Farming Size & Methods

Extensive Animal Agriculture Pros & Cons
Grass-Fed Extensive Livestock = More GHGs/lb
Veg Vs. Reduce & Switch
Reductionist Quotes


There is widespread support for the advantages of shifting from intensive agribusiness systems and monocultures to small and mid-sized extensive and mixed farming systems.

Creating sustainable production methods is a critical part of reforming our food systems.  In this section, we outline some of the costs and benefits of low-input sustainable agriculture systems (LISA) as they pertain to animal agriculture. 

We propose that reducing global meat consumption creates a world closer to the ideal of both vegetarian advocates and small-scale and extensive livestock producers.  As such, both sides benefit from increased cooperation in reducing overall livestock numbers even though their ultimate objectives and core assumptions are different.


Extensive Animal Agriculture Pros & Cons

Proponents, like livestock rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman, argue in that "In contrast to factory farming, well-managed, non-industrialized animal farming minimizes greenhouse gases and can even benefit the environment."*

TIME Magazine also sings the praises of grass-fed beef compared to grain-fed, predicting it may be the "next food frontier."  See also the Center for Learning on Sustainable Agriculture

Critics, however, say grass-fed livestock and extensive production methods do not solve most of the problems. While there are some benefits in areas like health and fossil fuel use, the disadvantages, especially with regards to land use and global warming, are not getting sufficient air time.


Grass-Fed Extensive Livestock = More GHGs/lb

The Food and Climate Research Network's January 2010 Briefing Paper--Intensive Versus Extensive Livestock Systems and Greenhouse Gas Emissions--explores the issues of method and impact. They explain that:

"In the case of ruminants and their GHG emissions, extensive systems are usually found to have a lower per area footprint than intensive grain-fed systems but a higher footprint expressed in terms of kg/product [weight]. As regards emissions per-area, this is because there are generally fewer of them for a given area of land, so their overall emissions for a given land area are lower.

However, because their milk or meat yields are lower [because they are eat high-fiber, low-calorie grass instead of high-calorie grain they weigh less, plus they are not given growth hormones so they produce less milk], more numbers are needed to produce the same amount of edible output (three extensively reared cows, for example might produce the same amount of milk as two intensively reared cows), which translates into more methane emissions for a given quantity of milk or meat.

Given the importance of methane to the overall GHG contribution of ruminants, then overall GHG emissions per kg of milk or meat are higher. This is the case even allowing for the additional emissions generated during the course of producing and transporting the feeds which the intensively reared animals consume.

Hence, most LCA [life cycle assessment] studies find that organically reared cattle emit more emissions per kg of meat or milk produced than their conventional counterparts, largely because they tend to be reared more extensively."


Veg vs. Reduce & Switch

Below are key points outlining why reducing animal consumption at the macro level is necessary, how "reversing the livestock revolution" is mutually beneficial with improving animal farming methods, and ultimately why choosing plant-based products is ideal for the individuals most able to do so.

Key factors:

  • Grass-fed, extensively-raised livestock use less fossil fuels but produce more greenhouse gas emissions per pound, so switching rearing methods alone is insufficient.*
  • Over the past five years, 1,000 U.S. ranchers have switched to fully grass-fed (not just grass-finished) and that number is expected to increase 20% of the next decade.*
  • However, as of 2010 grass-fed livestock represent only 1% of the nation's supply.*  So a 20% increase over the next ten years is grossly inadequate in terms of switching mainstream production to extensive and potentially more sustainable rearing methods.
  • In terms of environmental benefits, a plant-based diet that minimizes/eliminates the use of livestock is ideal. On an individual basis, a plant-based vegan diet that is also green in other ways is ideal.
  • Since meat will not disappear in a lifetime (without economic and/or environmental catastrophe as the cause), our realistic goal is to drastically reduce meat consumption--to reverse the livestock revolution--at the local, national, and global levels. 
  • The goal of reducing global meat consumption will be enhanced by shifts toward extensive, organic systems that do not rely on high quantity production. Conversely, switching methods will be enhanced by relieving the high demand pressures of excessive consumption.
  • Certain types of small-scale mixed systems, where animals provide draft power power, fertilizer, and use of non-arable land have tangible benefits, but their numbers are too minute to meet high meat demand and high-yielding non-animal farming methods are available. 
  • It's better if the target audience for sustainably-raised, organic meat is not the conscious-consumer with a wide variety of choices.  The conscious-consumer can do more by choosing greener, plant-based options. 
  • Improving the means of production is best considered a transition phase used in conjunction with steps to reduce/eliminate meat consumption.
  • If flexitarian/plant-rich options are chosen instead of vegetarian/vegan options, then the conscious consumer does best to only use sustainable animal products as a supplement and by strictly forgoing conventionally (aka intensively-produced) animal products at restaurants, when visiting others, etc. 
  • When done with diligence, forgoing intensively-raised meat means reducing meat consumption and being flexitarian since 99% of animal products are intensively-raised where CAFO/factory farm production methods and environmental pollution are the norm.
  • By intentionally shifting our habits and choosing our alternatives, we are better able to avoid the environmental and economic disasters that excessive meat consumption and intensive farming encourage.


Reduction Advocates

"Because it takes more resources to produce meat and dairy than, say, fresh locally grown carrots, it's sensible to cut back on consumption of animal-based foods." Nicolette Hahn Niman, From "Carnivore's Dilemma," NYT 2009.

"Given the urgency for global action"--calls echoed by scientists and world leaders alike--"individual consumers must also participate." McMichael et al. (2007) put forth several recommendations, including the reduction of meat and milk intake by high-income countries as "the urgent task of curtailing global greenhouse-gas emissions necessitates action on all major fronts"; they concluded that, for high-income countries, "greenhouse-gas emissions from meat-eating warrant the same scrutiny as do those from driving and flying." From Worldwatch/HSUS 2008