Expanding the livestock narrative

A very important book by Nadia El-Hage Scialabba has just published. Nadia is one of our Senior Fellows at the Swette Center and she lists the Swette Center as her primary affiliation on the book jacket! What an honor to have the Swette Center so acknowledged and to have Nadia working with us. Read her blog below to learn more.

- Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director.


By Nadia El-Hage Scialabba, Senior Fellow, Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, Arizona State University

From climate change to healthy diets, livestock has become the single most important element for the survival or collapse of agriculture. However, the role of livestock is subject to contrasted positions and heated debate, often with contradictory scientific literature. Livestock issues have become misunderstood since that time that animals got disconnected from the ecological web of life and the social web of community.

Increasingly, producers and eaters are confronted with several dilemmas regarding the direction needed for livestock husbandry to provide healthy food while safeguarding environmental health. Are there pathways that reconcile animal health and welfare with productivity imperatives? How to preserve human health from microbiological contamination if antibiotics ceased to be used in animal husbandry? Is free-range better than organic eggs? Is a vegan or vegetarian diet safer for our children? Can lab-grown meat really substitute animal products and at what costs? Is white meat (from monogastrics) more climate-friendly than red meat (from ruminants)? How could societal costs and benefits be taken into consideration in livestock enterprises’ balance sheets? 

Contrary to public opinion, the interdisciplinary research in this book suggests that the adverse environmental and equity impact of a bacon and eggs breakfast is far more serious than a juicy beef steak. Ruminant animal husbandry can be raised more sustainably through better land and pasture use, using existing technology and human intelligence. Pig and poultry, seemingly easier to handle, are major grain consumers and carriers of most zoonotic diseases. 

The answer to most questions, from climate change to global health security, depends on how we care for livestock. For instance, the qualities brought by a cow depend on how the animal is raised, as the lipid profile of animals raised on grains or on grass will differ immensely in terms of health outcome on consumers, as well as on the ecosystem’s carbon balance.

This book addresses livestock systems from all angles, environmental, social, health, economic and governance, in order to provide a full understanding of trade-offs and opportunities of different animal production and consumption pathways. It demystifies perceptions around livestock production and consumption. Based on available scientific evidence and models of alternative futures, and illustrated with eleven best practices in different continents, the book advocates for low-external input systems. 

In its first and last parts, this book compares the strengths and weaknesses of all types of animal husbandry practices, from factory farms to pastoral systems. Through a full-cost accounting 360 degrees perspective, it suggests that well-managed pastoral systems fare best in terms of their contribution to livelihoods, ecosystem services and food sovereignty. The section on health demonstrates how animals and humans’ health is intrinsically linked throughout animal production, food preparation, and diet composition. The central parts of the book demonstrate the vital role of properly grazed grasslands for all life on Earth. In fact, holistic planned grazing is shown to counteract climate change, water scarcity, desertification and biodiversity erosion, while building on local resources and indigenous culture. 

While providing a wealth of knowledge to fill current knowledge gaps on production and consumption of animal foods, the book purposely does not address policy actions, because decisions need to be first informed. By unveiling the hidden virtues of integrated and grass-fed systems of different forms, it is hoped that readers will be empowered to make choices that sustain nature-based systems, and cultivate a future of resilience in the face of heightened variability.