The role of livestock in food production
Chair: Christopher Stopes (consultant and President, IFOAM EU group)
Simon Fairlie (farmer and author): Meat: A Benign Extravagance.
Richard Young (farmer and Soil Association policy adviser): Organic livestock production – implications for health and the environment
Presentation - Organic livestock production – implications for health and the environment
Nigel Elgar (farmer): the role of livestock production in the uplands and integration with lowland production
Anita Idel (vet and author): Cows are not climate killers
Presentation - Cows are not climate killerst
Session Summary -
The session provided an overview of the issues relating to livestock in agriculture, within the context of climate change. Livestock were seen as playing an important role in a balanced agricultural system – the problem starts when we start feeding livestock food that could be fed directly to humans. The fact that in future there will be more mouths to feed and less agricultural area per person was also highlighted; intensification of farming systems has been seen as an answer to this but this can ignore serious issues such as overgrazing and soil erosion. However it was pointed out that business as usual is not an option. In this context, the importance of considering the benefits provided by organic agriculture in terms of carbon sequestration were highlighted - it was stated that one of the best argument for organic agriculture is the improvements it provides to the soil, compared to more intensive systems.
It was also mentioned that despite methane from enteric fermentation being 25 times worse than CO2 in terms of its Global Warming Potential, the actual concentrations of methane in the atmosphere have not increased over the last 10 years, despite large increases in livestock numbers. It was proposed that estimates of methane emissions from ruminants need to be revisited and that current estimates are far too high. It was also highlighted that although methane is a major contributor to GHGs, a more significant contributor from agriculture is N2O from fertiliser use and manufacture (N2O is 298 times worse than CO2 in terms of its global warming impact). Health issues were also picked up on in the session, with evidence presented that grass fed meats can help to reduce the risk of arthritis and cancer, compared to cereal fed meats. The potential for upland, pasture dominated farms working with lowland farms was also referred to – however there is a clash here as the supermarkets want fewer, more intensive units.
In the discussion the following points were raised:
- We have to look at what the system can provide us with sustainably, instead of looking at how far we can push yields;
- Recent reports eg from the FAO have tended to paint a poor picture of developing countries as they have a low level of production per tonnes of CO2 equivalent released. Simon Fairlie pointed out that in energy terms ‘peasant agriculture’ is in fact more efficient than the modern system in the West, and in terms of reducing emissions, developed countries have much more of a role to play.
- There is considerable potential for uplands to produce energy (eg: SRC) this would also have benefit in terms of carbon sequestration/storage
- The potential for clover swards to reduce methane emissions was mentioned (through enhancing tannin content of the rumen) was mentioned
- The FAO do not take account of methane properly – the opportunity cost of not using land for production of food directly for humans is not accounted for
- Is there another opportunity for using grass apart from for feeding ruminants? Monogastric animals can also utilise – need more research in this area.
- The high GWP of methane (25 times worse than CO2) is a social construct but makes more sense on a practical level to go back to fossil fuels, as globally these have a much more significant impact and it is much easier to do something about CO2 through addressing energy use/energy efficiency