Grazed and Not Confused: Why Not All Livestock Rearing Practices Are Ecologically Unsound

A recent report from Oxford University indicts grazing livestock as a whole, without going into how certain such practices could actually change things for the better.

Grazed and Confused? – a report published by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), University of Oxford, that explores the role of grazing ruminants in contributing to, or mitigating, climate change – comes in the wake of a raging global debate on the best way to mitigate and minimise the environmental impacts of livestock reared for milk and meat (beef in particular).

Cattle-rearing has been blamed for the damage it inflicts on the planet in terms of methane and other greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change, in addition to deforestation, biodiversity loss and pollution of soils, air and water. This is happening in a context of what is seen as an ‘inevitable’ rise in demand for animal protein globally, particularly in countries of the Global South. According to the report, annual carbon emissions from all human-activities-related sources stand at about 49 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year. Of this, livestock supply chain emissions contribute about 14.5%, at 7.1 billion tonnes CO2-equivalent per year (or 1.9 billion tonnes carbon-equivalent), with most of the emissions generated at the agricultural stage. Of this, about 80% is attributed to ruminants, with global cattle contributing around 65%, buffaloes 9% and small ruminants 7% respectively.

Understanding the debate

Grazed and Confused? (FCRN, 2017)

A dominant narrative proposed by policymakers and inter-governmental institutions such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation, on resolving these two seemingly irresolvable and opposing drivers, is to intensify the system, as emission intensities per unit of meat/milk produced are supposedly lowest from intensive, grain-fed industrialised so-called ‘landless livestock production systems’.

The intensity of emissions per unit of milk or meat in extensive ‘livestock grazing systems’, where ruminants predominantly feed on grass, is reported to be the highest as “its productivity is low in relation to the land and feed it requires, and the volume of gases it emits per unit of meat or milk output is great”.

Production intensification strategies recommended include shifting to high-producing livestock breeds, improved feed crops, increased supplementation via concentrate feed formulations and reduced dependency on land via stall feeding or intensifying pastures. Animal protein, it is argued, should be consumed from these intensive, industrialised systems. In fact, the advice is to shift to monogastric products (pork and poultry meat, and eggs) as these animals are said to emit much less methane and use far less land per unit of livestock product over their production cycles as compared to ruminants.

On the other hand, there are many who advocate for a shift in diet away from animal protein to plant-based diets, which will completely do away with the need for livestock. Consequently, land will be freed up to reforest and thus sink/sequester carbon, as also permanently cut methane out of the system, in addition to a plant-based diet being recommended as a healthier option for human beings.

Also read: As Stray Cattle Wreak Havoc on Farmers, Why We Need a Policy for Ageing Cows

Finally, both these positions are contested by two vastly-divergent communities, who argue about the advantages of grazing-based production of animal protein.

The first group is a large number of economically and ecologically vulnerable people, including 200 million pastoralists living in the Global South whose livelihoods depend on livestock. Many of them rear animals in mixed farming (crop-livestock) systems, where the animals recycle nutrients and re-fertilise soils with their dung, resulting in new growth of crops and pasture. For them, it is about measuring the effectiveness of resource use, rather than the simple efficiency of its use in terms of units of animal protein. The effectiveness has also been articulated as measuring the emissions across multifunctional contributions of livestock owned by small farmers, to soil health, biodiversity, life security, cultural integrity, spiritual well being, food security within the home, community and further beyond, energy through transportation and agriculture operations, fibre, and as a source of insurance or bank on hooves, along with meat, milk, eggs and skin/leather.

The second group comprises ranchers and those who rear their animals largely on pastures, who argue that grazing itself has a positive impact on carbon sequestration and thus people should shift to grass-fed systems of beef production.

The FCRN report concludes that while grazing livestock has its place in a sustainable food system, that place is limited. The potential for carbon sequestration via managed grazing on grasslands is reported to offset 20-60% of emissions from grazing systems, 4-11% of total livestock emissions and between 0.6 and 1.6% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Why it’s not the same in India

What do the conclusions of this report mean for India, with 11.6% of the world’s livestock population, 57.8% of the world’s buffaloes, 15% of the world’s cattle and 25% of the worlds small ruminants? India continued to be the highest milk-producing nation in the world in 2015-2016, producing 155.5 million tonnes of milk, and was till recently the number one exporter of beef (carabeef). Small and marginal farmers in the country with holdings less than five acres, and pastoralists who derive a substantial livelihood, income and security from their animals, own nearly 87.5% of all ruminants.

