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Do we need meat?

PUBLISHED: 09:52 14 February 2012 | UPDATED: 08:38 28 March 2014

Non-arable land can - and should - support livestock

Non-arable land can - and should - support livestock

Should you aim for a stockless or mixed smallholding? Alan Beat takes an objective look at the raising of livestock for meat

In a world of rapid population growth and escalating food shortage, the case for reducing, or even eliminating, meat from our diet sounds persuasive. If we all turned towards a vegetarian or vegan diet, the claim is made that more food could be grown on a smaller acreage to solve the problem of feeding a hungry world. These diets are promoted as a healthier and more natural lifestyle for humans, while ending the perceived cruelty of livestock farming, and the elimination of grazing would benefit the environment by  releasing redundant land back to nature.

So, should smallholders be raising livestock for consumption as meat? It’s a fair question, that deserves an objective look at the evidence.

Land use

Might farming without livestock feed a growing population on less land? Much of the available land surface of the world is not suited to growing food crops by reason of climate, slope, soil type, drainage and so on. Here, in the moist, temperate climate of the UK, the original wild vegetation is thought to have been open forest, with extensive clearings supporting a complex mix of grasses and other plants grazed by herbivores. Humans cannot digest green plants in quantity, but ruminant animals can, so, by husbanding these on the land to graze, humans gain access to the crop, indirectly, by eating the natural increase in animal numbers. In return, the animals are protected from predators, their food and health requirements are cared for, while both they and the pasture thrive under careful management. In this way, humans gain significant nutritional benefit from large areas of land that would otherwise be unproductive.

But the proposition is that these large tracts of land can be abandoned to nature because enough food can be grown on the remaining land that is suited to arable cropping. The only change necessary is for humans to consume arable crops directly, instead of feeding them to animals first. Various figures are put forward to support this view, a common example being that a beef bullock yields one tenth the nutritional value of the feed it consumes; therefore, 10 people can feed directly on arable crops, instead of only one eating beef. This seems obvious and intuitive - but is it correct?

The historical record shows that, in 1400 AD, the population of England was about two and a quarter million people, and that by 1700 it had more than doubled to around five million. Food production had also to double, and more, to meet demand. The widespread practice at the start of this period was a three year rotation of two arable crops followed by one fallow, with some permanent pasture for livestock.

‘Ley farming’ spread gradually from 1500 onwards. This alternated arable cropping with short term leys (grass), thus cutting out the fallow. More livestock could be kept on the increased acreage of grazing, and, though the arable acreage was correspondingly lower, the increased manure and fertility gave higher overall yields, so the gain was both ways. In 1523, Sir Anthony Fitzherbert wrote in The Booke of Husbandry that “an housbande cannot well thrive by his corne, without he have cattell, or by his cattell without corne”.  From 1650 onwards, turnips and other roots were increasingly grown as winter fodder for livestock, especially cattle, which enabled larger herds to be kept, again with a corresponding increase in fertility and overall arable yields. Thus, England remained self-sufficient in food and drink, despite the population growth, on nine million arable acres (three quarters of the current figure).

For a further two centuries of agricultural improvement, the same principle was seen to apply: livestock and arable crops were mutually beneficial and were farmed together for the best cropping of both. But, over the last hundred years or so, the use of inorganic fertilisers and other manufactured chemicals has enabled widespread arable monocultures to develop on stockless farms, though this relies on the availability of cheap energy from fossil fuels. In the developed world, energy prices now spiral inexorably upwards while, in developing countries, where most of the world’s food is grown, agrochemicals are already unaffordable to the rural poor. From today’s perspective, chemical farming can be viewed as a dubious western luxury, not a means of feeding the world.

The vegan alternative to traditional mixed livestock-with-arable farming is stockless farming. Experimental research and pioneering farms have shown that all-arable organic farming is both achievable and economically viable through the use of green manures in rotation, especially legumes, which fix nitrogen from the air into the soil.

To maintain fertility, around one third of the available land needs to be under green manures at any one time, which parallels the grass leys of the traditional mixed farm rotation. A recent analysis of the published literature has shown that the nutritional value of human food yielded per acre by organic stockless systems turns out to be broadly comparable to that from organic mixed livestock-with-arable farms. We shall examine the reasons for this in a moment.

So a vegan society could, theoretically, support the same population as an omnivorous diet containing some meat, while releasing land unsuited to arable cropping back to nature. Would this automatically benefit biodiversity and the environment?

When grazing land is abandoned in the UK, there is a natural tendency for all below the tree line to scrub over and revert towards woodland. This is countered by the grazing and browsing of wild herbivores that kills young trees before they establish. Where herbivore numbers are controlled by predators or other means, a shifting mosaic of diverse open woodland is created in a delicate balancing act.

Our top predators were hunted to extinction long ago, so it’s difficult to see how that essential balance could be maintained without human intervention. In conservation areas around the world, where control over wild herbivore numbers has been removed, for example, by banning hunting or exterminating predators, the unintended consequence has invariably been severe environmental degradation through overgrazing by a rising population.

Wild herbivores do not confine their grazing to uncultivated land and even a controlled population would have a significant impact on food crops. An uncontrolled population would cause increasingly unsustainable levels of damage - and who would cull in a vegan society?

Given the lack of true wilderness today, many of our indigenous species have become dependent on human influence in the landscape. The rich array of wild flowers and associated creatures found across grassland and heathland depend for their very existence on grazing. Wildlife Trusts are increasingly returning to the use of grazing livestock as a management tool on appropriate nature reserves, having learned the hard way that ‘leaving everything to nature’ rapidly depletes the biodiversity of such sites.

In addition to grassland itself, many of the landscape feature that are highly valued for their visual appeal and for further biodiversity are directly linked to livestock grazing management, such as boundary hedgerows, banks and walls, field barns, ponds and dykes - all would soon otherwise decay and disappear.

