An International research collaboration has revealed that the belief that grass-fed livestock are good for the environment may be misplaced.
he research will come as a blow to the Irish agriculture as our predominantly grass based livestock systems where seen as a benefit in the fight against climate change.
However, the newly published report suggests that not only are cattle pastures not a climate solution, they directly contribute to the problem.
The Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) at the University of Oxford's new 'Grazed and Confused' report, aimed to shed light on the impact that grass-fed animals have on climate change, offering, it said, clarity to the debate around livestock farming and meat and dairy consumption.
In the report, the authors dissect claims made by different stakeholders in the debate about 'grass-fed' beef, the greenhouse gases the animals emit, and the possibility that, through their grazing actions, they can help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Written by Dr Tara Garnett of the FCRN, Cécile Godde at Australia’s national science agency the CSIRO and a team of international experts, the report throws cold water on claims that grass-fed beef benefits the environment.
Key findings include the observation that while grazing of grass-fed animals can boost the sequestration of carbon in some locally specific circumstances, that effect is time-limited, reversible, and at the global level, substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions they generate.
The report says an aggregate level the emissions generated by these grazing systems outweigh the removals in terms of sequestration of carbon and even assuming improvements in productivity, they simply cannot supply us with all the animal protein we currently eat.
“They are even less able to provide us with the quantities of meat and milk that our growing and increasingly more affluent population apparently wants to consume.
“Significant expansion in overall numbers would cause catastrophic land use change and other environmental damage,” it says.
The report also concludes that this is especially the case if one adopts a very ‘pure’ definition of a grazing system, the sort that grazing advocates tend to portray, where livestock are reared year-round on grass that is not fertilised with mineral fertilisers, receiving no additional nutritional supplementation, and at stocking densities that support environmental goals.
That said, it stress the it does not follow that intensive production systems offer a better alternative.
“The shift to intensification changes the nature of the problems, and by some measures, makes things worse,” it said.
In their conclusions the authors also noted that all food production has damaging impacts, as compared with a baseline of no human presence on the planet. And said that in many parts of the world there will be good nutritional and developmental reasons to support some livestock production as part of a suite of approaches aimed at ensuring adequate nutrition from sustainable food systems.
However, at the same time it said the ongoing assumption that production needs to meet the demands of high consuming individuals in affluent countries and increasingly in other parts of the world needs questioning.