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Born to Rewild?
About two recent papers on pastoralism and rewilding
I’m fresh off a great, albeit exhausting, retreat with the crew at Lighthouse Reports so apologies for a longer-winded-than-usual newsletter. Normal programming will resume next week.
I’ve always strived to be as nuanced as I can when it comes to writing about meat and livestock, whether it’s for this newsletter or for my reporting elsewhere.
I believe consumers in rich nations who already eat far more meat than they need to stay healthy should cut their intake. This is because livestock emits methane (CH₄), a greenhouse gas that is far more potent in terms of trapping heat than the better-known carbon dioxide (CO₂).
But I don’t believe this should apply to everyone.
This stance is informed by my upbringing in a desperately poor country where a significant portion of women - 40% of pregnant women and 30% of reproductive age women - have iron deficiency anaemia, a condition that often lead to complications during pregnancy and at birth. In severe cases, it can be life-threatening to the mother, the child, or both.
The main cause? Diets that are not healthy or diverse. In a place like Burma/Myanmar, this means eating too much rice and not enough dark leafy greens, red meat, and/or dried fruits and nuts, mostly because people cannot afford them but also because of availability issues or cultural practices that shun meat, particularly beef.
In the same vein, I think it is important not to lump together different farming practices under the same umbrella when we’re talking about transforming our food systems.
This means we don’t assume pastoralism, which is a way of breeding livestock - goats, yaks, camels, sheep and cattle - and moving them around different landscapes for grazing, is the same as industrial systems that keep vast numbers of animals in stationery, confined spaces.
“Not all meat and milk is created equal, and traditional communities around the world raise animals in very different ways, with hugely different environmental impacts,” said Transnational Institute, a Netherlands-based think tank that published “Livestock, climate and the politics of resources - A primer” last year.
This is all the more important because policymakers are realising the importance of curbing methane emissions to rein in climate change.
While this is needed and crucial, policy guidelines on how to slash these emissions, like by abandoning livestock grazing in vast rangeland areas in favour of rewilding, which has a lot of potential to store carbon in the soil, need to be carefully thought out and planned.
The How or the Cow or Both?
There are several hundred million pastoralists worldwide, herding about 1 billion animals and producing food in some of the globe’s harshest environments, according to the FAO Pastoralist Knowledge hub.
These are areas where, for a variety of reasons, growing crops is difficult or impossible, like the Sahara desert, the mountains of South Asia, the Mongolian steppes or the Arctic tundra.
“Some pastoralists are fully nomadic and permanently on the move. Others are semi- or permanently settled. Some move long distances between regions. Others move animals daily or seasonally in a smaller area. Some have very close relationships with farmers, either farming themselves (agro-pastoralists) or exchanging manure or animal products for access to land where animals can feed.” - TNI
However, pastoralism has been marginalised for decades. A lot of this is because we don’t understand it and we tend to fear and discriminate what we don’t understand. It is seen as backward, unsustainable, environmentally destructive and contributing little to countries’ economies.
There is now a body of research, both qualitative and quantitative, that shows none of these are true but the perception persists and these negative stereotypes feed into policies that promote the individualisation of land tenure, neglect pastoral areas and alienate these communities.
A peer-reviewed paper that came out last month in npj climate and atmospheric science (a Nature publication) comparing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from pastoralist livestock with livestock-dominated protected areas, will add to the body of work that could lead to a more nuanced understanding of this form of agriculture.
In the paper, researchers in Finland and Spain calculated the emissions of two adjacent areas in Northern Tanzania - traditional African pastoralism versus a fully natural scenario - and found them to be pretty much the same.
“This means firstly, that attribution of man-made climate change to African pastoralism may be unfair, and secondly, any policies that suppress pastoralism as a way to combat climate change are likely to fail because landscapes abandoned by pastoralism will be overtaken by wild herbivores that will emit the same amount of greenhouse gases,” Pablo Manzano, a co-author of the paper, told me.
“Our findings suggest that abandoning pastoralism will not cause a cessation of grazing, just a replacement of domestic grazers by wild grazers. There will be no change in greenhouse gas emissions,” he added.
This also means giving up pastoralism in favour of intensive livestock production under the assumption that emissions per kilo of product will be lower is also wrong. In fact, the emissions are likely to increase.
“Intensive systems depend on feed crops, which require the ploughing of land, a process that releases soil carbon to the atmosphere, and on chemical fertilizers, the production of which demands a high use of fossil fuels,” Pablo said.
