cows in grass

We are no longer grazed and confused

Eating Better Roundtable chews over the climate impacts of pasture farming.

Download the Roundtable Summary Report here

In November last year Eating Better brought together a range of expertise and interests to discuss pasture farming and in particular it’s contribution to climate change. Stimulated by the publication of the Food Climate Research Networks, Grazed and Confused? Report, we invited lead author Tara Garnett to discuss its findings with representatives of Eating Better alliance organisations and other stakeholders including those with experience in pasture-fed livestock farming.

The report’s publication had generated some lively debate and provided an important topic for wider discussion. In particular we wanted to bring people together to consider the implications of this research for civil society messaging toward ‘less and better’ meat & dairy, and farming in pasture based livestock systems, as well as the implications for policy and research at this time when Brexit, CAP reform, climate negotiations and the forthcoming UK Agriculture Bill potentially offer opportunities to shift livestock production and consumption onto more sustainable pathways.

A key point that came out of the discussions was the importance of maintaining and building soil carbon stores. Permanent pasture is one way that this can be achieved, however research also shows that typically, grazing livestock emit more GHGs than soil can potentially sequester unless grazing at very low stocking densities. Priorities to maintain soil carbon include halting deforestation; halting further soil carbon losses by no more conversion of natural land to agriculture; no more pasture conversion to arable and farming in ways that maintain soil carbon. This raised the question of what is the ‘least bad’ way of using land? We could do other things, such as woodland creation, with grazing land that might be better for carbon sequestration and biodiversity than producing meat and dairy. It was noted that solutions need to be appropriate for local conditions such as climate, geography and soils.

A strong conclusion of the report and the discussion is that if we are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, then we need to reduce overall consumption of animal products. From a GHG emission perspective we need to eat less of all types of meat – from ruminants (cattle and sheep) and monogastrics (chicken and pigs) - and it is not enough simply to swap between different types of meat, e.g. from beef to chicken. Maintaining current consumption patterns, and the upward trend in consumption of animal products, is catastrophic for land-use change and deforestation, and not mitigated by simply switching at the same level of consumption to e.g. grass-fed from intensive systems. Hence, while promoting ‘better’ is desirable, it only makes sense in the context of consuming considerably ‘less’.

While the ‘less’ message is increasingly accepted and recognised as an essential message to address climate change, there is often difficulty in defining ‘better’, to ensure that any livestock products that are consumed are those that deliver on other objectives. These include, for example, animal welfare, nutrition, biodiversity, ceasing prophylactic use of farm antibiotics, and promoting farmers’ livelihoods. These preferences can be expressed through choosing higher welfare, free range, pasture fed or organic products.

This was the first roundtable of Eating Better’s new programme of work to bring people together to address tricky or challenging issues. We sought to hear different perspectives, to develop knowledge and shared understanding and navigate ways through the complexities.

Our intention is that the outcomes of the workshop will help inform organisations and provide a useful contribution to current policy thinking on how to shift livestock production and consumption onto more sustainable pathways. Eating Better will use the outputs from the roundtable to inform our future work, to refine our messaging to policy makers, businesses and the public on less and better; and to consider how to engage other stakeholders in these discussions including policy makers and farmers.

Eating Better Roundtable: The Climate Impacts of Pasture Farming, was held 27 November 2017 in collaboration with the Food Climate Research Network. Download the Summary Report here.

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