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

Ruminant livestock production still key

Rearing ruminants has got a bad rap for emitting more greenhouse gases than monogastric animals. But it actually plays a key role in rural regions where it provides many economic, social and environmental services. Sustainable agriculture is but a pipe dream without ruminant livestock production.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 06/15/2017
Published on 02/21/2017

Grazing and carbon storage. © INRA, Patricia Perrot
Grazing and carbon storage © INRA, Patricia Perrot

Ruminant livestock production all-important for maintaining regions

Ruminant livestock production accounts for more than 60% of total cultivated land in France, including several zones that are unfit for growing crops. It is also part of more than 95% of small farming regions. It therefore helps maintain and retain open and diversified countryside, which is a staple of French cultural heritage. According to Jean-Louis Peyraud (1), “Without livestock production, the heartland of France would become a wilderness, then a forest. Permanent pastures would no longer be maintained and would disappear. But grasslands play an important role in carbon capture in soil, reducing the carbon footprint of livestock production. Along with associated structures (field margins, hedges, banks, ditches, etc.) they are also a source of biodiversity and provide habitats for wildlife and pollinating insects”.

Livestock production is also an important source of employment: more than 800,000 people in France have a job that depends on some sort of livestock production. Of those, some 415,000 work on farms and 470,000 in indirectly-related employment (2).

Livestock production is a key link in nutrition cycles

In Europe, manure from livestock production provides a near-equal amount of nitrogen and more phosphorus than mineral fertilisers used on soil (3).

In addition, it is an indispensable source of organic matter when it comes to boosting the fertility of soil. Grassland soils, like forest soils, are richer in biomass than soils used for annual crops. They also harbour a greater diversity of microflora and microfauna. Therefore, putting livestock manure to good use can help farmers keep synthetic fertilisers in check.

Livestock production feeds people by making use of plants unfit for human consumption

Livestock production is part and parcel of agriculture: in addition to producing organic matter that acts as a fertiliser, it taps into the potential of by-products of crops and prairie grasses. In doing so, it transforms biomass that is unfit for human consumption into products with a high nutritional value (4).

Feed for ruminants, for example, consists mostly of fodder, which is made up of components that man cannot eat: 70% fodder (5) compared with 30% concentrated feed (6). Only a fraction of the protein contained in the concentrated feed could be directly used by man. A dairy cow, for instance, produces 2kg (7) of animal protein (meat, milk) from only 1kg of plant protein that could be directly used in human diets.

The products of livestock production are part of our cultural and gastronomic heritage

Forming brocciu cheese (Battesti farm, August 1984). © INRA, PROST Jean-Antoine
Forming brocciu cheese (Battesti farm, August 1984) © INRA, PROST Jean-Antoine

France boasts more than 1000 types of cheese and many designation-of-origin labels, as well as labels for meat production (e.g. red label). Dairy products go hand in hand with meat: close to 40% of French meat production comes from dairy cows.

Animals have always played a central role in human societies: the earliest humans ate what they killed before becoming hunters and gatherers. Then, man developed rituals and myths centred around animals and domesticating them, making the pair even more inseparable. The man-animal duo became omnipresent (8).

(1) Jean-Louis Peyraud, Deputy Scientific Director of Agriculture at INRA.
(2) Indirect employment: slaughterhouses, transport, food, animal health, selection, suppliers, agrifood industry, administration, etc. Read the article (in French).
(3) See collective expert reports: Livestock production and nitrogen and Use of fertilizing residual materials in agriculture and forestry
(4) More than 8 million tonnes in France.
(5) Fodder: grazing grass or stored hay and silage.
(6) Concentrated food: made from grains, protein crops, canola oilcakes, soy, sunflower.
(7) Up to 3 or 4kg in grassland systems.
(8) Marylène Patou-Mathis (2009). “Meat-eaters: from prehistory to today”. Editions Perrin, 408 pages

Bovins créoles en saison sèche, élevage au piquet, complémentation avec feuilles de canne à sucre (en arrière-plan). © Maurice Mahieu

Livestock production around the world

According to international foresight studies, animal farming will increase by 60% to 100% by 2050, especially in developing countries. Doubling animal production would help those countries reach only a third of the consumption that takes place in developed countries.

Today, the most popular meat in the world is pork (36.3%, mostly in China), followed by poultry (35.2%), beef and buffalo (22.2%) and goat and sheep (4.6%) (source: FAO, 2012).

Livestock production plays a particularly important economic and social role in developing countries, in terms of “standing capital”.  

  • 70% of livestock animals are outside of industrial countries.
  • Half of food crops in developing countries make use of draft animals.
  • Livestock production employs 1.3 billion people worldwide and contributes to the livelihood of 1 billion poor people in developing countries.

Dwindling livestock production leads to desertification

Over the course of the 19th century, one billion hectares of arable land - the equivalent of the surface area of the United States - was wiped clean from the face of the earth. The culprit?  Disappearing livestock production and functions, which has led to land desertification. Indeed, thanks to their texture and grass cover, pastures keep water loss in check by limiting runoff, and help replenish the water table. Substituting animal production by plant production does not always go hand in hand with beneficial effects for the environment.

Reducing the carbon footprint of livestock production: an achievable goal

When it comes to reducing the carbon footprint of livestock production, there is a lot of room for improvement.

A recent report by the FAO (1) shows that the carbon footprint of livestock farming can be reduced by 18 to 30% if farmers in the same system, the same region, and in the same climatic conditions adopted the practices of those producers who follow the lowest-impact methods. Practices where there is room for improvement include managing grazing, feed, livestock rearing techniques, animal health, and managing effluents. Developing countries account for 70% of carbon reduction potential.
(1) Gerber et al. 2014. Tackling climate change through livestock - A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Rome.