Does the sustainability of meat production depend on the size of a holding and the number of animals kept on it?

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Posted Dec 3 2017 by Dave Darby of

I want to investigate at what size meat production becomes unsustainable (in terms of acreage, number of animals etc.) – i.e. whether it can be sustainable at all, and if so, whether there’s an upper limit, above which it can’t be sustainable, even if it’s organic and using methods that would be sustainable at a smaller scale. It’s often concentration that causes problems. For example, nature can usually neutralise small amounts of toxins, but high concentrations can exceed nature’s ability to deal with it; if a bear shits in the woods, that’s no problem for nature, but if 100,000 bears (or cows) shit in the same place, there’s probably going to be a problem with runoff causing algal blooms in watercourses / polluting groundwater etc.; and if your farm gets visited by a locust or two, fine – but a few million and you’re in trouble. You get the idea. Does increasing scale, and therefore concentration, make large-scale animal agriculture unsustainable? And at what point?

I’m not talking about the philosophical question of whether it’s ethical to eat animals. That’s covered here. In this article, I just want to talk about sustainability issues around eating meat.

I’d like to clarify’s position on this. I’m completely open to what that position might be – it could even be that we don’t advocate the keeping of animals at all. At the moment, we provide information on, and we blog about, keeping animals – but of course we’re opposed to industrial animal agriculture, involving battery sheds, intensive feedlots and removal of habitat to grow food for animals in those battery sheds and feedlots.

Let’s take a mixed smallholding. The kind of animal agriculture I would like to see more of involves (for example) a few cows, sheep, chickens, goats etc. grazing under orchard trees (and/or pigs, which could also be kept in woodland) – not taking up any more land than the orchards (or woodland) would, providing manure for the trees, plus keeping weeds down, and in the case of chickens and goats, keeping pests in check, whilst providing an extra resource and additional source of income for organic smallholders, who need all the help they can get. The vast herds of herbivorous animals have gone, apart from in Africa, and even there they’re shrinking. I’m not talking about any additional methane than would have been produced by the wild herds. In this kind of agriculture, ideally, animals would be killed at home, all parts of the animal would be used, and young animals would be kept with their mothers until weaned.

I’m not saying that all smallholdings need to have animals – I’m just saying that if they do, this would be the most sustainable way to do it (wouldn’t it?).

But where does it start to become unsustainable? Is it possible for a grass-fed beef farm of several hundred acres to be sustainable, for example?

The kind of agriculture I describe above would help to reduce meat-eating overall. Studies have shown that eating a lot of meat can cause health problems (although other studies have refuted that). But I don’t know of studies that show that eating meat once or twice a month is unhealthy, I’m talking about a shift to a mostly plant-based diet for most of us – just not necessarily 100%. Some will be vegan, and that will reduce the overall figures and the per capita average.

An argument against meat production is that it takes more land to feed x number of people with meat than it does with plants, but this argument doesn’t apply, I don’t think, for a few animals in orchards (etc.) on mixed smallholdings that are also producing plant-based foods. Overall food production from a given area would increase, surely, in that case?

And an argument for meat production is that it often takes place on marginal land, like uplands, that can’t be used for much else. But it could be used for trees. Surely climax vegetation (usually trees, unless too wet, dry, hot or cold), is the best end-point, in terms of habitat, carbon storage, soil retention, flood prevention, biodiversity and other resources? Woodland could also provide meat, via pigs (that are perfectly happy in woodland) and game.

As far as I can see, there’s room for sustainable meat production, a huge increase in the number of trees and a massive reduction in overall meat production and consumption – all at the same time, which should, theoretically, keep everyone (apart from those who don’t think that animals should be killed by humans, only by other animals) happy.