Essential reading for those interested in the impact of livestock on the environment, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has just published a study of mobile pastoralism: Pastoralism: making variability work.

“Pastoralism is the predominant – often the only possible – food production strategy in the world’s permanent grasslands, which cover approximately two-thirds of agricultural land globally.” Put another way, grasslands cover 40% of the earth’s land surface. The FAO estimates that there are at least 180 million pastoralists. The IUCN says 100–200 million. Let’s be clear here, we are talking about livestock farmers who are mobile, not those who have animals in the same fields all year round. These pastoralists include true nomads and those who pratise an annual transhumance cycle, as in the Pyrenees.

These figures give some inkling of the significance of pastoralism on a global scale, but pastoralism is not just about producing food and other direct products like wool, leather, etc. Unlike factory farming, it has a cultural component. It also interacts directly with the environment, with ecological benefits as well as costs.

Transhumance takes advantage of seasonal resources

Much research on the ecological cost of stock raising has focussed on methane and climate change, but the FAO argues that the methodology is flawed when applied to mobile pastoralism. If life-cycle impact is considered, the figures come out differently. A study of the Sahel, where 16% of the population is involved in pastoralism (IUCN figure), suggests per-hectare emissions can be neutral.

The problem is that extensive livestock production has been seen through the optic of the inputs and outputs of the animal concerned. As the FAO emphasises, it should be viewed as part of the ecosystem. Livestock needs are similar to those of wild herbivores but “as grazing itineraries are systematically managed, pastoral herds do more than just mimicking wild herds”. Short- and long-distance transhumance are part of the pastoralist’s strategy, using resources as they become available.

Sheep passing through the village of Seix in the French Pyrenees
Sheep passing through the village of Seix in the French Pyrenees

Although there is much on biodiversity, reading the report I was surprised there was no reference to predators. One of the main reasons for the disappearance of large predators is conflict with extensive grazing. Looking at the question from a different angle, some people argue that rewilding with top predators will destroy extensive grazing practices. In addition, wild animals can be vectors for disease transmission, the spread of African Swine Feaver in wild boar in Europe being a case in point. Both these factors push extensive livestock farmers in the direction of intensification, a negative step. Yet the report makes no mention of the subjects.

The FAO regrets that mobile pastoralism has been marginalised, both politically and economically, with the consequent loss of food production potential, loss of livestock biodiversity, loss of social capital and traditional knowledge. New attitudes are needed.

A report worth studying.