Sustainable Livestock Farming

Sustainable Livestock Farming

One of the most interesting shifts in our attitude to food over the past 20 years or so has been the demand by consumers to know the provenance of the meat they buy. They want to know where it comes from and how the animals are reared. Animal welfare is high on their agenda. This, coupled with increasing numbers of the public becoming vegan, is leading to a sharp decline in eating meat.

To many nutritionists, this is no bad thing. Eating too much meat, they say, is bad for our health. We can all see the size of beef steaks served up in American diners – and the size of the people eating them!  We wonder how they can afford it. The answer lies in the way the animals are reared: vast cattle sheds, housing thousands of animals fed solely on grain and concentrates.

That this method of rearing livestock is efficient on narrow economic grounds is beyond doubt, but at what true cost? The grain used to feed these cattle could be used for human consumption. The environmental costs are huge, but are not reflected in the farmer’s costs. And where is the animal welfare? These animals live out their lives in these sheds, herded together in confined spaces. What kind of life is this?

It is no wonder that veganism is on the increase. It is also no wonder that those of us who continue to eat meat want to know where the animals come from and how those animals have been reared.  We want to know that these animals have the quality of life that they, as ruminants, should have.

The Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) addresses both the environmental cost and animal welfare concerns. Its standards are strict. Feeding livestock (inter alia) grains, dry harvested grain legumes, maize and maize silage, soya and oilseed products are prohibited. Their diet must consist solely of fresh or dried fodder, roughage or silage.

There also appear to be health benefits.  Their research shows that the ratio of Omega 6 and Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids is 4:1 in pasture-fed beef. That ratio rises to 6:1 for grain-finished beef, an imbalance that medics consider leads to poor health outcomes.

However, the big debate is about livestock producing inordinate green house gas emissions. The Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) report[1]  concluded that “grazing animals should not be a central part of sustainable food production in future”. This was hotly contested by the Sustainable Food trust (SFT) in its response[2], who queried the metrics used by FCRN in reaching that conclusion.

For example, FCRN’s focus was “the role of grazing animals in the net greenhouse gas balance” yet it asks SFT “why should hedgerows, trees and so forth be credited to the animals?”  Hedgerows and trees do usually surround the fields the livestock graze.

Nevertheless, FCRN and SFT did agree on more than they disagreed. In particular:

  • Increasing global demand (for meat) will result in serious and potentially irreversible consequences for the environment;
  • We must maintain (and where possible) increase carbon in soils;
  • Grass and grazing animals should be reintroduced into arable crop rotation; and
  • Intensively managed ruminants should be reduced.

Professor Michael Lee, the director in charge of Rothamsted at North Wyke in Oakhampton, addresses all of these issues in his podcasts [part one and part 2]. You can access both episodes on Everys’ website under Farming and Rural Businesses.  The science is fascinating: by adding in all those natural capital costs that are currently omitted from the profit and loss accounts of intensively produced livestock, the case for the PFLA approach does become compelling.

[1] Grazed or Confused Report; FCRN; 2017

[2] Grazed and Confused – An initial response from the Sustainable Food Trust; 3 October, 2017; SFT