Farm animal welfare – the canary in the mine for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

When an insect touches a spider’s web there is a ripple across the whole structure. The same is true in nature – each action causes a reaction, including many we weren’t expecting. Farm animals play a crucial role in helping humans to manage nature well. We need to understand and accept this if we are to achieve genuine sustainability.

As a society, we are guilty of unconsciously trading off one environmental challenge against another. Our focus on one problem can lead to negative impacts elsewhere. Dense planting of conifer woodland sequesters carbon, for example, but it provides extremely limited biodiversity value, makes a poor contribution to soil health, and often exacerbates flood risk.

This reductive approach is alive and well. The most recent proposals from the UK Committee of Climate Change aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by playing one hectare off against another – with agriculture intensified here and carbon sequestration delivered there.

Instead, we need to achieve multiple sustainability outcomes from all farm land. This means working with producers to identify land-appropriate solutions at farm level.

To combat biodiversity collapse and the climate emergency in parallel, we must urgently shift to a more holistic view of agricultural land management.

An ecosystems processes approach, for example, recruits the building blocks of nature – water, minerals, photosynthesis, and the soil food web – to restore ecology, mitigate climate change, and boost farm productivity.

Sustainable Development Goals

If this approach matters at a national level, then it matters even more on a planetary scale. Action to deliver one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals must not be at the expense of another, which means that a whole system approach is essential. Equally, although competition between nations is good, one country must not be allowed to champion its success if it has simply dumped the negative impacts of its economy onto other states.

Progress on all seventeen SDGs must therefore be delivered concurrently, because each Goal is part of the same complex web. For example, productive, sustainably managed farmland is essential for reducing poverty and ensuring zero hunger. Nutritious food, fairly grown and distributed, can lead to happier workers, better health, and improved wellbeing. Healthy people can learn more, while reduced inequality leads to greater stability and less conflict. Peaceful, well-nourished societies have more energy for partnerships to combat climate change and restore nature, so that our planet continues to support humanity.

Farm animal welfare

Good farm animal welfare doesn’t feature as an SDG in its own right but it is integral to each and every Goal. In the first instance, poor welfare diminishes humanity and is a symptom of disconnected societies. It exists where wealth and opportunity are low, and where complex food systems have removed empathy from industrial-scale production. But critically, the intensification of livestock agriculture, with its inherently low welfare potential, makes environmental sustainability practically impossible to achieve.

Good farm animal welfare is an important end in itself – but it is also a critical indicator of progress against each of the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals.

As such, farm animal welfare is the canary in the mine – and without a fundamental shift away from ever greater intensification, delivery of the SDGs becomes unattainable.

Warming, not emissions

The current focus on greenhouse gas emissions has helped drive ever more animals into industrial units, where they can be more closely controlled and where they require human-edible cereals and proteins, usually grown in arable monocultures. But new evidence, including a paper by Professor Myles Alan [i] makes it clear that short-lived climate pollutants, like methane (CH4) from grass-based ruminants, should be viewed very differently to those from the longer-lived pollutants carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O).

When we understand that methane from ruminants is a distraction we can instead focus our attention on these longer term greenhouse gases. This drives us in a wholly different direction and towards a different set of agricultural solutions.  Ruminants are no longer the enemy – instead we can see with clarity that it is high-yield, high-fodder (maize, soy and cereal) production systems, which are driving humanity towards the precipice.

Getting the metrics right

The methane anomaly perfectly illustrates how important it is to ask the right questions and then develop the best metrics. Until now climate science has accounted for all greenhouse gases in the same way. In terms of agriculture this means that CO2, N2O and CH4 have all been measured using a ‘global warming potential’ metric, called GWP100, which centres on carbon equivalence. This metric characterises emissions instead of warming.

This focus on emissions has fed the myth that ruminant methane is a critical challenge and has helped drive a further intensification of animal and arable agriculture.  Policy-makers have enthusiastically signed up to ‘sustainable intensification’: the drive to produce more meat and dairy from an ever smaller land footprint to meet the unchallenged demands of an ever-expanding and ever-richer global population.

However, in 2018 climate science evolved, and now we have a chance to move away from the misleading sustainable intensification paradigm. A new metric, GWP*, developed by a global team of IPCC researchers based at Oxford University allows us to set the record straight.

Methane is a powerful, but short-lived, greenhouse gas. While CO2 and N2O are active in our atmosphere for many human generations, methane is broken down in about a decade. This means that the methane emissions of a herd of 100 cows today are simply replacing the emissions that were first produced when that herd was established by a previous generation of farmers. There was an initial pulse of warming when the herd was established, but there is no ongoing warming from that herd.

For clarity, GWP* is not a prescription for business as usual.  As the population grows humanity must reduce its per capita meat and dairy consumption. And for methane to continue having a neutral impact, emissions must still fall, but only by 0.3% each year.

Holistic management

For decades farmers running good grazing systems have believed that their farms are working more or less in balance with nature.  But the focus on greenhouse gas emissions, instead of the warming impact of those emissions, has put them under increasing pressure to change and intensify.

The media has also played its role, persuading people to avoid beef and lamb in favour of meat from monogastric species such as poultry and pigs.  Monogastrics produce no methane, but the arable systems used to produce the cereals and proteins that feed them are responsible for large-scale emissions of N2O (fertilizers) and CO2 (soil damage, land use change, and harvesting).

Sustainable intensification, justified under GWP100, has failure built in. By contrast, GWP* offers us a route to sustainable land use and food production.

Benefits under GWP* are gained through well-managed grass-based agriculture; by a diverse patchwork of rural businesses, and the restoration and maintenance of rural economies.  People can still eat meat and dairy, as part of a new era diet that includes greater nutritional diversity, but also restore natural balance on all farm land.  In this way we can re-establish the building blocks of biodiversity right around the world, not just in protected, spared islands of nature surrounded by ever more intensive agricultural land use.

Change for good

Good farm animal welfare is an important end in itself – but it is also a critical indicator of progress against each of the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals.

Livestock, farmed in sustainable systems, can help reduce poverty and deliver zero hunger. They can provide fuel for people to learn, to work and play. They can help restore and maintain biodiversity, mitigate climate change, and manage land to help reduce the impacts of global warming.

GWP* means that climate policymakers are at last starting to recognise the need for change, but those working to deliver the SDGs should also respond to the challenges presented by today’s farming methods. They must recognise sentience and the importance of the five freedoms, and take action to build positive agricultural and farm animal welfare models.

To deliver this, farm animal welfare must be valued as central to sustainability.

ffinlo Costain is a consultant to the Food Ethics Council.

[i] Full research: A solution to the misrepresentations of CO2-equivalent emissions of short-lived climate pollutants under ambitious mitigation

Research summary: