I think even a million years for humanity to improve might not be long enough, Pablo, but thank you for your very helpful and thoughtful response.
I agree with many of your points. However, I have a question about how you define ‘pastoralism’ and whether you see it as synonymous with, or as a subset of ‘grazing-based animal production. As you will know much better than I, grazing systems encompass a huge range of geographies, scales, actors and management practices, and they operate in the context of many different drivers and influencing factors, all of which, taken together, give rise to very different impacts on land use, land use change, land and soil quality, and on biodiversity.
If one thinks of pastoralism as a subset of ‘grazing management’ broadly defined, i.e. as a way of living for some of the world’s poorest, most marginalised peoples, then I would certainly agree that pastoralism is not and should not be the target of climate mitigation strategies. Pastoralism, narrowly defined in this way, is not the problem. Large scale animal production, producing huge and growing volumes of meat, milk and eggs, at the lowest cost possible, is.
However if we define pastoralism in the more general sense of ‘grazing systems’ then as you know, these encompass activities such as large scale animal ranching in and into the Amazon (which interacts in complex ways with soy/maize production, logging etc), animal production on fertilised grass biologically un-diverse monocultures, and practices that lead to soil erosion, water pollution and so forth. Of course many ‘grass-fed’ livestock are then finished off in CAFOs, making the boundaries between systems (some that you might not like) somewhat porous. So I feel it would be really helpful if you would clarify what you mean by pastoralism.
On the question of biodiversity, you point out that pastoralism can help maintain and indeed enhance biodiversity. You’re an ecologist so you know way more about this than I do but presumably this conclusion will somewhat depend not only on your definition of pastoralism and the practices that fall under it, but also upon what kinds of biodiversity one decides is ‘of value’, which, among other things, depends on one’s choice of ecological/biodiversity baseline, and the balance to strike between landscapes that are a bit more wild versus those that are a bit more cultural (I recognise that even apparently wild landscapes are often nothing of the kind but are still the products of at least some human intervention/management). Do you agree? I’d be keen to see what alternative views there might be on all this.
You rightly point out that the displacement of wild species by livestock, while true, is no different from their displacement by wheat, maize and other crops. I think we both agree that current systems of crop production are hugely damaging, and I don’t want to set up a divide between plants and animals of the ‘plants = good, and livestock = bad (or vice versa)’ variety. I see also a tendency to juxtapose ‘good’ forms of livestock production against ‘bad’ forms of cropping, and vice versa, depending on the argument the person in question wants to make. The way we do farming as a whole needs to change! That said, given that we are where we are with our current global population (nearly 8 billion and counting) I think it would be hard to envisage a way of feeding everyone adequately on a largely meat-based diet without using a devastatingly huge amount more land than we currently do; whereas it’s easier to imagine achieving this with a more plant-centric way of eating. I know you’re not suggesting that we should all become rampant carnivores! But in the debates I see playing out, people do seem tend to make a mental jump from saying “certain kinds of livestock production have ecological merit” to arguing that “any discussion of moderating meat consumption is misguided, it’s ok to eat as much meat as I want and actually, it’s plants and veganism that’s the real problem” – I wrote about this here, for info - I think this is a damaging assumption to make. Pastoral systems are not going to sustainably support current global levels of meat and dairy consumption, most of which is consumed by urban populations, far less anticipated trends in consumption, under a business as usual scenario. This leaves us with the following choices a. to go down the intensification/ industrialisation route to ‘meet demand’ with a big focus on monogastrics; or b. massively ramp up developments in alternative proteins / meat substitutes as a substitute for industrialised commodity production; or c. challenge the assumption that demand is inevitable and unalterable and develop policies aimed at getting the affluent Global North and affluent high consuming individuals in the Global South to change their diets. I know which combination of these options I prefer.
Where does this leave pastoralism? Can it work in combination with some of the options above (bearing in mind that the future is never going to be one way only)? Again, I go back to my question of what you mean by pastoralism. You write “I think we should clearly separate here the advocacy of pastoralism abandonment as a climate mitigation strategy and the element that I agree with you is moral in nature. On the climatic aspect, we are confronting a very worrying threat for humanity and for the world the way we know it. In that sense, I am worried about strategies that are proposed to act and that are likely to yield no results - I don’t think we can afford it.”
I think you mean by these sentences that a focus on getting rid of pastoralism in the name of climate mitigation is an unhelpful strategy since the real problem lies elsewhere. Do I understand you correctly? As I think I’ve made clear, I certainly agree with you that we need prioritise a focus on the damaging effects on other kinds of livestock production – particularly large scale industrial production (alongside cropping) – but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all forms of livestock grazing are benign, and I think there are going to be many instances where we need to take ruminants off the land. Certainly we need more nuance in discussions about grazing and ruminants. But I think we need to distinguish between those systems which really do contribute to a range of goals (and have a discussion about what these are - whether in relation to livelihoods, biodiversity etc) and which need support, and those which are damaging and where other ways of managing / not managing the land are needed.
Any further comments you might have, Pablo, will be very welcome, and I’d love to hear thoughts from other ecologists on questions around biodiversity and landscapes.