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Where’s the beef: fake meat or real livestock production?

Boosting European livestock production systems

The collective expert scientific evaluation carried out by INRA in 2015-2016 on the impacts and services of European livestock production has shown that it is difficult to establish a comprehensive assessment, be it positive or negative. What is certain, on the other hand, is that the total suppression of livestock production would come at the cost of environmental services. The evaluation identified ways to improve different types of livestock production.  

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 06/15/2017
Published on 02/22/2017

Piglets raised on straw. The tails are clipped at birth to protect the health of the animals (tail biting).. © INRA, CAUVIN Brigitte
Piglets raised on straw. The tails are clipped at birth to protect the health of the animals (tail biting). © INRA, CAUVIN Brigitte

There is no overall assessment of livestock production

The collective expert evaluation took stock of the impacts and services of European livestock production as a whole by examining five main areas:

  • markets,
  • jobs and employment,
  • inputs,
  • environment and climate,
  • social and cultural stakes.

Some examples of the impacts of European livestock production that can be qualified:

Overall positive impacts Overall negative impacts
  • Food consumption: animal products provide close to 60% of protein intake per day
  • Production: animal production contributes up to 45% of final agricultural production
  • Robust intra- and extra-European trade
  • Employment: 4 million jobs in Europe
  • Valorisation of grasslands: 74M ha (permanent pastures) and 10M ha (temporary) compared to 35M ha for fodder crops for animal feed
  • Recycling phosphorus
  • Wildlife biodiversity (grasslands)
  • Gastronomic richness
  • Animal feed: non-autonomy in Europe in grains and protein plants for concentrated feed
  • Greenhouse gases
  • Ammonia emitters, precursor of fine particle pollution
  • Eutrophication of water
  • Zoonoses (= 75% of human infectious disease)
  • Release of antibiotics into the environment

Given the current state of knowledge, it is not possible to summarise all these effects in a single overall impact indicator, be it positive or negative. Impacts are often difficult to assess, since they are multiple, vary widely depending on the type of livestock production, and are interdependent and non-cumulative. However, it can be said that the positive impacts tend to be on the side of production, trade, and some cultural aspects, while negative impacts are generally linked to the environment, pressures on resources (water, energy, concentrated food), and sometimes animal welfare.

Cutting back on animal product consumption is good for the environment

Modelling allows researchers to explore how different impacts and services of livestock production interact. Indeed, an increase in one service is often offset by a decrease in another, for example production/environment. The relationships between the services are not always linear, making for a complex situation which requires more than just simplistic answers. With their hypotheses and inherent limitations, modelling allows researchers to evaluate foresight scenarios. All of the scenarios concur: a decease in the consumption of animal products coupled with limiting ruminants to grasslands and making better use of the by-products of crops in animal feed would be good news for the environment.

No livestock production means loss of environmental services

The evaluation also highlights how the total suppression of livestock production would mean a loss of environmental services both in Europe and around the world. These include organic fertilisation of soils, recycling crop by-products, and maintaining grasslands and other pastures that are rich in biodiversity.

Different levers to improve different types of livestock production in Europe

The expert report identifies ways to improve the three main types of European livestock production previously defined (see page 6):

- Regions dense in animals but not in grassland: this type is very productive and competitive, but very sensitive to fluctuations in the market. It also takes a big toll on the environment. There is room for improvement by limiting pollution and inputs: for monogastric animals (pigs and poultry), food conversion must be boosted genetically, buildings optimised (French “high environmental quality” standards, ventilation, welfare, etc.), waste treated (drying plants, anaerobic digestion, etc.), herd health improved, etc.

- Grasslands: these areas make optimal use of local resources without seeking to maximise production. They rely on the quality of their products and keep the environmental toll in check. Striking a balance between productivity and environmental impact rides on how well grasslands are managed and sectors organised, with a view to enhancing and differentiating between products.

- Regions with mixed crop/livestock systems: ideally, this involves a mixture of several crops and livestock production, where the synergistic relationships between the two are tapped. However, livestock production has often been squeezed out by crops, which are more profitable and get more aid. It is a question of re-joining the forces of crops and animals and inserting pulses and intermediary crops into rotations to boost the feed autonomy of herds. Ruminants or poultry can also be introduced into orchards and rice paddies.

A collective expert report for a global vision of livestock production

The expert evaluation carried out by INRA involved 27 researchers, a third of which came from outside the Institute. It is based on a broad international bibliographic synthesis, i.e. approximately 2,450 recent references. Its goal is to offer a broad overview of European livestock production with its different roles, impacts, services and interactions. The authors sought to objectify the issues and avoid methodological biases.

Download report summary:

Taking the greenhouse gases out of milk

The Carbon Dairy project (1) involves some 3,000 dairy farms in six French regions. It was designed to reduce the carbon footprint of milk (2) by 20% over the next ten years. The goal has already been reached in 10% of dairy farms:

  • In maize systems, the net carbon footprint of milk (kg CO2-eq/litre milk) is 0.82 compared with 0.97 (national average)
  • In grassland systems, the net carbon footprint of milk is 0.64 compared with 0.77 (national average)
  • On average, a dairy farm included in the project stores 61,000 kg CO2-eq per year (which compensates for 286,000km by car). It maintains 90ha of biodiversity (hedges, pastures, trees, rivers). It provides nourishment for 1,840 people (based on protein content of its animal products). It emits fewer greenhouse gases than 38 households (gross emissions in kg CO2-eq).

In these livestock systems, technological efficiency can reduce the environmental impact while boosting economic results: more milk is produced with fewer concentrated feeds, less nitrogen input and less fuel. Levers for improvement include: optimising feed, reducing the purchase of fertilisers (spreading manure and growing pulses), conserving pastures at least five years, and keeping electricity and fuel use in check (organisation of work, simplified growing techniques, recovering heat).  

(1) French Livestock Institute, CNIEL (French Dairy Interbranch Organization), France Livestock Council, Agriculture and regions.
(2) NB: 40% of French meat production comes from dairy farms.