Pro Livestock Arguments From a Research Perspective

Interview with Pablo Manzano

Ecologically there are detrimental and beneficial livestock systems!

In this in-depth interview with the secretariat Pablo Manzano speaks about the various arguments pro and con livestock – from his angle as a consultant on pastoralist and environmental issues.

Manazano, who chairs GASL’s Action Network Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance partnership LEAP, sees two main points that speak in favor of livestock keeping from a scientific point: the nutritional aspect and the environmental aspect when it comes to extensive livestock systems.

The nutritional point was usually overlooked by the broader public. “There is one essential nutrient in animal products - whether it be meat, milk or eggs - that cannot be supplied by a vegan diet, the vitamin B12.” Vegans therefore had to take supplements which was not natural way of living. In Africa the lack of food made from animal sources are at least partly a cause for malnourishment.

The second point was that livestock had an important role to play in ecosystems, especially in extensive livestock keeping, not so much mixed systems or intensive systems. Extensive livestock maintained some key ecological processes and this is why it had been shown that livestock was able to maintain biodiversity in a very wide array of ecosystems.

Watch the interview or read the transcript below to hear how Manzano views the counter arguments against livestock keeping. There was a broad lack of scientific culture to really understand scientific results in general.

About the new video interviews

In this interview series Global Agenda members get the opportunity to speak about their experiences and expectations of the partnership. Stakeholders from the adjacent development cooperation arenas will be requested for interviews as well. The aim is to highlight the importance of the Global Agenda’s political perspectives.

Please feel free to suggest prospective interview partners to the secretariat, including ideas on the subject and possible critical angles for the questions


Interview Transcript

Follows the transcript of the entire interview. The video version is a shortened version

Pascal Corbé, GASL communications consultant: Pablo, why are companies so interested in working with LEAP?

[LEAP is the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance partnership, a multi-stakeholder initiative committed to improving the environmental performance of livestock supply chains, whilst ensuring its economic and social viability. LEAP is one of the Action Networks of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock]]

Pablo Manzano, independent consultant on pastoralism and the environment, and chair of LEAP: It was the companies’ interest that actually started LEAP, because they were the ones first interested in measuring the environmental impact of the production of livestock products. They were so interested because consumers were demanding an evaluation of the environmental performance of these products. So they were interested in selling it to them.

I guess the differentiation among products of more environmentally harmful and less environmentally harmful brings an opportunity for business. Because if you don’t differentiate, then people will pay a price that will be rather the same price they would put for the not so environmentally sound products. But when you offer a higher quality, then people are willing to pay more. This is where the interest of companies arises from.

If I understand right, they were the ones asking FAO to establish LEAP because they were composing their environmental standards and they realised there were big differences among them. So, they needed a standardisation of them. Which would also ultimately benefit the environmental policies of governments. This is why governments joined in. And also, in several aspects, the added value of products from smaller livestock keepers and the efficiency in their production. This is how the steering committee of LEAP was born - from the interest of all these products. But definitely the companies have a big interest in knowing how they are performing environmentally.

PC:  What is the most important science-based pro livestock argument?

PM: Difficult to answer this, at least for me as a livestock expert. There are two main important points, not just a single one. There is a very important nutritional point and there is a very important environmental point when dealing with extensive livestock systems.

From the nutritional point of view, something that the wider public usually doesn’t know, is that there is one essential nutrient in animal products - whether it be meat, milk or eggs - that cannot be substituted by a vegan diet, which is vitamin B12. In fact, vegan people usually take supplements of it because they can get sick otherwise. In Africa, there is a big problem that is not evaluated completely but it’s known that the problem is there. People are not getting enough animal food, so they are malnourished - not undernourished, but malnourished - because they don’t get enough animal products. So, that’s an argument to understand that the human species as such needs to eat animals, even if we like it or not. Otherwise, we have to take pills, which doesn’t feel very natural.

