Raising livestock provides livelihoods for an estimated one billion people, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Many small farmers in developing countries own livestock, including cattle, goats, horses, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, donkeys, ducks, geese, llamas, turkeys, grasscutters, and other animals.
Livestock can provide a nutritious source of protein for women and families, manure for fertilizer, fuel for stoves and heat, transportation, consumption of food scraps and waste, and management of weeds and insects. Livestock can also act as a form of savings or as a walking credit card, according to the FAO, thereby allowing families to sell off animals to pay for health care or school.
Unfortunately, industrial livestock operations, or factory farms, can be very resource intensive, polluting ground and surface water, emitting greenhouse gas emissions, and contributing to the spread of zoonotic diseases and antibiotic resistance. According to the FAO, industrial livestock systems account for 74 percent of the world’s total poultry production, 40 percent of pig meat, and 68 percent of eggs.
But not all meat is created equal. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), numerous studies indicate grass-fed beef has less saturated and mono-unsaturated fat and more nutrients than grain-fed beef. Consuming organic, grass-fed, and pastured-raised livestock also reduces eaters’ exposure to antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones, which are used in conventionally raised livestock. According to Nicolette Hahn Niman, livestock rancher and author of Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, “Cattle are key to the world’s most promising strategy to counter global warming: restoring carbon to the soil.” Grass-fed operations are better for the environment because cows are rotationally grazed, evenly distributing the manure, which helps reduce erosion and improve soil health. Furthermore, carbon can be sequestered to offset the methane emissions from cattle. Additionally, organic operations increase resistance to pests and weeds, while reducing pesticide and fertilizer use.
Companies, such as Panera, are working directly with poultry producers to reduce antibiotic use and the confinement of animals in their supply chain. Organizations like the Humane Society of the United States, Animal Welfare Approved, Farm Forward, and the Humane Farming Association are helping to educate consumers about the mistreatment of animals, the misuse of antibiotics and hormones, and the environmental impact of industrialized livestock operations. Consumers are being encouraged to rethink the role of meat in their diets and to make informed decisions about the meat they purchase through the help of EWG’s Meat Eater’s Guide. Ranchers around the globe are finding ways to raise cattle in more humane and environmentally sustainable ways.
Farmers like Joel Salatin, Paul Willis, Allan and Jeanne Sexton, and ShaeLynn and Kevin Watt are raising livestock on pastures and helping restore grasslands across the United States. Livestock is also an integral part of a method of holistic management by ecologist Allan Savory, president and co-founder of the Savory Institute, which includes the precise planning of livestock herd movements and grazing patterns that mimic nature in areas faced with desertification. His method is based on utilizing large herds of animals to provide nutrients for soil, trample the ground, and aid in the decay of grasslands between growing seasons. In his TED talk, Savory explains how researchers in Patagonia used a flock of 25,000 sheep, mimicking nature, to increase production on the land by 50 percent in the first year.
Livestock also supports the livelihoods of indigenous people. According to representatives of the Samburu Local Livestock Keepers in Kenya, “We are keepers of indigenous and exotic breeds of livestock and our lives are interlinked and wholly dependent on animals. Our way of life also allows us to live alongside wildlife, promoting the conservation of our breeds and other living resources in our environment.” The Samburu keep indigenous breeds of small East African Zebu Cattle, Red Maasai sheep, and East African goats that are highly adapted to the local environment due to evolution and selective breeding. As the Samburu conclude, “Without our indigenous breeds, we will have lost a critical part of our collective bio-cultural heritage.”
This week, Food Tank highlights 18 organizations and companies that are working on the sustainable management of livestock, conserving indigenous breeds, serving more sustainable meat, and using livestock to improve the livelihoods of communities.
Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) has been labeling meat and dairy products that come from humanely raised animals and follow environmental standards since 2006. AWA operates under the premise that the way animals are raised affects both the nutritional quality of the food as well as environmental systems. They believe if animals are raised properly, less chemical inputs, such as antibiotics, would be required.
In Costa Rica, EARTH University is committed to identifying sustainable animal husbandry practices. Their on-campus livestock farm teaches students and visitors sustainable livestock management, including the transformation of animal waste into biogas through biodigesters that fuel an electric generator.
