and stimulating vegetation growth (through their movements across land surfaces).
Eliminating livestock only intensifies poverty, malnutrition, and inequality. Livestock is the most valuable household asset for roughly 1.3 billion people around the world and is a “living ATM” during times of need. Animal-sourced foods provide critical nutrition to people around the world, especially during pregnancy and the first 1,000 days of life. When we neglect livestock, we neglect the millions of women who depend on livestock for an income and a pathway to economic independence.
Well-respected data and graphics providers, like Our World in Data, provide easily-consumed data for journalists to easily scapegoat livestock as the big villain of climate change. However, comparing various food groups might be well-meaning, but unfortunately, it is flawed. Some foods mainly emit long-lived climate pollutants, such as CO2 and nitrous oxide, while others (e.g. beef and lamb) emit the short-lived pollutant methane. The truth is mainstream assessments of livestock and climate change are flawed and they make sweeping generalizations about the industry with dire consequences that will accentuate global food and climate injustices.
Trees are fire-prone carbon sources in many environments and can be less effective at capturing and retaining carbon than grasslands with well-grazed livestock. The rush to plant trees in the name of “carbon removal” where trees shouldn’t be planted or to decommission biodiverse ecosystems, like grasslands, because they’re most suitable for grazing livestock is driven by misunderstandings of ecosystems and carbon dynamics. While there are many agroforestry and carbon removal projects genuinely working towards restoration and regeneration, blanket statements like “plant more trees” or “eliminate all livestock” lack forethought.
Calls to eliminate grazing animals underutilizes grasslands and leads to further destruction of biodiversity, increased climate risk, and unethical displacement of Indigenous communities and pastoralists. Ironically, to restore and maintain optimal health, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration, these grasslands are best managed with more animals and animal impact, not less.
We should not ignore livestock-related challenges. But we should also not ignore the many sustainable approaches to raising livestock that are essential to helping more than a billion people survive the climate emergency. Many people around the world do not have the privilege to eliminate nutrient-dense, animal-sourced foods, and anti-meat proclamations are dangerous, elitist, and ignore the many benefits of grazing animals within a sustainable food system.
Livestock keeping – in the right places, with the right management – can and should be part of the climate solution. These are the solutions our leaders and governments should be discussing.