Blog: Removing Livestock Is Not the Solution

In this blog, Solidaridad’s International Programme Coordinator for livestock, Gert van der Bijl, discusses why livestock management plays a significant role in Solidaridad’s vision for a more sustainable future. While alternatives for meat production are important areas of research, addressing current cattle and land-use issues could lift millions out of poverty and reduce carbon in our atmosphere similar to the great forests of the world.

Why we work with wranglers

Sometimes people ask me how Solidaridad can say that we envision “a world in which all we produce, and all we consume, can sustain us while respecting the planet, each other and next generations”, and at the same time, work on livestock and, more specifically, on beef. Considering that around 70% of agricultural land (2.5 billion ha) is used for livestock and that beef, according to some reports, emits 10 times as much GHG or uses 10 times as much water per kilogram of protein, wouldn’t it be more consistent with the vision of Solidaridad to promote plant-based production or a vegan lifestyle instead?

Certainly in high consuming countries like Europe and the Americas, less meat consumption would be advisable. But worldwide, meat consumption is still increasing. This makes the challenge of producing meat and dairy in a sustainable way even more important. Livestock can play an important role in reducing poverty, and this can be done with a reduced burden on the land and with less emissions.

Benefits of better beef

The general expectation is that meat consumption will increase in the next decades, certainly in most of the developing countries that currently have very little meat as part of their regular diet. For many of those countries, an increase in meat consumption, or more generally speaking, of products of animal origin, is likely to have considerable benefits in terms of health and nutrition. A recent study by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and Chatham House showed that in Africa and South Asia large health benefits could be gained from livestock-derived foods during the first 1,000 days of life (Grace e.a. 2018). With demand in developing countries for animal foods projected to double over the next 20 years, the ongoing “livestock revolution” offers many of the world’s poor a pathway out of poverty, while at the same time reducing livestock's ecological footprint.

A path out of poverty

Solidaridad is active in improving the sustainability of livestock production, mainly beef and dairy in more than 10 countries across Latin America, Asia and Africa. We believe there are very good reasons for us to direct our resources to improving this sector. One important reason for Solidaridad to work on livestock production is that as much as an estimated 1.3 billion people on this globe (partly) depend on livestock for their living. For hundreds of millions of people in developing countries, improving and professionalizing livestock production may be a way to escape poverty.

Cows are not the culprits

It’s obvious that using arable land for plant-source food production is more efficient than using this same land to produce feed for cattle. But that does not necessarily mean that removing all livestock is the most efficient thing to do. As Mottet et al (2017) calculated: as much as 86% of the global livestock feed intake consists of feed materials that are not edible for humans. Equally important, around 2/3 of the 2 billion ha of grassland that is used to feed animals is not suitable for crop production.

A study in 2018 calculated that a food system where livestock are fed only on grass from the current pastures, or from food waste and industrial and agricultural by-products, could provide 9 to 23 g of animal protein to the daily human diet, or a bit less than the present global average of 27 g of animal protein per day. The U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 87% of all beef cows are purely grass-fed at this time. A large part of the present meat consumption can be met even if all livestock in the world became “circular” or based on feed materials not suitable for human consumption. However, on average, our intake of meat should be reduced if we want livestock to become “waste-based”.

Recycling rainwater the right way

One related issue is water use. Water footprint calculations show very high figures for meat production, and certainly for beef, with most of the water being used in producing feed materials. More than 90% of this water used for beef is likely to be rainwater. On land without alternative uses, this rainwater would evaporate and be wasted if beef was not being produced at that specific place.

Reducing the risks of red meat

How about livestock’s considerable contribution to climate change? With emissions estimated at 7.1 gigatonnes CO2 -eq per annum, representing 14.5% of human-induced GHG emissions, the livestock sector plays an important role in climate change. The most important contributors of GHG emissions are feed production (including deforestation for grassland or feed crops) and enteric fermentation.

But important reductions are within reach, certainly in the southern part of the world. Due to less efficiency in production, for example because of poor animal feed and inefficient management, much more feed is needed per kilogram of meat production. This causes a much higher emission per kilogram of produced protein. Greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of protein are around 10 times higher in a country like Ethiopia than they are in the USA or Europe. By improving productivity, both GHG emissions and the average income of millions of farmers can increase considerably, but grassland sequestration is likely to compensate for all GHG emissions.

Sequestration of carbon in grasslands can play an important role in reducing GHG emissions from livestock. If properly and timely grazed, grasslands form bigger underground roots and could store higher amounts of carbon per hectare than most of the forests. There is a lot of debate about the potential of carbon sequestration. Estimates are that between 20% and 60% of GHG emissions can actually be recovered. Considerable, but net emissions are likely to continue.

Supporting successful sustainability strategies

Making sustainable livestock production a tool in reducing poverty in the global South, with reduced claim on land and with less emissions, requires huge improvements both at farm level and at the level of the enabling environment. Our work is to bring farmers, companies and governments together so solutions can be found, tested in the field and shared worldwide. In this way, we hope each region can find a balance between food security, poverty, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development.

Learn more about Solidaridad’s global programme for sustainable livestock.