Why Our Planet Needs Less Meat And More Extensive Farming
It is great to see the brilliant George Monbiot raising the dramatic impact of runaway meat consumption on the environment and future viability of the planet. Whilst agreeing with much of the issues raised, one area that I see things very differently is in seeing extensive farming as somehow worse for the planet than intensive. It isn’t. And here’s why…
Intensive Farming is Cruelly Short Sighted and to Blame for the Decline in Nature
The IPCC (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report on climate change and land makes a compelling case for a far-reaching rethink of food and farming. It is the latest in a long line of heavy-weight studies showing how intensive agriculture and high-meat diets are endangering all our futures.
I was surprised then to see George Monbiot in a recent column, not only knocking the report, but seemingly joining those who suggest ‘land-sparing’ through intensive farming as the way to preserve our dwindling environment. Even going so far as to suggest that extensive farming is “worse” than intensive “by definition” because it uses more land.
Now, I realise George wasn’t trying to defend intensive animal agriculture or its appalling cruelty record – far from it – but I fear his comments on extensive farming will be hijacked by those who seek to do so.
In my view, we should be clear that intensive farming – including the factory farming of animals – is nothing more than an exercise in hugely damaging short-termism. Animals are caged, crammed and confined and fed grain from vast acreages of precious cropland.
Those feed-crops are typically grown using polluting artificial fertilisers and soil-damaging chemical pesticides. The resulting countryside is all too often barren. Lifeless. Fields with few, if any, worms, birds, beetles, butterflies or bees.
What we need is a long-term approach that nourishes people in a way that ends farm animal cruelty and allows nature to thrive; after all, we depend on the natural world as our life-support system, for our future.
Extensive farming provides animals the scope to lead more natural lives in ways that enhance that life-support system, being more beneficial for essentials like soil health and farmland biodiversity. It uses less oil-based fertilisers and water, all big pluses in the sustainability stakes.
Where George is right, of course, is that if we simply switched everything to extensive farming whilst carrying on trying to eat more meat and dairy, even more land would be swallowed.
But then, doing that by whatever method simply isn’t feasible. The livestock sector worldwide already produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all the planes, trains and cars put together. If we carry on increasing meat and dairy consumption as we are, then emissions from food production alone could trigger catastrophic climate change. No contributions necessary from the energy or any other sector.
To my mind, tackling climate change and saving wildlife needs a two-pronged approach; genuinely planet-friendly ways of producing food – which intensive farming is not – and the adoption of more plant-based diets. In this way, we could spare a great deal of land and scarce resources. For now, and for the future.
There is a weight of evidence to show that intensive (also known as industrial) farming of both crops and animals – the two go hand in hand – is a major driver of wildlife declines worldwide. Chemical-soaked crop monocultures and pollution lead to the destruction of whole ecosystems and the demise of iconic species like jaguars, elephants and penguins, as well as a multitude of less well-known species of animals and plants.
Intensive or industrial animal farming is a major driver in the decline of the very ecosystem services we need to produce food in the future; being polluting of air and water, devastating to pollinating insects like bees needed for the very existence of a third of all food and responsible for soil declines now hitting many parts of the world.
“Industrial farmers sacrifice soil to maximise short-term returns to pay rent, service debt for machinery, and buy pesticides and fertilisers,” is the way leading soil scientist, Professor David R Montgomery, puts it.
The UN suggests that, if we continue with damaging farming practices, we have just decades left before the world’s soils either disappear or become useless. And a recent UK Defra Secretary of State, Michael Gove, went further in suggesting that if urgent action isn’t taken, Britain could have only 30-40 years left in its soils.
After many years of warnings from environmentalists, policymakers are at last starting to get it – intensive farming is intensely short-sighted.
What wildlife and people need is a long-term solution. One that goes beyond sustainability – the ability to do tomorrow what we do today – and instead regenerates our soils and farmland countryside. We live in an increasingly crowded world with more people and less resources. Land is shrinking as sea levels rise. Most land suitable for arable cropping is already in use or under forests vital for carbon sequestration and wildlife. If we carry on with intensive farming and try to exceed what the land can naturally provide, soils could be gone or be useless within a couple of generations. And unlike the past, we won’t have the luxury of moving to farmland elsewhere. There literally could be nowhere to go.
Feed people, not factory farms
So how do we square the circle of needing more food from less land without losing the soil needed by future generations?
