Livestock removal hurts sustainability

In discussions over food security and climate change, a common statement made by non-governmental organizations is that one of our staple food sources, livestock protein, needs to be eliminated from human consumption to meet future food demands as well as greenhouse gas emission targets.

One of the main arguments made is that cutting livestock from consumption would free up millions of acres of land for crop and horticulture food production. Increased food production would come from both lands that are presently being used to grow livestock feed and from pastureland. NGOs argue and lobby to reduce and even remove livestock production, given that agriculture (in particular livestock) has been identified as the source of 24 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Whether those advocating against livestock production know the difference between a Galloway and a gopher, it’s important they know why removing livestock from much of the ranch and pastureland wouldn’t likely increase food production or sustainability.

Simply removing livestock from land that is currently pastureland may reduce some GHG emissions associated with livestock production, which would then be offset by the increased use of farm implements once it was returned to cropland. While livestock has its disadvantages in producing GHGs, raising livestock on pastureland also has benefits.

Farmers and ranchers are excellent stewards of their land. As commodity and cattle prices have fluctuated over the past few decades, pasture, hay or other livestock feed land have entered into regular crop production systems.

While NGOs advocate for the removal of livestock, they’re ignoring the important role that livestock play in the health of ecosystems. The Food and Agriculture Organization has established that livestock make the following contributions to ecosystem health:

  • They convert plant matter that is unsuitable for human diets into nutritious products like milk or meat.
  • The use of grazing spreads seeds from one area to another and fertilizes these areas.
  • Livestock ensure resources are given time to recover through their mobility.

Large mammals have been part of ecosystems through millennia with humans, through countless changes of climate.

As our current climate changes, it’s important to realize that livestock are part of and contribute to a healthy ecosystem. As stewards of the land and supporters of sustainability, farmers realize this and know that not all land is fruitful for crop and horticulture production.

That is why they use land that is suitable for livestock and do not subject that land to crop production, where it would be subject to erosion problems.

You may not choose to eat meat, but it’s important to remember that a steak or hamburger represent a link in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

All things require balance, ecosystems included. The next time you hear someone advocating to ban livestock production, remember that nature is very effective at balancing and those advocating for the ban haven’t given adequate thought to how to counter-balance the situation.

For example, banning livestock production would seriously jeopardize food security in many parts of the world that still use livestock to plow their land. NGOs also fail to mention where milk would come from with a livestock ban.

Stuart Smyth is an assistant professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s agricultural and resource economics department and holds the university’s Industry Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation. This blog appeared on the SAIFood website. It has been edited here for length.

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