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Executive Director's Message
Most of you will be aware that COP24, the UN climate change conference, is taking place this week and next, and you have probably seen a huge amount of coverage recently about livestock and it's GHG emissions. This is really a narrative that has gotten completely out of control, and I am very concerned that it will lead to some very poor decision making by politicians.
For those of you who may think I am thereby denying the existence of climate change, or somehow suggesting that all cattle production systems are sustainable as they are, I can assure you that I am not. Everything we do can be done well, and equally we can do anything badly if we choose to, or if we simply pay too little attention to all of the aspects involved. It is human management that determines the success and failure of anything, and that applies as much to sustainable food production as anything else. If we go all out for any one parameter, we might see some phenomenal figures, but these don't mean anything if the triple bottom line is not positive.
I strongly believe that farmers and ranchers are the group of people with the greatest understanding of natural systems there is. They work with nature every day, and most of them care deeply about it, because it's part of their livelihood. Some will devote more time and energy to experimenting and working with nature than others, just as managers in every field are varied and different. The majority of farmers and ranchers are interested in what their neighbours do, and are willing to learn, though there are always going to be a few who think they know best without trying to improve – but that applies to politicians as much or more as it does to farmers.
The reason I am worried by the increasing anti–livestock rhetoric is because I think it could lead to very poor decisions by politicians regarding the way we use land to produce food, with damaging consequences for environment, diet and sustainability.
Global grazing lands cover 3.4billion ha (8.4 billion acres) of the earth's surface, and their soils contain 50% more carbon than all of the forests on the planet. In order to maintain and increase those soil carbon levels we must continue to graze them, and improve grazing systems over much of the world. Despite the high C total, very large areas of grazing land that have been historically mismanaged are relatively low in carbon and have huge potential to sequester more. Conversion to crop agriculture results in an immediate decrease in soil carbon, and though with zero till, cover cropping and grazing it can be improved, it rarely reaches the levels that well–managed native grazing lands can sustain.
20% of the world's native grazing lands have been converted to cropping, with soil C losses of up to 60%, and some rangeland ecosystems are being converted at higher rates than tropical forests. Any policies that support further conversion to cropland will therefore create net sources of carbon to the atmosphere – in other words, are completely perverse if the objective is to lower atmospheric C.
On the other hand policies that incentivise good grazing management can lead to the sequestration of literally billions of tons of C in soils, concomitant increases in food production, resilience to drought and enormous increases in soil water infiltration and storage capacity.
Having said all of this about grazing lands, we must also accept that conversion of forest in some areas of the globe represents a very large source of carbon that is genuinely a contributor to atmospheric C. Given that in many of the tropical areas, where that is an issue, are suited to silvopastoral systems that are much more productive than pasture alone, we need to see policies that encourage the expansion of the cattle industry through intensification on existing land rather than deforestation of new land.
There are many who continue to repeat the fallacy that methane emissions from livestock are a major cause and contributor to climate change. I know I have presented many articles in the past as to why that argument does not stand up to scientific scrutiny, but I do encourage you all to share these now again, because the issue is hitting headlines and news programmes at an ever higher rate as COP24 starts.
I will be speaking briefly in Poland on the value of grazing lands for carbon sequestration, but will not have time to address the methane issue in that session.