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Prevention is better than cure.

There is much in the current livestock industry that can be improved to reduce its environmental impact and these issues will be examined briefly here. For an extensive discussion of this complex topic read the FAO/LEAD paper Longstock's long shadow (Steinfeld 06). Many of these fixes will be very difficult to achieve and thus, by far the best way of dealing with these problems is to reduce the consumption of animal-based foods.

Possible technological fixes: Using technology to limit greenhouse gas production, nitrogen/phosphorus contamination of the environment, soil erosion and the large number of other negative aspects of livestock production is a possible way forward. There are many potential ways of doing this which include:

  • Methods to increase the carbon content of soil by controlling desertification, planting trees, low tillage regimes and so on. The potential gain as a carbon sink is very large. However we should do this as well as reducing livestock so we get a double benefit.

  • Reducing methane production in ruminants by better diet composition, alteration of rumen flora or moving to monogastric production away from ruminants.

  • Reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions from manure by better diets for animals, better handling of stored manure with such things as bioreactor gas fuel units and better disposal on land.

  • Improved methods of processing manure.

  • Better management of stock on pastures by scientifically determining carriage rate, fencing of sensitive areas etc.

Problems associated with technological fixes. Much of this depends on high levels of administrative control, good education systems for dissemination of information on new technologies. Often extra investment is needed which in some cases is very considerable requiring government subsidy to be economically sustainable.

Possible political fixes: A considerable part of the livestock industry only remains profitable because of political intervention:

  • Undervaluing of resources such as water, forests or undeveloped habitats.

  • Not including the cost of pollution and other negatives of environmental damage in the price of animal-based foods. To established agreed prices for these is extremely difficult. (This can also work in a positive way if producers are paid for any real environmental improvement.)

  • Subsidies paid to various sectors for political motives. These subsidies often greatly increase environment damage. In OECD countries, subsidies formed 31% or farm income in 2004.

Obstacles to political fixes. The obstacles to making changes to these political processes are almost insurmountable and will only occur very slowly if at all. Many governments are corrupted by the very industries they are trying to regulate. This is not to say that we shouldn't try, we should. Nearly all of these fixes apply to agriculture in general not just to the livestock sector and will benefit the world no matter how our diets are constituted. However, the best solution is to have the best of both worlds: work towards making the necessary changes as listed above but at the same time reduce demand for animal-based foods.

The FAO/LEAD report Livestock's long shadow (Steinfeld 06) extensively explores these potential fixes. Despite giving one of the clearest summations of the severe damage livestock is doing to the world, its analysis of what to do is mainly directly at attempting to fix the current poorly functioning processes. It gives only a couple of references in a document of 408 pages to the obvious: predominantly plant based diets give better health outcomes and are not generally associated with the severe environmental problems of industrial type livestock production which now is becoming the standard paradigm for animal-based foods. It indicates that the undernourished of the world might benefit more from specifically increasing animal protein intake. As shown elsewhere in this web site, this assertion is doubtful. (See the section on protein intake.)

This picture and caption appears in Livestock's long shadow. It is remarkable in that it seems to promote the consumption of milk in India. Apart from the doubtful claim that it is good for vegetarians, substantial sections of the dairy industry in India are based on irrigated fodder, the water coming from rapidly  depleting aquifers. A litre of milk takes around 2000 litres of water to produce. This industry is not sustainable because it is greatly adding to the rapid depletion of ground water in India.

Virtually all of the fixes listed are those that attempt to repair a process that is wreaking havoc on the world's environment. The world does not have time to wait and see if such damage can be curtailed by the solutions outlined. Looking at the effectiveness of political efforts to control agriculture in the past, it seems unlikely that they will have anything more than a limited effect. Meanwhile the world's environment is spiralling out of control. The time for action is now. It is still worthwhile to attempt to fix the current problems of livestock production but this takes time. Reducing your consumption of animal-based foods will have a much more rapid effect. Prevention is far better than cure.

Things that can  be done to reduce the effect of the livestock industry on the world's environment: proper pricing of animal-based foods. If the majority of people in the community have no great desire to change status quo as regards the high level of animal protein intake, then much can be done through financial means to correct the situation by making the price of these products reflect the true price to the world's environment. This does not indicate how difficult these policies would be to implement but here are some of the more obvious:

  • The price of water should reflect its environmental costs

  • All pollution should be taxed in the same way as there should be a general carbon tax, to cover the true costs of environmental damage.

  • Most subsidies for the livestock industry should be phased out except for paying producers for mitigation projects to reverse environmental damage.

The problem is that animal-based foods are too cheap in relation to plant-based foods relating mainly to the fact that livestock producers rarely pay the cost of environmental damage.

More radical changes could include:

  • Move away from industrial scale livestock production to reduce pollution.

  • Break up huge multinational agribusiness companies which distort markets, put smaller producers out of business and which because of their financial power, can bend governments to their own self gain.

  • Encourage local production everywhere.

  • Push for organic methods in agriculture where the levels of carbon containing plant materials in soils is very much increased and the use of chemical fertilizers reduced.

I disagree with the authors of Livestock's long shadow (Steinfeld 06) who push for more intensification and perhaps industrialization of livestock production. In my mind this is a dangerous strategy. A much better strategy would be to reduce demand for livestock products.

The most daunting problem of all is what to do with some of the poorest peoples on earth who depend on herding a significant source of income. There are close to a billion of these poor in the world.  Many inhabit drier very fragile rangelands which will support little else apart from herding. Such activity is associated with huge environmental damage from livestock, adding greatly to greenhouse gas because of loss of carbon storage from these soils and causing other severe environmental damage. Herding requires no formal education and little call for outside monetary assistance and thus at a political level in poor nations close to ideal. This is a problem for the whole world to deal with not just the countries themselves. It is just so easy for those in the rich developed countries to ignore. There are no easy solutions. Many attempts in the past to alleviate this problem have been counter-productive. This is a huge challenge but one that needs to be urgently addressed in view of the enormous environmental impact of these peoples are having on the world through no fault of their own.

A final word: It remains to be seen whether governments at all levels can really regulate this industry. It will be a daunting task particularly in view of the amount of money and political influence that key players have  available to get their own way. In the meantime, you can make a difference! Eat more whole grains, and fruit and vegetables and reduce animal-based foods substantially.



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(Steinfeld 06) Henning Steinfeld, Pierre Gerber, Tom Wassenaar, Vincent Castel, Mauricio Rosales, Cess de Haan. Livestock's long shadow: environmental issues and options. LEAD/FAO publication 2006. Downloadable from www.virtualcentre.org/en/library/key_pub/longshad/A0701E00.pdf