Agriculture, the innovation that birthed human civilisation, may now threaten its future, owing to an environmental impact unmatched by any other human activity. Most of this impact comes from livestock farming, which constitutes around 77 per cent of global agricultural land.
Livestock production has been shown to be a leading cause of habitat destruction, pollution, and anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (in addition to burning fossil fuels and deforestation), contributing approximately 14 per cent to the global total, a similar proportion to road transport.
Impacts of livestock production
Where livestock graze they simplify the vegetation structure: some UK cities have greater tree cover than its National Parks, which are often little more than “glorified sheep farms”. Livestock grazing also decreases biodiversity, compact the soil and, at least in conventional grazing systems, tend to reduce its fertility.
As to GHG emissions from livestock farming, around 40 per cent are due to enteric fermentation in ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) producing methane, a GHG 28 times more potent than CO2 over 100 years.
Despite this, demand for livestock products continues to rise rapidly, with economically ascendant countries like China catching up with meat-heavy western diets.
As its impacts gain recognition, a trend has emerged within the livestock lobby to market certain modes of production as ‘regenerative’ or ‘nature friendly,’ latching onto laudable efforts to limit the impacts of agriculture generally.
While the term is rather amorphous and encompasses a range of practices, there are positive elements within the regenerative livestock framework compared to conventional production. Being pasture-fed, it requires less cropland set aside for growing animal feed, a major issue with factory farming: in the UK for instance, over half of cereal production (wheat, barley and oats) feeds not people but livestock. It also involves better animal welfare standards and reduced use of pesticides and antibiotics.
Are the benefits as good as they sound?
Regenerative solutions to intensive livestock production include reduced stocking rates, or various forms of rotational grazing, under such authoritative sounding titles as adaptive multi-paddock grazing, intensive rotational grazing, or holistic management.
In theory, by spreading the grazing pressure across a wider area, or moving the animals between different blocks of pasture for short bursts of time, they allow the land to better cope or recover, and the dung acts as organic fertiliser to stimulate plant growth and improve soil health.
Supporters also point to the slightly higher diversity of wildflowers or dung beetles in a regenerative organic system compared to more heavily grazed conventional fields, and assert that pasture, far from being a significant net source of emissions in most contexts, aids carbon sequestration. On this basis, UK farms using regenerative practices could continue claiming subsidies under the new ELM schemes, although it is rumoured that these may be scrapped under Liz Truss’s government.
However, most of these seemingly positive claims lack conclusive evidence and are increasingly being shown to be exaggerated. For instance, when cattle are raised on pasture or rangeland (e.g. in the USA), more enteric fermentation occurs, leading to higher methane emissions, as they consume rougher forage with lower nutrient density compared to grain feeds used in intensive feedlots.
Regenerative practices require more land
As emphasised by George Monbiot in his meticulously researched and widely misrepresented book Regenesis, among the most important measures of environmental impact is land use. While some have criticised Monbiot for elevating this factor above others, I’ve yet to see a serious refutation of his point. Agricultural land isn’t conjured from thin air. It’s the result of habitat destruction, often coupled with the displacement of indigenous people, for instance, in the Amazon.
The less intensive livestock farming becomes, the more land it requires for a given productivity. Some may argue that it’s necessary nonetheless – that a regenerative system is the ‘least bad’ option while maintaining food security. However, despite already using over three quarters of global farmland, livestock products (including aquaculture) supply just 37 per cent of the world’s protein.
Shifting towards regenerative practices would exacerbate this disproportion (as in the USA), when the watchword of food production should be efficiency.
When viewed against growing evidence, therefore, regenerative livestock farming is less sustainable overall. There is also evidence from large-scale regenerative ranching (e.g. in North America and Zimbabwe), that it is partly a greenwashing exercise funded by agribusiness and fossil fuel giants.
Regenerative production versus rewilding
In addition, while advocates proclaim the benefits of regenerative grazing relative to mainstream production systems, they’re less keen to make comparisons with the wild ecosystems they replace.
While claiming that their methods mimic the grazing habits of wild herbivores, they enclose their animals within fences – preventing migration or dispersal – kill or exclude predators and competitors, and remove the stock from the landscape when they reach slaughter weight. If they really mimicked wild species, as approximated by free-roaming herbivores used in conservation and rewilding, stocking rates would be far too low for a viable system of food production.
The hour is too late, and the situation too dire, to be feeding ourselves pipe-dreams. We must get serious about the incompatibility of commercial livestock farming with a sustainable biosphere, and substantially reduce or preferably work towards phasing out most animal agriculture – starting by ending public subsidies on which much of it relies.
Towards a meat-free future
As an individual consumer, cutting livestock products from your diet is among the most significant steps you could take to reduce your environmental impact. This would free up space for more efficient forms of food production, and for restoring ecosystems, a crucial tool in mitigating the biodiversity and climate crises. Oil companies have obstructed, obfuscated and misdirected society for decades, delaying action to end fossil-fuelled economies. We cannot allow the livestock ranching industry to do the same here as it has already done in the USA. ‘Regenerative’ livestock is not the solution; merely a panacea to convince us we can have our steak and eat it.