If I could change one thing for COP27... industrial agriculture
By Dr Jenny Hodbod, Lecturer of Environment and Development, Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment
If I could change one thing to save the planet… I’d limit industrial livestock agriculture and support farms that are grazing adaptively and so benefiting ecosystem services, especially carbon sequestration. Yes, we need to consume less meat, but what we do consume should come from healthy agro-ecosystems that support sustainable livelihoods.
Industrial agriculture has made meat cheaper and more accessible, and globally we eat more and more of it. It is also widely recognised that our meat consumption creates massive environmental problems, not least being responsible for ~10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. There is no silver bullet here, like in all sustainability challenges. So yes, the first step is to reduce our consumption of meat products. But livestock are an integral part of over 1 billion people’s livelihoods, are important in many food cultures, and aren’t going to go away. My recommendation to COP27 is to support science and practice around livestock agriculture based in agro-ecological principles so that the meat we do eat is as socially and ecologically sustainable as it can be.
Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing, one of a suite of approaches employing high-intensity, short-duration grazing that incorporates long recovery periods into adaptive rotations, with the intention of catalysing quantity and quality of forage and soil health
Given 45% of livestock emissions are from feed production and 10% from manure storage and processing, a significant first step is reducing industrial livestock agriculture and decoupling these elements. But what is the alternative? My take would be using land already under animal agriculture in systems where livelihoods and cultures have co-evolved around livestock more sustainably. One particular approach I’ve been studying is Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing, one of a suite of approaches employing high-intensity, short-duration grazing that incorporates long recovery periods into adaptive rotations, with the intention of catalysing quantity and quality of forage and soil health.
The headlines are often about the proposed carbon benefits of AMP and appeal to those focused on climate change, with the potential for offsetting the inevitable emissions from ruminants via enteric digestion and their manure via sequestration in soil carbon. But I’m also interested in the broader potential for improving ecosystem function and services (hence the inclusion of AMP grazing within the broader category of regenerative agriculture) and in turn improving the quality of life of those communities who depend on these ecosystems. Addressing degradation on the 70% of grasslands threatened by desertification would add security to the livelihoods of producers around the world, not least 600 million smallholders in Africa and Asia2.
Deforestation needs to be avoided at all costs, which is why we also need a simultaneous reduction in consumption and thus demand
A note on trade-offs, because, as I’ve already mentioned – there are no silver bullets! Generally, in such multi-functional systems the yield for any individual function is reduced, so the risk is that a transition towards regenerative agriculture supports expansion into new land to maintain levels of production. Deforestation needs to be avoided at all costs, which is why we also need a simultaneous reduction in consumption and thus demand. However, decreased production may increase cost, so the next challenge is one of equity with respect to affordability of meat.
Regenerative agriculture is a growing area of research as we quite rightly explore whether these approaches in more depth
However, I don’t think that means we shouldn’t be studying all the potential solutions to decarbonising the food system and increasing its resilience. Regenerative agriculture is a growing area of research as we quite rightly explore whether these approaches in more depth. The literature is pretty polarised, with outcomes seeming to hinge on research design - researchers working at the farm scale report positive narratives of adoption, whereas researchers doing controlled experiments at the plot-scale report mixed results. We’ve found that even though the science is debated, there’s a rapid uptake by producers of these methods.As a social scientist, studying that kind of behaviour change within producer circles is really important - what leads to adoption of proposed best management practices, if it’s not the scientific knowledge about whether it is actually a best management practice? Is it access to new information or skills, a change in attitudes or values, or financial incentives?
As a social scientist, studying that kind of behaviour change within producer circles is really important
We’re currently studying this in the US and Ethiopia – two very different livestock systems but both dependent on degrading grasslands and looking for ways to bolster resilience to climate change. The results will be of use to those working on decarbonising our food systems at multiple scales, from farmers to policy-makers.
Dr Jenny Hodbod, is a Lecturer of Environment and Development, at the Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment and the Global Food and Environment Institute, University of Leeds.