Defining sustainability in animal agriculture can be tricky. Before the industrialization of farming, raising livestock was a part of most farms around the world. Many were run by families, and the meat was raised, processed and distributed on a local scale. Grazing animals play a vital role in the health of natural ecosystems, and eco-friendly forms of agriculture are crucial to the health of a diversified farm. This depends largely on how livestock is raised.
The industrial age of the 20th century brought more advanced meatpacking and shipping techniques, in addition to new ways to raise more animals in smaller areas. Instead of pasture-raised animals playing an important role in a farm’s ecosystem, they were packed into concentrated feedlots. Today, the largest livestock operations are known as CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations. These farms focus on keeping large numbers of animals in very tight spaces, often without access to fresh air or sunlight.
Farmers are pushing back against industrialized livestock production, recognizing it can be sustainable if done right. Pastured animals diversify income streams, promote healthy soil and provide nutrient-dense protein for local communities. The key is focusing on pastured animals that work as part of a closed-loop system, and whose products are distributed on a regional level instead of an international one.
Sustainably Raised Livestock
What does sustainable livestock look like? Depending on the situation, there is significant variability in how en eco-friendly farm may operate. For example, some farmers may raise one type of livestock to help manage pests in their crop fields. Free-range chickens are a great way to control insect pressure in annual crop fields. On the other hand, ranchers may raise hundreds of cattle, moving them daily to fresh pastures.
In the end, sustainability is all about how the product is produced and its contribution to society. Is the animal raised humanely and in an environmentally-friendly manner? Is the result a nutritious source of food for a growing population? Sustainability must be measured both in terms of food security and resource management.
Sustainably raised livestock is a vital part of a farm nutrient cycle, in which excess nutrients in the form of manure can be used to build up healthy soil for more crops. This returns energy to the land where it was originally extracted. Involving pastured animals as part of a larger farm operation creates a closed-loop system, where nothing goes to waste.
Today, many dairy farms have large pools of manure that are swept out of the barns into a collecting drain. While the waste is sometimes spread on crop fields as a fertilizer, it often ends up polluting local waterways and increasing the prevalence of disease.
Raising livestock sustainably does not need to be more expensive or complicated than conventional methods. In fact, before the industrialization of agriculture, all livestock was pasture-raised. This is not only better for the earth but also supports healthier animals. For example, taking steps toward better animal health, such as proactive disease management, may curb greenhouse gas emissions significantly, based on a study of beef cattle raised in Scotland.
Grazing animals also get a more diverse nutrient profile. Free-range chickens can forage for their own food most months out of the year, needing only supplemental feed when the ground is frozen.
Livestock and Climate Change
In the face of climate change, many finite resources that we currently take for granted will become limited. Fossil fuel energy is responsible for creating synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, an essential piece of the industrial food system. With fossil fuel energy becoming scarce, the availability of these resources will drop significantly. Therefore, sustainable animal agriculture must act as part of a large system design where waste can be renewed infinitely as fertilizer.
Despite the many benefits of sustainable animal agriculture, certain limitations make it hard for farmers to transition to new ways. Concentrated feedlot operations are often controlled by multinational corporations, which depend on the current system to meet demand. Large corporations, such as Smithfield, have incredible power over livestock farmers and their contracts. For example, Smithfield controls 90% of pig farms in North Carolina, making it extremely difficult for most sustainably-minded companies to develop any real foothold.
Sustainable Agriculture Is the Wave of the Future
The climate is changing, and many of the resources large animal agriculture operations currently rely on will be limited in the next few decades. Developing a more sustainable approach to animal agriculture will be essential to providing nutritious food for a growing population and using animals to regenerate soil and manage pests without chemicals.
Supporting farmers who raise their livestock on pasture and distribute their products at a regional scale is the best approach to sustainability in animal agriculture.