Originally, I come from an ecology background. I am very aware of the role that livestock has in ecosystems, especially extensive livestock, not so much mixed systems or intensive systems. Extensive livestock has a key role in maintaining some key ecological processes and this is why it has been shown that livestock is able to maintain biodiversity in a very wide array of ecosystems. For me, both are very important arguments.

PC: What are counter-arguments against livestock?

PM: I am very aware of these arguments. One of them is the welfare argument. There are people who consider it morally incorrect to kill animals to nourish ourselves, because they don’t think we have the right to inflict suffering to animals. This falls rather into the [category] of the beliefs of people and it is rather hard to contest. I think we are part of the ecosystem of earth and it shouldn’t be seen as something morally deplorable if we do. It’s just a thing of belief.

Where I think things get more tangible is on the environmental consequences of eating meat. There is a big movement against livestock because of the occupation of land that it provokes and also because of the carbon emissions and the environmental impacts it creates. I think it can be argued against this. From my perspective as an ecologist, I know there is “livestock” and livestock. The more intensive ways of producing livestock have intrinsically environmental impacts. But there is another type of livestock production that has benefits to the environment if correctly practiced.

In that sense, people who do not want to have livestock for their environmental consequences, should consider that about 80% of the world’s land - which means all kinds of ecosystems - has livestock in it, which is part of the ecosystem. Those are ecosystems where crop production cannot be practiced, and if it would be practiced, it would be an environmental disaster. But because this type of livestock is integrated into the ecosystem, it is environmentally speaking producing meat and milk and eggs at no cost. And this is a very important argument.

Also, regarding the carbon emissions, there is the same argument, that livestock emits a lot of GHGs. I think - and this is a scientific breakthrough that I am personally working on - we should regard the carbon emissions in their ecosystems. So, we cannot tell that extensive livestock is contributing to climate change if it is integrated in an ecosystem where if they are not there, other animals will produce the same carbon emissions. It’s again producing meat at no cost.

PC: Politicians obviously do what their electorate wants them to do. They are not always susceptible to scientific arguments. What can you do to persuade them to consider pro-livestock arguments?

PM: Again, it depends on the type of livestock system that we are talking about. Politicians have to make more complex decisions than we usually think. They have to balance the environmental needs or environmental tendencies of their electorate or their countries with the needs of their countries. Not only in terms of nutrition but in terms of employment. Usually, in developing countries the livestock producing population tends to be a wide sector of the population and politicians cannot simply leave them unemployed.

I don’t think politicians are not permeable to scientific arguments but the decisions they have to make tend to be complex. Regarding pro-livestock arguments, in general, we should distinguish among them. As the decision-making of the politicians, it is a complex issue. Not all the ways of producing livestock are the same, and we can influence them to produce better livestock.

PC: There’s an old saying, “He who pays the piper.” There’s a lot of different interests behind research around livestock - industry interests and so forth. How influential are those different groups from your perspective? I think there are contradictory messages that come out of livestock research overall.

PM: That is a challenge that science faces. Of course, the ideal of science is that any research is impartial and objective. But as a matter of fact, humans are doing the research. They are not only influenced by the one who pays but by their own beliefs. That’s a factor. However, I think initiatives like LEAP, which bring together people from very different interests and constituencies, add a value in the sense they put very different perspectives together and try to come up with a consensus. That positively influences the outcomes.

Regarding the apparent contradiction in the conclusions within scientific evidences, I don’t agree with that. I think people confuse these with the inherent complexity of science. People have not enough scientific culture to really understand scientific results. For example, not so long ago there was the study by WHO that said, “Eating red meat could lead to cancer.” What people do not understand is that first of all they were talking about a level of meat above which cancer seemed more probable. But also that a significant result in science doesn’t mean it will affect a wide range of the population. You might find significant differences but maybe the difference will be a cancer rate of 1.1 versus 1.2.

People lack scientific culture and this is an issue in our society. It is a rapidly changing society where obviously science has an enormous role but people do not understand science well. This also promotes some types of political extremism that is very negative for our societies. Society should do better work on making science more popular and accessible to everyone.

PC: Thank you

PM: Thank you