“These indirect increases are well-known among the scientific community working on Life Cycle Analysis. However, the lower total carbon footprint of intensive production systems has justified calls to move towards them.”
The study is funded by Spanish and Finnish grants as well as a programme on pastoralism but I think the results are still compelling.
The Rewild Ones
The findings could have implications for areas with well-conserved community of wild herbivores such as South Asia but also in places like the Mediterranean basin, California, Chile or Australia where abandoning pastoralism could make wildfires, which cause large emissions, more prevalent, said Pablo.
“Our studies show that GHG mitigation is not a reason to abandon pastoralism or to promote vegan diets - rather, decisions about sustainable food sources should consider from which food systems products come from. While industrial livestock keeping or industrial crop agriculture are a worrying source of GHG, low-input pastoralism has an extremely low carbon footprint,” he added.
But it doesn’t mean he’s against rewilding, just that it shouldn’t be a panacea for transforming our food systems.
“Wildlife is a world's heritage that we should preserve, the same way we should preserve the Colosseum in Rome,” he said.
Rewilding is a concept that has been around for a while but has entered the mainstream following a concerted push by the Guardian columnist and author George Monbiot.
In March, a group of 15 researchers from America and Europe published an analysis that focuses on an often-overlooked aspect of rewilding - the potential of wild animals to enhance carbon capture and storage and bring us within range of so-far-elusive goal of not exceeding the rise in temperature beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“Current natural climate solutions focus on protecting and restoring plants, and soil and sediment microbes in ecosystems. This focus stems from the premise that these taxa are the ones that have consequential effects on ecosystem carbon capture and storage. However, wild animals, especially terrestrial and marine mammals and marine fish, also can have consequential effects.”
Restoring and protecting animal functional roles in ecosystems is known as trophic rewilding, the authors said.
The Serengeti Connection
Like the first paper, this one uses the Serengeti to illustrate their point.
In the early 20th century, when rinderpest - a disease transmitted from domestic cattle - decimated the Serengeti’s wildebeest population, it meant there were fewer animals to graze the land and more standing grass. This fuelled “more frequent and intense wildfires”, releasing a lot of CO₂ into the air.
The Serengeti became a carbon source instead of a carbon sink. It returned to being a carbon sink when disease control restored wildebeest populations.
“The Serengeti now stores up to 4.4 MtCO₂ more than when the wildebeest population was at its lowest. Rewilding other species may help to avoid fire-driven carbon emissions, especially in warm-climate, grass-dominated landscapes with intermediate rainfall.”
It could also help in places like the Arctic’s Yedoma region where trophic rewilding with musk oxen, bison, reindeer, and wild horses could prevent the release of massive stocks of methane from the permafrost and could protect up to 80% of the region.
There are practical challenges though, because doing this across the entire Yedoma would require building up large populations of animals in a short time and ensuring there’s enough vegetation to feed them.
“Herbivores do indeed release methane to the atmosphere. But we estimated that the amount of methane that populations of our highlighted species would release (in CO2 equivalents) is far smaller than the amount of CO2 that these animals cause to be captured and stored in ecosystems,” Oswald Schmitz from Yale University and a lead author of the paper, told me in an e-mail.
But the most intriguing finding - at least to me - is that restoring marine ecosystems and increasing the biomass of fish population has the greatest potential to store carbon.
“Natural climate solutions focus largely on forest ecosystems. However, forests (which include plantations) represent 14% of the 431 terrestrial and 37 marine ecosystem worldwide and only cover 9% of the Earth’s surface,” the authors noted.
The authors have slight quibbles over each other’s assumptions and whether wildlife is more beneficial than livestock and emissions from wild herbivores have historically been underestimated. But both say that their research are complementary and gives us a richer tapestry of solutions we can use to tackle these existential challenges.
It also highlights that the world is rarely black and white and a lot depends on which angle you’re looking from. But as the debate gets more and more heated around meat, livestock and farming systems, it’s important if we can all use different lens to view things from time to time.
Three Good Reads
A comprehensive reading list, as well as some videos, for anyone wanting to learn more about pastoralism.
This short piece from Michael Wolf is about Apeel, a company I’d also written about before, but raises wider questions and concerns.
9 Charts Explain Per Capita Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Country - World Resources Institute
I don’t think this needs further explanation beyond saying please go and have a read.