The report’s indictment of grazing livestock cannot be applied to the Indian livestock production context of milk and meat (protein from ruminants), because the report draws its conclusions from ‘grazing-only’ livestock production systems, defined as a system where “more than 90% of dry matter fed to animals comes from rangelands, pastures, annual forages and purchased feeds and less than 10% of the total value of production comes from non-livestock farming activities and the remaining 10% of the diet can come from supplementation”.

Cows in Chhattisgarh. Credit: Reuters

In the Indian context, livestock production is a mixed crop-livestock system, where nearly half of the feed and fodder derived both by large and small ruminants is through grazing on post-harvest stubble and being stall fed crop residues, and the balance from grazing on other lands traditionally constituting common property resources. Minimal quantities of fodder and feed are purchased. In fact, studies indicate how in semi-arid agro-ecological regions, 60% of all fodder resources for ruminants – large and small – is derived from crop residues that are  either grazed or hand cut and fed. Even pastoralists in India, whose primary livelihood is from livestock extensively grazed, graze their animals on harvested crop fallows as also traditional ‘grasslands’.

Apart from the ‘grazing-only’ calculations discrepancy for the Indian context, the per unit protein output calculations for India need to reflect the production of milk and meat from an identical population of ruminants, reared under mixed crop-livestock systems utilising the same resources, and not two separate population sets utilising different resources, which is the case in most other extensive grazing systems, where the product is either meat or milk. In India, it is the non-productive milch animal or work animal that is slaughtered for beef. The identical population of animals produce 3.4 million tonnes of meat annually (48% from buffaloes, 42% from small ruminants and the balance from cattle), and 155.5 million tonnes milk (52% from buffaloes, 44% from cows and the balance from small ruminants).

The FCRN report defines the Indian scenario of ruminant production as a mixed crop-livestock system. Whilst acknowledging that most of the global ruminant milk and meat (by weight) is produced in crop-livestock mixed systems, the authors go on to say that “since these mixed systems vary so widely in their use of feeds and inputs, this observation is not especially informative”.  Furthermore, the authors observe that since grasslands play a significant role in mixed crop-livestock systems, the contribution of grasslands to human protein supply is higher but difficult to estimate, and complicated by the fact that animals in these systems may also be fed grains as well as agricultural by-products.

In short, a system where animals graze on a variety of ecologies along with being fed other crop residues whilst making multiple contributions has been completely excluded by the authors in drawing their conclusions on grazing, because it is too complex a system. Yet, the authors propose what appears to be pretty much an identical system – “good at recycling residues and crop by-products and making use of land that can less easily be cropped in order to provide people with food” – as one of the many possible ways forward to the overarching big question on what role, if any, do farmed animals play in sustainable food systems.

Also read: India’s Livestock Markets Have Historically Been Marked By Mobility and Cross-Country Transactions

At the same time, in the Indian context, there is no room to be complacent in this realisation. We have to be alert to two interlinked forces that are driving the intensification of ruminant production as also systematically tearing asunder the symbiotic relationship between crops, grasslands, forests and livestock. These are the post-economic reforms policies to liberalise dairy and meat markets, and the growing consumption/demand patterns of a 250-million-strong wealthy middle class, juxtaposed against a growing population of permanently undernourished citizens.

The per capita availability of milk in India has increased from 176 grams per day in 1990-91 to 322 grams per day in 2014-15, which far exceeds the Indian Council of Medical Research recommendations of 285 grams per day. However, this hides the reality of skewed milk consumption: excessive amongst the Indian rich and middle class, probably far exceeding their daily dairy requirement, in contrast to a vast majority whose consumption is far below the average daily requirement. This unequal distribution and unfair access to milk cannot become the justification for industrialising production. In a similar vein, the cheapest source of meat today – industrial poultry, hugely subsidised via government policies – is driving a transformation on farmers’ fields, who are being lured into cultivating corn and soya primarily as poultry feed, in lieu of food crops.

Finally, whilst there are several calculations of carbon emission per unit of milk from Indian cows and buffaloes and mutton (from small ruminants), there are no estimates for Indian beef. With Indian beef being a by-product of dairy, and almost entirely derived from buffaloes, which also anchor India’s milk production, Indian beef could well be the least environmentally damaging with the lowest emission intensities per unit of animal protein (milk and beef) as compared to either intensive industrial or grass-fed beef.

It is imperative to flag these issues, as all too quickly reports that come from globally-reputed research institutions such as Oxford University are immediately extrapolated to indict entire systems of livestock rearing and production that continue to defy intensification and industrialisation paradigms, whilst contributing in multiple ways.

Sagari R. Ramdas is a trained veterinarian and works with the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India.

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