In 2006, a landmark report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that livestock production contributes 18 percent to global carbon dioxide emissions — more than automobiles. Since then, meat production has been insistently and ringingly hammered, and the message has been loud and clear: eat less meat to cut your carbon footprint, slow deforestation and keep healthier.
Indeed, in the wake of the report, Japanese studies emerged comparing eating hamburgers to driving around for three hours while leaving on all the lights. Still other reports levied a pretty hefty ecological and economic tab on the consumption of beef — from Amazonian deforestation to food riots in the global South and starvation in the slums of Haiti.
But more recent work suggests that the question of consumption is inseparable from the question of production.
In other words, the issue of how beef is produced may be more important than the fact that it is produced at all — an acknowledgment that could open the door to promoting sustainable beef production policies.
Not All Beef Production is Created Equal
The ecological problems of beef production are well known. In short, if you stuff cows full of corn grown on land doused with petroleum-based fertilizers and harvested by oil-fueled threshers and combines, you are likely going to cause trouble.
The picture gets even worse when you consider other common practices, such as injecting the livestock with feed larded with antibiotics; razing rainforests to grow the soy that has been displaced by raising beef; and using enormous spillage pools to contain the waste produced by industrial pork production, emitting volumes of methane gas.
The problem, however, is that studies like the FAO's landmark volume conflate unsustainable production practices with partially sustainable and even beneficial practices, observers say.
According to the International Institute for Environment and Development, a London-based sustainable development organization, writing in its report, "Modern and Mobile: The Future of Livestock Production in Africa's Drylands:"
"When the data is unraveled ... it becomes clear that livestock have been globally aggregated with European intensive milk production, south-east Asian high intensity pig farming, U.S. beef burger feedlots and ranching and African pastoralism all lumped together."
This conflation, analysts argue, can potentially distort understanding, analysis and policymaking in several ways.
For one, wide-ranging condemnations of an abstraction called "beef production" don't look at ways that it may be being managed sustainably. In Africa, the report goes on to argue, "Pastoralists manage complex webs of profitable cross-border trade and draw huge economic benefits from rangelands ill-suited to other land use systems."
The statistics are illuminating.
In Africa, Pastoral Husbandry 'Greener' Than Farming
In Mauritania, livestock constitutes 70 percent of total agricultural GDP. In Uganda, pastoral and smallholder livestock contribute 8.5 percent to the country's total GDP. In Niger, 76 percent of the country's herd is pastoral cattle, while in Chad, pastoral animals compose more than one-third of the country's exports and feed over two-fifths of the population.
In fact, pastoral animal husbandry is at the very core of the continent's livelihood. The practice is quite different from other forms of beef production, as Michele Nori and Jonathan Davies suggest.
"Pastoralism is the finely-honed symbiotic relationship between local ecology, domesticated livestock and people in resource-scarce, climatically marginal and highly variable conditions," the authors said.
The authors explain that pastoralism represents a complex form of natural resource management, involving a continuous ecological balance between pastures, livestock and people. Arguments for replacing pastoral or beef production with crop production often rely on the premise that the latter will be more productive and better able to safeguard the ecology.
But this is not at all clear in the case of African pastoral production.
"Pastoralism is far more compatible with wildlife than other forms of land use," the study observes, adding that "converting rangelands for crop production reduces carbon storage capacity by 95% for carbon stored above ground, and by 50% for carbon stored below ground."
A recent article in the journal Nature also finds that pastoralism is far more lucrative. In the article, entitled "The Value of the World's Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital," researchers explain that such grasslands have a value of $232 dollars of hectare per year, while cropland is worth just $92 dollars.
While these are rough estimates, they suggest that converting grasslands to use for an activity that has only a distant resemblance to natural processes has a negative effect on the ecology.
Moreover, Africa has a huge number of these grasslands — around 13 million square kilometers — and one thing that they do very well is store carbon. According to the researchers, global grasslands store 34 percent of the global stock of carbon dioxide.
That African livestock production through pastoralism doesn't contribute to global CO2 emissions — or at least, that there is little evidence that they do and good evidence that they don't — makes sense when one pauses and considers that pastoralists coax their animals to mimic natural grazing practices. This stands in stark contrast with industrial farm operators who radically disrupt them.
The Global Warming Factor
Despite pastoralists' resilience, though, climate change may disrupt their lives as bouts of drought and famine increase.
In Kenya, for example, a recent study conducted in its Mandera district found that a four-fold increase in the incidence of drought over the past 25 years has forced one-third of the region's herders to abandon their pastoral lifestyle.
During the last drought — a particularly harsh one — goats, camels and cattle were lost in such enormous quantities that families needed outside assistance to recover. Furthermore, surviving livestock can't support livelihoods any longer because the herds they belong to are simply too small.
"In the next 10 to 15 years this will mean a continuation of current trends including successive poor rains, an increase in drought-related shocks, and more unpredictable and sometimes heavy rainfall events," while after that, the organization said, rains may not come in many areas and high temperatures may make animal husbandry unsustainable or impossible.
The unfortunate irony, according to the organization, is that pastoralism came out of the need to combat climate change impacts.
"Pastoralism in Africa developed in direct response to long-term climate change and variability, and spread throughout northern Africa as a means of coping with an increasingly unpredictable and arid climate," it said.
As Nori and Davies argue, this means that pastoralism may be well-suited for lands rendered marginal by changes in climate that make them unsuitable for farming. The double irony here, of course, is that when climate-induced drought spreads across Africa, as the more dire projections by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict, pasturing of animals on dry lands — a practice that helps sequester CO2 and slow warming — will become increasingly impossible when it will be needed the most.
This will be especially true as African states fight more fiercely over increasingly scarce water resources, preventing the transnational migratory patterns that pastoralism requires.
CO2 increases could mean that "consequences ... for the Sahel would be dramatic; palaeoclimatic analogues indicate that the result would probably be a rapid onset of aridity lasting decades to centuries."