Continuing the conversation in "Fleshing out a future COP"

In our event today, our panelists Helena Wright, Pablo Manzano, and Dan Blaustein-Rejto discussed challenges around livestock and food systems and the ways in which these conversations have been and perhaps should be discussed at COP.

We wanted to provide a space for people to watch (Panel Discussion: "Fleshing out a future COP" - YouTube), share resources, and continue the conversation started during that event.

What do you think of the conversation our panelists had? Was anything missing? What do you think is important for policymakers to bring to the table at COP?

Dear Pablo, Helena and Dan

Thanks for a very interesting discussion on Thursday evening. I have a specific follow up question for you, Pablo, if that’s ok. You made the point that that pastoral grazing systems have been unfairly penalised by LCA and associated environmental accounting approaches. In particular you argue that the methane produced by grazing cattle, sheep and so forth shouldn’t really be counted in the global warming calculations because if we didn’t rear these animals, the land would instead be occupied by wild herbivores (as was historically the case), which themselves produce methane. I’m familiar with these arguments and indeed we discuss them in the 2017 Grazed and Confused report (see pp80-82 Grazed and Confused | TABLE Debates).

However, I feel that you can’t really equate the intrinsic biodiversity value of all the many wild herbivores that we have extirpated/rendered extinct with that of the tiny, genetically narrow, handful of species that we rear for our own purposes today. Yes, other species / certain ecosystems also produce methane (anthills, wetlands etc) but if the ‘point’ of addressing climate change is to ensure the continuability of life in all its diversity on earth - all life, and not just human life - then it’s the anthills, wetlands and wild herbivores that are exactly what we want to protect. They are the ‘goal’, as it were, and so we need to accept their emissions as part of the package. The cattle and sheep we rear are our creatures - they’re not the end goal - and so their emissions are our responsibility. It may well be that the sum of these human-associated emissions is no greater than the sum of the non-human-associated emissions of the species we’ve destroyed but I’d put them in a very separate moral category since they only exist because of what has now ceased to exist. You may see things differently of course - I think this difference in how we decide which emissions do and don’t count is an interesting example of the way that (moral) values and (numerical) values are not always easy or possible to disentangle!

One final point - I should emphasise that just because I’m critiquing your approach to thinking about methane in pastoral systems I am NOT therefore arguing that highly industrial systems are better because more ‘efficient.’ (I actually have a problem with the idea of efficiency, as I made clear in this report: Lean, green, mean, obscene…? What is efficiency? And is it sustainable? | TABLE Debates ). That would be to fall into the trap of false-dichotomous thinking. I also take the point that grazing animals, in mimicking the grazing and trampling actions of wild herbivores, help maintain important ecosystem functions (even though, as I said, I wouldn’t put them in the same moral category of those wild herbivores themselves). And finally, I agree with your point that pastoralism is essential to the livelihoods of some of the world’s most marginalised people and as such they have important economic, food security and cultural value. I’d be interested in your reflections, Pablo, and look forward to continuing the conversation. Best wishes, Tara

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Dear Tara, thank you for your question, which is a very interesting one. There are a couple of discussion elements here that merit to be analyzed one by one.

Regarding methane emissions, the focus on wild herbivores, in my opinion, is important beyond knowing what happened in the past. If we regard abandonment of pastoralism as a strategy to mitigate climate change we have to envision scenarios on what would happen to those lands that are abandoned. And while in a pretty densely populated world we have few examples to know what would happen, we can draw lessons from such examples. The defaunation the Americas were subjected to 12,000 yrs ago is one of them. According to the evidence published by Felisa Smith et al., we see an extreme defaunation event (35 genera in North America, up to 50 in South America) that caused a massive drop in methane emissions worldwide and a drop in global temperatures. But, in spite of being such a drastic event, methane emissions and therefore herbivore biomass took ca. 500 years to recover, which is indeed very quick for such an extreme event. In the same paper we see that the drastic reduction in artiodactyl numbers triggered by Rinderpest in the late 19th century left no trace on the global methane budget - likely because the species that were not, or less, affected could fill up the niches quickly (wildebeest only recovered their migration in the 1960s and achieved carrying capacity ca. 20 yr later). Finally, the quick boom of herbivore populations in Chernobyl following abandonment, and in spite of widespread radiation levels, is very revealing on the capacity of grazing ecosystems to quickly fill the vacant ecological niches. As a curiosity I will tell that I’ve dealt with Chernobyl data recently, because of a planned study that I think I finally won’t be carrying out, and it seems that the local ecosystem has achieved carrying capacity in just 25-30 years - although I am sure it would be different if wild herbivores were able to migrate further south, in the areas that now produce a big chunk of the world’s grain yield. But this is just to say that I do believe the filling out of the ecological niches and the recovery of herbivore populations would be pretty quick.

Regarding the biodiversity value of wild vs. domestic herbivores, it is true that the latter encompass a much more reduced array of species. It should not be forgotten, however, that the human management they are subjected to multiplies the diversity of effects on the ecosystem. It is interesting because, from the human side, it is a pure question of economics - the more efficient the exploitation of natural resources is, the better the herder will fare; but at the same time it yields a very interesting environmental outcome. The ample benefits of pastoralism on the environment or the conservation of vast landscapes and wildlife thanks to e.g. East African pastoralist milk economies that have avoided land conversion into crops are a good proof of this. There are many examples of adapted breeds and specific culturally-tailored management types, but I will give an easier example. Goats are not what we would understand as an ecological surrogate of elephants, at least from their looks. But they have a very similar effect in opening up closed-canopy vegetation and, e.g., avoiding large wildfires - be it in the Serengeti ecosystem or in Andalusia, Spain. The potential of goats is multiplied by the cultural mangement they are subjected to. And by the way, goats have been demonized by the forestry sector because of the consequences that their grazing has in forest regeneration, but this is a very sectorial perspective. Open landscapes are not an inferior option to closed-canopy in most of the terrestrial ecosystem settings, especially taking into account Earth’s evolutionary history dominated by herbivory in the last 12-15 million years. And herbivory keeps on being important - also to tackle climate change. Finally, there’s an interesting line I am working on, namely that the observed effect of livestock leading wild herbivores to extinction may not be a consequence of actual ecological competition, but rather of poverty among the human population (including pastoralists) that would make an unsustainable use of natural resources. Another paper in the pipeline…

Regarding livestock being our creatures and their emissions being our responsibility: I think we should clearly separe 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.

Now, regarding the moral aspect, it is true that livestock has displaced other creatures and exists because of what has now ceased to exist. But I think it is no different from wheat, maize, or ourselves as people. As in the case of any other living species, we live at the expense of the lives of others. And we have populated the planet so densely that we have left little space for other creatures. My moral consolation is that Earth is going to be unable to support life in 1000 million years at the very latest, when the Sun will be too bright for us living creatures and will evaporate all oceans. If life has one only hope of surviving that, it’s highly intelligent beings - if we dare to call ourselves as such, even if on a daily basis we seem to prove ourselves wrong e.g. by deepening climate change. We have some million years to improve, though.

Thank you for this interesting continuation of the debate and all the best, Pablo.

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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.

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Here is an example of reversing desertification/soil degradation/regreening/hydrological cycling