Simply removing livestock from land unsuited to growing food crops and ‘leaving it to nature’, without management of wild herbivore numbers, has proved to be an environmental and wildlife disaster wherever it has been tried.

Crop residues and ‘waste’

How can it be that traditional mixed livestock-with-arable farming yields broadly the same amount of human nutrients as stockless farming, when it is self-evident that feeding crops to animals must be less efficient than eating the crop directly? The answer is that livestock consume many foodstuffs that humans are unwilling or unable to eat, in addition to any that compete directly with humans.

The most obvious example is grass. A cow derives most of her nutritional requirements from forage throughout the year, either fresh or conserved as hay or silage, converting it very efficiently into nutritious milk. If the grass grows on land that cannot be used for arable cropping, her milk is almost entirely a nutritional bonus to humankind. When her diet is boosted with crops that are potential food for humans, her milk still yields more human nutrients than she consumes. Why else would dairy animals be kept throughout the developing world by small farmers who depend on them for their very survival?

While humans are unable to eat grass, they are also unwilling to eat those parts of a plant that livestock will happily consume. Damaged or spoilt grains and roots; residues from food processing; kitchen waste; and slaughterhouse waste - these are all rich in nutrients and therefore best suited to the digestive tracts of omnivores like pigs or poultry. Crop residues like straw, stalks, leaves and other fibrous materials are better suited to ruminants like cattle. The available quantities of such feedstuffs are considerable, and, without livestock to eat them, would remain unavailable to humans.

The term ‘default livestock’ has been coined to describe those animals which can be raised without taking any food from human mouths. This role is more clearly seen in dispersed farming communities of the developing world, as mentioned above, where animals are widely used to harvest all that humans cannot eat and convert this into useful goods like milk, meat, wool, leather and fertilizer; and services such as motive power (often the single most important function). Default livestock add value to the subsistence economy, rather than detracting from it.

It has been conservatively estimated that default livestock provide roughly one half of all the world’s meat and dairy products. If this sounds hard to believe, just reflect that India has become the world’s largest producer of dairy products, based upon millions of widely dispersed peasant farmers across a continent where half the arable land is still ploughed by oxen.

The default livestock estimate is conservative because it could, and should, be far higher. If all the catering, kitchen, food processing and slaughterhouse waste currently produced in the UK was converted to swill and fed to pigs (as it was, very successfully, during the Second World War) it would yield an estimated one million tons of pork per year, or about 70% of all pork products consumed here. Instead, these ‘waste products’ are mostly banned and incinerated across the EU in a neurotic response to exotic animal diseases that are easily destroyed by cooking swill prior to feeding. So, in developed countries, default livestock numbers are artificially depressed by measures designed to protect an industrialised system of meat production that really does compete directly with humans for food crops.

If the world reverted to genuine default levels of meat and dairy consumption, rather than  the artificially depressed levels just described, it is estimated that enough arable crops (especially grain) would be released to adequately feed the current human population, plus a substantial surplus which could increase meat and dairy production well above the genuine default level.


Is it natural, and, therefore, healthier, for humans to be vegetarian or vegan? The fossil record indicates that humans evolved over a period of several million years from plant-eating apes of the forest into omnivorous hunter-gatherers of the open savannah. A critical development was the harnessing of fire for cooking; animal bones found around ancient fire sites leave no doubt that meat was cooked and eaten in quantity, just at the time when the brain of early hominids was rapidly developing in size.

All mammals have five main energy-demanding organs in their bodies: liver, kidneys, heart, gut and brain. Modern humans have the liver, kidneys and heart at roughly the same size in proportion to their body as other mammals, but the brain is much larger, while the gut is much smaller - as it must be to maintain the energy balance of the body. Early hominids needed a large gut to extract nutrients from a vegetarian diet, like modern apes which have a ‘pot bellied’ appearance for this reason. For the brain to become larger, the gut would need a corresponding increase in size to extract the additional energy required, but this gut would, in turn, demand more energy to function, so there was no way forward. However, by changing to a more nutrient-rich diet, the gut could become smaller while deriving the same output, thus leaving more energy available for the brain to develop.

Cooked meat provided that nutrient-rich source and was a crucial driver to the further evolution of hominids into larger-brained humans, whose teeth and general physiology define us as omnivores. That makes humans resilient, enabling different races of people to adapt to their specific environment on diets ranging from near-carnivore to near-vegan; however, our evolutionary legacy is a natural diet that lies somewhere in between these two extremes and includes some cooked meat.

On your smallholding

What does all this mean for the UK smallholder faced with the apparent ethical dilemma of rearing livestock for meat? It means that if you are fortunate enough to have arable land, you should ideally run a traditional mixed livestock-with-arable enterprise. Where you have marginal land in addition, such as common grazing, then livestock should be used to transfer fertility from marginal to arable land, such as by penning animals at night on crop land that is enriched by their dung. Where most or all of your land is unsuited to arable cropping, you should graze livestock and grow what is possible of your own food.

In every one of these situations, you should keep pigs throughout the growing season at least, to mop up wastes and convert them back into meat plus fertility; and keep poultry or waterfowl too, which perform a similar function. These omnivores will need some supplementary high protein food, either home grown or bought in, but this need not be   food suitable for humans - and even if it is, the investment will be more than repaid through the harnessing of waste.

Smallholders can continue with pride to lead a way of life that first developed around 10,000 years ago, and is rooted firmly within the very evolution of humankind. The traditional mixed smallholding with some livestock is a highly efficient way of producing human food; while on land unsuited to arable cropping, it is the only way.

Stockless farming can be similarly productive on arable land, but offers no way of cropping or managing other land, and therefore yields significantly less human food overall.

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