Is our appetite for meat part of the climate problem? Can it be the solution? A study sheds new light on the old discussion about pastorals and sustainability.
The debate has raged for years: does ‘Holistic Management’ of grazed agriculture lead to significant environmental benefits? Developed by Alan Savory, a wildlife biologist in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), one specific recent claim has been that at sufficient scale, holistic management could completely reverse climate change in only 40 years, absorbing vast quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in the soil.
Savory made this extraordinary claim in a TED talk, now watched over 4 million times.
If this was true then we have our climate solution: greatly increase the number of grazed livestock around the world, and we can keep on burning fossil fuels without a care.
We certainly do need to think more holistically to solve our problems, with many of the world’s problems having come from thinking too narrowly and ignoring side effects. But while there might be many benefits to holistic management of agriculture, could extensive grazing of ruminant animals such as cattle and sheep over the world’s grasslands, covering one-third of the Earth’s land area, really lead to sufficient absorbed carbon to reverse climate change?
How does this claim stand against the accepted notion that the livestock industry is responsible for about 15% of man-made emissions globally? Is our appetite for ruminant meat part of the problem or can it be the solution, or both?
Plants, including grasses, take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, and some of that carbon is stored in roots that subsequently die, adding to the quantity of carbon in the soil. An important proportion of carbon is also transferred to soil microbes and symbiotic associations of soil fungi and plant roots.
Over time, this carbon can accumulate, and the argument is that carefully designed grazing management systems can greatly enhance this accumulation. Applying this approach at sufficient scale globally would then absorb enormous quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
This debate is also relevant in the Norwegian context, with less than 3% of the land area available for cultivation, and two-thirds of that area produces grass for grazing or “grovfor”. Outside of this, almost another half of Norway’s area is “utmarka”, suitable for nothing more nourishing than grass. All this grass can only be transformed into food by use of ruminant livestock who can break down the plant cellulose to access the nutrients inside, thanks to a host of micro-organisms in their stomachs.
Increasing our use of this grass resource, the “beiteområdet”, would support several policy goals at once: increase food self-sufficiency, rural value creation, maintenance of the cultural landscape, protection of biodiversity that thrives on Norway’s modified landscapes, and maintenance of land-use and settlement across the country. If the Savory Institute’s claims are true, would it also help Norway meet its emissions reduction targets?
To address the specific claim of large-scale carbon absorption, a new report “Grazed and Confused?”, written by leading sustainability researchers, comprehensively assembles the evidence from studies that have been done. There are many dimensions to livestock and sustainability, including people’s livelihoods and jobs, animal welfare, biodiversity, nutrition, food security and more. The report only addresses the climate aspects, which are important and complex enough in themselves.
Their clear conclusion is that the highly ambitious claims made about the potential for holistic grazing to mitigate climate change are "wrong".
The authors estimate the total global sequestration potential from grazing management to be between 295–800 million tonnes CO2e/year. That sounds like a lot, but given that total global GHG emissions are about 50 billion tonnes (Gt) of CO2e/yr, and livestock stand for about 15% – about 7 billion tonnes GtCO2e/yr – then holistic grazing could potentially offset 0.8 GtCO2e, which is around 10% of livestock emissions or less than 2% of our total emissions.
Grass-fed livestock are not a climate solution. Grazing livestock are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock. Rising animal production and consumption, whatever the farming system and animal type, is causing damaging greenhouse gas release and contributing to changes in land use. Ultimately, if high consuming individuals and countries want to do something positive for the climate, maintaining their current consumption levels but simply switching to grass-fed beef is not a solution. Eating less meat, of all types, is. - key takeaways, explained by Dr. Tara Garnett, lead author of “Grazed and Confused”
The “Grazed and Confused” report has established that the maximum sequestration potential by extensive grazing is about 800 million tonnes of CO2, far short of the 45 billion tonnes claimed by the Savory Institute. It then becomes almost needless to point out that the maths of the Savory Institute are wrong when they calculate that 45 billion tonnes per year would take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
Even if it were true that holistic management could absorb 45 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, the calculations made by the Savory Institute indicating that this would solve the climate problem demonstrate some important misunderstandings.
Global climate policy cannot be based on such faulty analysis. Nor should we be presenting the public the false message that more livestock will solve problems created by our own excesses, when in fact we need less livestock.
So What About Norway?
These reports and findings are critical from a climate perspective, but also especially interesting in the Norwegian debate about whether or not to use the extensive grass resources available for animal feed. Certainly, Norway has a lot of grassland, and using ruminants is the only way to convert this grass to human-edible food. From a climate perspective, the report demonstrates that sequestration in grasslands can in the most optimistic scenario only offset about 10% of current grazing livestock emissions globally.
Currently, livestock are raised on a mixture of grass and feed concentrate, which includes both domestically produced (e.g. oats, rye) and imported (e.g. soy and rapeseed) ingredients. If the amount of grass in their diet were to be increased, Norway would depend less on feed imports, freeing up resources overseas for others to use and reducing Norway’s impact on deforestation and other global environmental burdens, and also allowing more of the current feed-grain land to be used for other purposes.
However, grass has a higher level of cellulose than feed concentrates, and its digestion releases more methane than alternative feeds, and thus a shift in feed itself is not beneficial to the climate. Moreover, reducing intake of feed concentrates would most likely reduce livestock productivity, such that (i) emissions per kilogram of meat or milk would increase, and (ii) the number of livestock would need to increase. Given all the uncertainties about the potential consequences, including knock-on effects through markets, it is then unclear whether the climate benefits of increasing grass consumption would outweigh the climate costs.
In addition, the argument has been made that Norwegian livestock emit less than those in other countries, and that more production should take place in Norway, reducing or replacing current imports, or even producing for export. Funnily enough, the Swedes also like to think that they “have the most sustainable animal production systems in the world with higher requirements when it comes to environment and animal welfare than anywhere else”, and also argue that it does not make sense to reduce production there.
In the first place, various studies on emissions from livestock in different countries, but with varying methodologies, show generally incomparable results. It is therefore difficult to conclude that Norwegian production has lower emissions than that in other European countries in particular (van Oort & Andrew, 2016). Further, knowing that some European countries use much higher proportions of feed concentrate in livestock diets, resulting in higher productivity and efficiency than in Norway, it is very likely that those countries have lower emissions per kilogram of product.
There are good social, cultural, biodiversity, welfare or other arguments to increase the proportion of Norwegian grass for animal feed, but climate mitigation may not be among these.
Finally, livestock emissions are not only a question of production, but also of consumption. The key problem is that meat production has larger emissions than most other types of food production. Regardless of the grass resources available in Norway, meat production and consumption will continue to be a large source of greenhouse gases, and meat production will not be a climate solution, not either if based on grass-fed livestock.
With a growing global population and welfare level, and consequential demand for meat, emissions from livestock are set to increase, even if the consumed amount per person would remain constant. It is therefore critical to get the role of grass and livestock right, globally and in Norway, before basing any policy on a faulty analysis.
- New reference