Livestock represents almost 40% of the total value of the world's agricultural output. As an integral part of the nutritional security of over a billion people, animals and animal products are a critical part of our food system. However, the livestock sector is responsible for 14.5% of all our greenhouse gas emissions and poses a severe environmental threat. So how do we balance people's immediate needs with the planet's future needs? By making livestock more sustainable.
Silvopastoralism: Forests, Fields, and Livestock
Raising livestock in the most natural environment possible is the key to sustainability. Of course, this will look different based on context, as areas have different native species of plants and animals. In addition, the human societies that rely on pastoralism have diverse cultures and economic and social needs. However, the main principle remains the same: sustainable livestock puts animals in a natural habitat.
For many species of livestock, natural habitats include a mixed ecosystem of forest and field – a system of agroforestry that rotates animals from feeding on grasses to foraging leaves, shrubs, and fallen fruit. The ancestral (and least expensive) form of "silvopastoralism" introduces livestock to naturally occurring forests. On the other hand, high-tech (high-price) operations cultivate multi-use trees and high-protein crops to increase yields and maintain diverse income streams. Most silvopastoral systems fall somewhere in between, adapting to the local environment, social constraints, and market forces.
Integrated Farming Benefits the Environment
Cultivating livestock in a "natural" environment promotes sustainability in the local environment and the overall climate. For example, maintaining existing forests with herbivore grazing can mitigate the risk and damage of wildfires. Moreover, improved tree health and new trees sequester carbon, helping to address climate change. Finally, silvopastoral systems also increase biodiversity by housing tree-dwelling birds and insects, which, in turn, operate as natural pest control.
In addition to promoting a healthier ecosystem, using trees in conjunction with livestock promotes animal welfare. For instance, many large ruminants are not resilient to heat, and forest cover relieves them from direct sunlight in warmer months. In addition, the ability to explore and graze is in line with their biology but also disrupts parasite propagation, keeping cows, goats, and sheep healthier than their stationary counterparts.
A Healthy Environment Makes More Productive and Profitable Farms
Socioeconomic sustainability goes hand in hand with the environment. For example, a well-maintained farm that integrates forests, fields, and livestock can be up to 55% more productive than land dedicated to only one of the three. Nowhere is this effect more helpful to populations relying on livestock than the increased weight and milk production over monocrop-fed animals. Moreover, these improvements occur without the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (and their attendant environmental and financial damage), increasing profits even further.
Increased income is vital for sustainability, but so is resilience. Silvopastoral farms offer their farmers multiple income streams, including timber and fruit from trees, forage crops, and animal products. These various products leave farmers less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the market.
Furthermore, integrated farms can resist a changing climate more effectively. For instance, healthy trees and well-kept fields increase water filtration in the soil, helping to reduce flooding. On the other hand, trees and shrubs provide additional animal food in times of drought. In short, the adaptable and resilient silvopastoral model ensures that farmers can build sustainable businesses to benefit their communities.
Livestock Exist to Eat the Food We Can't
Given the number of environmental and socioeconomic benefits above, one might ask why integrating forests, fields, and livestock is so effective in the first place. That is, what factor is the root cause of all these knock-on effects? The answer is pretty simple: food. Having animals graze on shrubs and grasses is a more efficient use of resources than our current system.
For example, cows have adapted to digest the cellulose of many plants we can't eat and turn it into top-notch protein. Unfortunately, our food system relies mainly on synthetic fertilizers (mentioned above) and corn or soy, which humans can eat. As a result, we compete with our food over food – an unnecessary waste. But grazing livestock wild on the food they have evolved to eat lowers the stress on our already overburdened food system.
It is also worth noting that cows have not adapted to eating corn, and it causes them intense gastrointestinal distress. This suffering is responsible for a large portion of their methane emissions and causes up to 33% of the cattle deaths on large feedlots. Therefore, not only will feeding cows healthy food increase their production, but it is also a much more humane practice.
Sustainable Livestock Requires Animals to Graze on Their Natural Foods
We cannot eliminate the livestock sector – too many people in developing nations rely on it for their nutrition and livelihoods. However, we need to promote sustainability throughout our entire agricultural system. The best way to address livestock is to feed them properly. That is, integrate forests, fields, and animals in a silvopastoral system that helps the environment, promotes animal and human welfare, and grows emerging economies.
Go Grassfed – It's tough to sort through all the labels and claims, so try to buy meat certified by a respected organization like the American Grassfed Association. They require a diet of 100% forage for the animal's entire life.
Reduce Consumption – You don't need a lot of meat in your diet, especially if it's high-quality. Consider going meatless on Mondays at work or with your family.
Shop Local – Checking out a farmer's market is a great way to find out who grows grass-fed, grass-finished beef in your area. Moreover, it cuts down on emissions from transporting meat cross-country.