Why livestock keeping can be good for the environment

At the end of last year, together with colleagues at IDS, I spent quite a bit of time making the case for a more balanced view on livestock and the environment. We tried to raise the debate during the two big COPs – first in November at COP27 on climate change and then in December at COP15 on biodiversity. We produced a series of reports, briefings and videos to help share our (and many others’) research.

Why is this necessary? Unfortunately, livestock have been cast as the villains, contributors to environmental destruction and a major driver of climate change. While some livestock systems are obviously damaging, lumping all systems into one argument makes little sense. The result is a confused policy debate – including at the COPs – that often points the finger of blame in the wrong direction. This results in major injustices for those livestock keepers who are guardians of nature and have limited climate impacts, as we argue in a new article in the IDS Bulletin.

So through the PASTRES programme, which I co-lead, and in alliance with a range of different organisations, we’ve been trying to encourage a more sophisticated, nuanced debate. The materials shared below are just some of a growing body of evidence that offers a different narrative.

In places like Zimbabwe livestock production is integral to mixed farming systems and in the drier areas, extensive grazing is vital for people’s livelihoods. Meat and milk production is vital for income earning for many – whether from cattle or from goats and sheep. And while animal sourced foods are not consumed in huge quantities, except by a small consumption elite, such products are essential for people’s nutrition, health and well-being.

For many readers of this blog it may seem odd to have to make such a basic argument about the importance of livestock. But believe me if you read the comment columns of many newspapers, listen to activists’ proclamations about the evil of livestock production and hear how such views get wrapped up in policy-making and donor funding, then such efforts – basic as they may seem – are urgently needed.

A recent attempt at offering a clear and simple statement about the importance of extensive livestock keeping and links to the climate change debate and wider resource politics is a Primer we produced together with the Transnational Institute and the World Alliance for Mobile Indigenous Peoples and Pastoralists (WAMIP). The Primer is available here and the launch event can be viewed again here.

Livestock are not always bad for the planet

During the COPs, we made the case that livestock can be good for the environment. The effect of livestock on the climate and biodiversity depends on which livestock, where. Pastoral systems can show neutral or positive carbon balances, especially for mobile systems that distribute manure/urine and incorporate it, adding to carbon cycling.

For the climate COPs in 2021 and 2022, we produced a report called “Are livestock always bad for the planet? Rethinking the protein transition and climate change debate“. A short 2-min video explains the basic argument, and a series of briefings outline some of the key findings, which you can watch here. And further materials can be found through the following links:

– Are livestock always bad for the planet?

– The truth about livestock

– Placing livestock in context through a systems approach

– Centring livestock-keepers

In addition, a briefing linking the climate and biodiversity debates was produced on the role of pastoralists in addressing the linked crises of climate and biodiversity. And the a blog offered a round-up of debates at COP27 in Egypt.

Moving on to COP15 on biodiversity, we produced another short 2-minute video that summarises some of the key arguments in a series of briefings. You can view it here. The following sections offer some overviews and links of the six briefings.

Why tree planting in rangelands can be bad for biodiversity and the climate

Mass tree planting schemes are proposed as a way to combat desertification, improve biodiversity and address climate change through ‘carbon offset’ schemes. Initiatives funded by international donors such as the AFR100 and the ‘Great Green Wall’ are deeply problematic, yet have targeted over one billion hectares of rangelands across the world.

This briefing explains how such initiatives can exclude people, livestock and wildlife and can seriously undermine plant biodiversity.

Enhancing biodiversity through livestock keeping

Carefully managed grazing in extensive (especially in mobile) livestock systems is essential for biodiversity conservation in many ecosystems across the world. Mobile pastoral systems can create bio-corridors through transhumance routes, disperse seeds, create fertile hotspots or mitigate against fires.

A briefing produced for COP15 offers eight examples of how pastoralism and conservation can work together.

How livestock keeping can reduce wildfires

Regular fires are essential for ecosystem health in rangelands. In rangeland ecologies, fire is important for conservation, but it must be limited and controlled, and this requires grazing. In meeting the challenge of increasing wildfires, supporting pastoral systems is likely to be much more successful than just focusing on fire suppression and more firefighters.

This briefing sets out how extensively-grazed livestock with more people looking after them can reduce the risk of fire.

Rewilding and ecosystem restoration: what is ‘natural’?

What is ‘natural’ and what is ‘wild’ is deeply contested. Rangelands are not simply degraded forests, as some assume. Plans for conservation must include pastoralists and other land users who have created valuable landscapes through use by people and their animals over many years.

This briefing sets out how different values and understanding of ecosystems are used in debates on rewilding, and why a more sophisticated debate is required.

Pastoralists as conservationists

Pastoralists and other livestock keepers are too often pitted against conservationists. Pastoralism is not compatible with a style of conservation that encloses and excludes, but extensive livestock-keeping can be central to more people-centred conservation approaches.

This briefing sets out how creating mixed use, integrated landscapes and emphasising co-management a can build a conservation approach that works for both people and planet.

The blog draws from an article on the IDS website and links to work undertaken by the ERC funded PASTRES programme based at IDS and EUI.

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