Livestock production receives a lot of criticism because many livestock systems are highly intensive, compromise animal welfare and cause pollution. Producing livestock products is often also less efficient in terms of calories, greenhouse gas emissions and water use than growing crops. But high welfare livestock systems can be a vital part of restoring ecosystems, maintaining soil fertility, producing food from marginal land and providing important nutritional benefits.
For example, in temperate regions grass is a vitally important crop – the only one that will restore degraded soil and take more carbon out of the atmosphere. Yet we cannot eat grass, so the only way to retain grassland and the only way to get food from it is if we stock it with grazing animals. Long-established grassland also stores more carbon than the atmosphere and all the forests on the planet combined. In addition, sympathetically managed grassland is also very important for pollinating insects, providing food in late summer from herbs, grassland flowers, flowering clover and other legumes. Grassland also soaks up heavy rain much better than cropland, reducing the risk of flooding and improving the quality of both river and groundwater used for drinking.
Some forms of livestock production are also ideal for using up crop residues which humans cannot eat: straw, Brewers’ grains, sugar beet pulp, some oilseed cakes and grain that isn’t suitable for human consumption.
As such, the questions arise: what constitutes sustainable livestock production, and by implication, what constitutes unsustainable livestock production? These and related issues are explored in the following articles.