Well, the first thing is to stop squandering nearly half of the world’s crop harvest on the damaging and deeply cruel practice of factory farming.
About 40% of the world’s cereal and soya harvest is fed to industrially reared animals, thereby wastefully squandering enough food to feed an extra four billion people on the planet. After all, farm animals return but a fraction of the food value of the crops they consume in both calories and protein.
That isn’t to say that we should only eat cereal grains; land growing animal feed should be repurposed to provide a wide range of nutritious plant-foods in a way that is much more efficient than producing factory farmed meat.
A recent study in the US found that reconfiguring cropland from animal feed to 100 per cent human-edible crops that promote positive health outcomes (including fruits, vegetables and pulses) would feed an additional 350 million people compared to what the same area of land currently produces in meat and dairy.
In the UK, where 55 per cent of cropland is used for animal feed, a Harvard University study
concluded that one third of cropland currently used to grow animal feed could provide 62 million adults a year – almost the entire UK population – with their ‘five-a-day’ portions of fruits and vegetables. Such a move could be transformative for a country like Britain so heavily dependent on imports.
Urgent action is also needed to address our diets heavy in resource-intensive meat, dairy and eggs; moving toward more plant-based ways of eating.
Diets high in meat and dairy are placing huge strain on the Earth’s resources and endangering human health, with factory farming acting as the upstream driver of yet more consumption.
We now have a situation where agriculture covers nearly half the useable land surface of the planet; four-fifths of it is devoted to producing animal products. Yet meat and dairy contribute little more than a quarter of humanity’s protein needs and less than a fifth of our calories. Whichever way you look at it, the return on investment is pitifully small. In a world of increasing demand (more people) and shrinking resources, it simply no longer makes sense.
Reducing the proportion of meat and dairy in our diets would be environmentally transformative and could create space for animals to be kept in regenerative, agroecological forms of farming. Ways more in step with nature, such as genuinely pasture-fed, free range, organic or regenerative farming methods.
Meat reduction and abandoning factory farming of animals are crucial steps then in the battle to save our planet. More than 74 billion animals are reared and slaughtered every year for food, most of them in factory farms. Globally, we share two-fifths of our cropland with factory farmed animals, using it to grow their feed.
Saving cropland for the primary purpose of feeding people directly is of paramount importance; alongside reducing the number of animals farmed. Our sense of humanity should surely insist that those animals remaining be farmed humanely. On permanent or rotational pastures.And, as I’ve seen in South Africa, America and Europe, it doesn’t need to just be cattle and sheep that get to be outdoors. Chickens and pigs are adept at following the herd around the farm, eating food waste and picking bugs out of cowpats as they go.
Moving away from intensive farming of animals would spare cropland and allow for more nature-friendly farming.
Farming with nature is much more about mixing it up; bringing back mixed rotational farms. Moving away from the specialisation favoured by industrialists, the segregation of plants and animals, that has grown up over the last 70 years as part of ‘modern’ agriculture. Even the uplands have been affected by specialisation. Upland overgrazing is as much an example of unsustainable specialisation, in my view, as the chemical-soaked crop monocultures in the lowlands of eastern England.
In landscapes reworked by reductions in meat and dairy and an end to factory farming, marginal lands and uplands could be reforested, using agro-forestry techniques, helping to restore hillsides with wooded wildlife habitats of climate-stabilising trees.
Farm animals could be reintegrated as part of mixed, rotational regimes on rich lowland soils where they can help bring landscapes back to life. As part of genuinely extensive, agroecological forms of farming, domesticated animals can help regenerate soils. They re-engage the age-old nitrogen cycle where sunlight pushes up plants, eaten by animals whose droppings return nourishment to the soil. They can express their natural behaviours – running, flapping, grazing – making for happier animals with better immunity, cutting down on the need for veterinary antibiotics and reducing risk of disease.
Restoring farm animals to the land can cut our reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, so reducing costs to farmers. This in turn can create a varied landscape, bursting with wildflowers, luring back indispensable pollinating insects like bumblebees, as well as providing seeds and insects for a host of birds and other wildlife.
They can also take the pressure off a hard-pressed environment, requiring less water from rivers and aquifers and reducing the need to fell forests to make way for more arable land.
In this way, extensive farming coupled with consumption of less meat and dairy can help end cruelty to animals, save wildlife, stabilise the climate and safeguard the future for our children.
This Opinion article and Blog was originally published 23rd August, 2019