Amid growing calls to “reboot food” and shift to plant-based and lab-grown diets, world leaders failed to address the climate and livestock debate at COP27 – the United Nations 27th Climate Conference held in Egypt from November 6-20.

Drawing from the report “Are livestock always bad for the planet?”, published by the Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience or PASTRES project, I argue for the opposite: a positive outlook towards livestock production, especially in countries of the Global South like India.

Mainstream narratives villainise livestock, especially cattle, as a major cause of climate change with some experts calling it the single-biggest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. They egregiously equate greenhouse gas emissions from livestock to emissions from all transport despite the different parameters through which these statistics are derived and their different impacts.

This has serious implications for India, given the scale of its livestock sector. India holds the world’s largest cattle herd and is the biggest milk producer in the world as well as the biggest beef and mutton exporter.

The sector contributes significantly to the economy as well, according to the annual report of the government’s Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying. The livestock sector accounted for 30.87% of Gross Value Added to the agriculture and allied sectors and 6.17% of total GVA in 2020-’21, says the report.

At the same time, it is the fourth largest emitter of methane in the world, an important greenhouse gas attributed largely to animal farming. Although methane has a short life-span, it is considered 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide and therefore is a core concern.

Cutting methane emissions through restricting the livestock sector is considered a quick win solution to slow down climate change. The Global Methane Pledge that seeks to reduce methane by 30% by 2030 has been signed by 130 countries. India is conspicuously absent.

Yet, unlike countries in the Global North, most livestock in India is held in domestic, smallholder and pastoral systems where livestock is open-grazed and pasture-fed in integrated crop-livestock systems. The average livestock holdings in India is less than five animals per household. Livestock is not only a source of income and food, but also provides autonomy and embodies social and cultural values.

In these narratives around livestock and climate change, it is important to ask: what livestock and where? A cow in the Netherlands or Nebraska is not the same as a cow in India.

A systems approach

While industrial livestock is problematic and has harmful effects on the environment and animal wellbeing, lumping together extensive mobile systems is misleading and dangerous.

Most climate data is based on life-cycle assessments of industrial livestock in rich countries where livestock has limited interaction with the environment. Premised on the productivist logic of efficiency, such assessments focus on emissions per-animal, obscuring the benefits of extensive open-grazed systems.

A systems approach, on the other hand, places livestock in context. Mobile and extensive systems work with nature and can enhance biodiversity, protect rare species, prevent forest fires, and improve soil fertility and carbon sequestration.

Through this approach, the Indian livestock sector can be considered among the most sustainable in the world.

Indian livestock has multiple purposes, such as milk, manure and labour in interdependent mixed farming systems, and is largely fed on crop residue, by-products and open vegetation. Pastoralists in western India, for example, make use of the variability in the distribution of fodder resources in rangelands through mobility. They often graze their animals on farm residues, contributing to nutrient cycling, improving soil fertility and producing human-edible proteins in return.

In fact, a group of experts valued the organic low-cost manure from extensively grazed livestock in India at Rs 3.35 lakh crore annually – a benefit vastly undermined both by the national government and international experts.

Farmers take jute plants for retting from a field in Nadia in West Bengal in August. Credit: PTI

Livelihood, food security

Such livestock systems also offer food and livelihood security in areas where crop agriculture may not be possible, whether it is the hot and dry regions of the Thar or the cold highlands of Ladakh.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the average human edible protein output ratio for 2005-’07 for Indian livestock is 4.3, which means that for every unit of feed input, Indian livestock produces 4.3 units of protein. This is higher than the figure of 1.17 for Brazil or 0.53 for the US.

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index for 2022 showed that 70.5% of India’s population is unable to afford a healthy diet. Animal-source foods not only provide protein but also an array of nutrients in a concentrated and affordable form. This ensures vital nutrition for poor and marginal communities in a country that suffers from gross malnourishment. Anaemia in women in India, for example, has long been linked to vegetarianism.

In recent years, there have been growing calls for transitioning to a plant-based diet. United Nations Environment Programme Food Systems and Agriculture Advisor James Lomax has advocated shifting towards plant-rich diets and embracing alternative sources of protein. The EAT Lancet Planetary Health diet also calls for a reduction in the consumption of animal-source foods. These shifts are supplanted by increasing corporate investments in “cultured” meats, bio-fermentation systems and plant-based products.

These diets reflect the views of the consumption elite, which in India is further complicated by caste intersections and religious proscription. While India has incentivised livestock keeping, especially for dairy, it has also criminalised consumption of beef. In Gujarat, for example, even the transport of animals for slaughter or the buying, selling, and possession of beef is penalised with a prison sentence of no less than 10 years and up to life imprisonment, and a minimum fine of Rs 1 lakh.

In 2017, the government sought to curb cattle trade through the now repealed Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock) Rules. While the sector is relatively sustainable and productive, it would have done better in the absence of these limiting conditions.

Rights and values

Complex livestock production systems in countries like India safeguard entire economies, societies and ecosystems. Anti-livestock narratives emerging from mainstream assessments neglect these aspects. Moreover, they fail to consider the rights and values of small, marginal and extensive livestock keepers in the Global South that are most affected by climate change.

Techno-utopian and farm-free visions of food systems shift power away from farmers and into the hands of large companies. They draw on a separation between farmers and their land and landscape, with no consideration for the traditional and local knowledge that they hold to preserve and improve their environments. Nor do these visions consider food sovereignty, where people who produce and consume food have a say in its policies, central to climate justice.

Many scientists have identified ways of working with livestock-keepers and their knowledge to maximise the benefits from livestock. Improving breeding, feeding, and managing manure through appropriate climate finance can help reduce greenhouse gasses and improve grazing and rangeland management.

A nuanced approach to livestock that differentiates between diverse production systems was endorsed by the latest mitigation report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in April. But world leaders skirted the issue at COP27. They failed to diffuse the harmful narratives villainising livestock for climate change and nor did they recognise that sustainable livestock can play a vital role in delivering climate justice.

Natasha Maru is a multidisciplinary social scientist and policy consultant working on pastoral development. She has recently finished a PhD with the PASTRES project, hosted by the Institute of Development Studies, UK, for which she worked with the Rabari pastoralists of western India.