Elevation Burger strives to be more than just a burger restaurant by offering food that is sustainably produced and better for the environment. All of their livestock are grass-fed to increase the nutritional value of their meat. The cattle are also raised on organic, free-range farms where pastures are more easily able to absorb carbon dioxide levels from the atmosphere.
Family Farm Defenders focuses on building a farmer-controlled and consumer-oriented agricultural system focused on food sovereignty. The organization campaigns for animal welfare, sustainable agriculture, and opposes factory farms.
Heifer International uses livestock as a strategy for alleviating poverty and promoting food security and nutrition. Their programs include access to animal health services and disease control, as well as resources for improved nutrition, marketing, and management of livestock.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) advocates for animals through policy, major campaigns, and corporate reform. Seeking a humane world for animals, HSUS and their partners provide care to more than 100,000 animals per year. In their effort to end confinement of farm animals, HSUS has helped almost 100 companies, including McDonald’s and Costco, to create plans to eliminate gestation crates for pigs in the supply chain.
The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) works to reduce food insecurity and poverty in developing nations through research for better and more sustainable use of livestock. The ILRI uses livestock as a development tool to secure assets and increase market participation of the poor and to improve smallholder and pastoral productivity.
The Livestock Conservancy promotes and conserves heritage and rare breeds of livestock in the United States. Staff members travel around the United States teaching workshops, conducting research, and increasing awareness of indigenous breeds.
The Mazingira Institute works to help farmers and producers learn about sustainable practices while adding value to their products. Its Urban Food and Nutrition Security and Urban Agriculture project includes a training course in the Practice of Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture and the Nairobi and Environs Food Security, Agriculture, and Livestock Forum.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) takes legal actions and runs an online petition to stop the spread of superbugs in meat production. They promote healthier living conditions for chickens, pigs, and cows to improve public health and decrease the environmental impact of livestock.
The Nature Conservancy, based in Virginia, works internationally to conserve natural resources and protect the environment. With their partners, the Northern Rangelands Trust, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, and Ol Pejeta Conservancy, they have created a mobile market for pastoralist herders in Kenya. Pastoralists must meet strict grazing standards that also improve the health of grasslands and produce healthier cows, which can be sold for a higher price.
The Neleshi Grasscutter and Farmers Association (NAGRAFA) is comprised of farmers and businesswomen and men who are working to preserve the grasslands and help other farmers increase their incomes by teaching alternatives to slash and burn methods, which provide short-term nutrients to soil and drive out grasscutters, allowing farmers to sell their meat—a delicacy in Ghana. NAGRAFA offers free trainings to farmers and youth about how to sustainably raise, slaughter, and process grasscutter and rabbit meat.
Niman Ranch is a meat processing and distribution company in the San Francisco Bay area. Niman Ranch works exclusively with a network of small livestock farms throughout California and the Midwest, all of which must adhere to the company’s all-natural, humane cultivation standards. These criteria include the total exclusion of antibiotics and added hormones in raising livestock, exclusively vegetarian feed, and the requirement that all animals be raised humanely and sustainably on United States family farms and ranches.
Organic Valley is a farmer-owned cooperative committed to sustainable practices—including renewable energy production such as biodiesel made from their sunflower crops, which supplies trucks and tractors with fuel—and providing assistance to conventional farmers to make the transition to organic. The cooperative is committed to producing dairy with no added hormones, antibiotics, or toxic pesticides, growing produce organically, and humanely raising livestock.
The Rodale Institute helps farmers take advantage of rotation systems by studying the integration of pasture into crop rotations and by conducting heritage breed demonstrations to identify best practices for small-scale farmers.
The Savory Institute uses holistic land management to restore grasslands and prevent desertification. In Zimbabwe, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management owns Dimbangombe Ranch, a Savory Hub, which teaches and demonstrates how holistic management can improve the lives of people in southern Africa.
The Sustainable Table food program at Grace Communications Foundation celebrates local, sustainable food and educates consumers about the benefits of sustainable agriculture. The organization created the Eat Well Guide, which allows consumers to search for their online directory of restaurants, farms, stores, markets, and other outlets that source sustainably-raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products in their area. They also created the animated movie The Meatrix, which critiques factory farming and industrial agricultural practices and offers simple solutions for supporting sustainable food and agriculture.
The Turing Foundation offers grants to organizations working towards sustainable livestock production in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and sub-Saharan Africa.