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‘Where is the beef’ — livestock as a litmus test for climate change action?

Source: European Commission

When it comes to climate change action and the EU, one of the items that quickly enters the picture is the EU’s agricultural policy, traditionally one of the cornerstones of EU policy action…and expenditure. The claim goes that an alleged 70% of CAP support goes to livestock, measured interchangeably through subsidies or area. Using agricultural data, Tassos Haniotis, Director in the European Commission’s DG Agriculture argues against turning livestock, and especially the cow (beef or dairy, regardless), into the litmus test for any discussion of climate change action. Below he explains why.

By Tassos Haniotis, Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission

A third of EU farmland is permanent pasture that needs more support and protection

Without doubt, livestock is one of the priority areas where action on production methods is required to significantly reduce emissions. However, beef does not deserve to be made a prime target by an unidimensional approach that oversimplifies climate-linked policy questions. But since the claim is out there, let’s put the figures into perspective and context, starting with a table summarising facts on EU farmland (and the share of organic area in it).

Table 1- EU farmland (2018, in million hectares)

Source: Eurostat

Based on the above, roughly one third of EU farmland is permanent pasture; pastures to be exact, diverse in their characteristics, spread over 60 out of 176 million hectares of the EU’s Utilised Agricultural Area, in the statistical jargon. As has been demonstrated, at global level, 85% of what animals eat cannot be eaten by humans, with a significant part coming from land on which, due to agronomic conditions, most of the time the only thing that can grow is grass (1). As this land cannot be converted to arable land, according to a 2018 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, in many diverse systems around the world ruminants are the best and only way to turn this grass into human-edible protein.

In the EU, three successive impact assessments of the Common Agricultural Policy — CAP (2008, 2011, and 2018) have demonstrated the positive environmental services provided by these pastures: they lock up carbon in the soil, provide biodiversity-rich habitats, help the nutrient cycle work more effectively, and shape our landscapes in ways that we value. Many of them are located in areas where there is no alternative to extensive livestock farming.

This is why this part of the EU is so crucial, not just in preserving, but in enhancing the role of extensive livestock systems, and if anything, they require more support through better targeting and distribution (something proposed repeatedly since 2008, but as redistribution of support is at the discretion of Member States, very poorly implemented). A rough estimate of how much current support is going to this sector of EU agriculture is possible, and comes to approximately 35%, coupled or decoupled (support is fully decoupled if it does not influence farmers’ production decisions, thus permitting them to respond freely to market price signals), and linked to the requirement to preserve and maintain permanent pastures.

For half of EU farmland, support goes to farmers who choose what to produce and sell

Let’s move now to the remaining land and, after subtracting permanent crops and area classified as ’other’, we are left with half of the EU’s farmland, on which cereals, oilseeds, protein crops and green fodder are produced. It is from this part that a share goes to the production of feed, and since the CAP is mainly based on area payments, it is then criticised for supporting, en bloc, industrial farming. Since the exact definition of what constitutes ‘industrial farming’ in EU agriculture is open to different interpretations, especially when an EU ‘large’ farm starts at levels that correspond to medium to small in the new world, let us rather focus on a term more pertinent to EU agriculture, ‘intensive farming’.

First, attribution of area shares by sector means little with respect to its environmental footprint. It is actual production methods that matter, and the policy impact on the soil, water, air and biodiversity, whether it stems from CAP support measures that directly impact what happens in livestock, crops or trees, or is the result of EU legislation (for animal health and welfare, or for the environment). What the combined effect of the above policy measures has done in the EU, compared to what happened in other major players and the world, is reflected in Figure 1.

Figure 1 — Change in GHG emissions from livestock, by source (1990–2017)

Source: own calculations based on FAOSTAT

Therefore, focusing on an approximation of support dedicated to feed by looking at the area share of products used for food and feed on the basis of consumption patterns misses — or simply chooses to ignore — the importance of potential environmental leakage. If such feed were not produced in the EU, the thus reduced environmental pressure may increase pressures elsewhere.

Second, as long as meat and dairy products constitute part of the human diet, not just for culture-related but also for health-related reasons, feed will be needed, and this can only be produced on land. In the EU, 90% of CAP area-based direct support is decoupled. What is produced annually, where and for what it is sold (food, feed or fuel), is driven by the choice of individual farmers based on the most profitable market opportunity they find, whether in the EU or on the world market. It is based on these conditions, and, as a result of previous reforms, the EU has reduced its previous reliance on imported feed (such as soybeans, soymeal and corn gluten feed), which in the past represented around two-thirds of compound feed, while now it represents about one third.

In other words, 40% of EU arable area today produces feed for domestic use, not because support explicitly goes to it, but because market orientation has led to an increase in EU food security. If the EU area considered to be cultivated for animals was used for human consumption, and thus feed for animals would have to be imported, the environmental leakage would be greater in sectors where EU production is more efficient (yields of EU grains for feed, for example, are three-fold higher than alternative protein yields). How this matters is evident from Figure 2.

Figure 2 — Change in GHG emissions from crops, by source (1990–2017)

Third, one of the most important misunderstandings in this debate is linked to the fact that cattle are considered to absorb the bulk of compound feed (which is associated with intensive livestock farming). Yet cattle (and the marginal share of milk replacers) accounts for 30% of compound feed, while pork and poultry for 31% and 34% respectively (feed for other animals accounts for the remaining 5%). Thus 70% of industrial feed goes to sectors with no direct support, which also represent a very marginal part of agricultural area (including cattle intensive feedlots, which are not supported by the CAP).

Once more, the manner in which these sectors contribute to reducing their environmental footprint should be the real focus of attention. As long as policy measures addressing the reduction of this footprint are respected, and in the current context strengthened, it is not the share of feed in this sector that is a problem. The potential problem lies in the absence of improvements in animal feed diets, the lack of treatment of waste, the lack of focus on investments that exploit the technical advances of the bio-economy, etc. Once more, results matter, and these are far from one-sided; they are mixed, covering the whole spectrum of horror stories (which make the headlines) to real successes (that unfortunately are very often side-lined …).

Not just what, but how matters, and trade-offs need to been seen at global level

The backdrop to the use of an aggregated high number for the role of support or land area allocated to livestock is related to arguments about the potential gains to be made with a more balanced diet, lower food waste, more organic, and more local consumption. There is no reason to believe that present production and consumption patterns would stay unchanged. In fact, not only are there strong and valid arguments for such change, but things are already changing — the drop in beef consumption by 30% in the EU since 1990, and parallel developments in the rest of the developed world, indicates this, and these changes are bound to affect feed.

Although this dynamic is clear, its extent, both at EU and global level, is anything but clear, as gaps still exist in underlying numbers, from the actual level and distribution of food waste, global and local trade-offs from leakage (including from lower organic yields, or from the need to have more animals for manure to replace synthetic fertiliser). And at any rate, the cumulative EU progress presented above does not change by a single iota the fact that progress in terms of emissions has stagnated in recent years, after the 2013 CAP reform, and more action is required. To place this need in context, we need to clearly recognise the factors that led to clear progress, and the ones explaining stagnation.

The former include the significant impact of the drop in high price support in the 1990s, and the slower, more gradual but steady role of decoupling in changing production methods, from the combined impact of cross-compliance and the flexibility of farm adaptations to shifting market conditions with a part of farmers’ income being fixed. These results are evident in a series of facts — from income and environmental indicators, to trade or social indicators.

However, the facts also reveal those factors that explain stagnation, such as the doubling of coupled support (from 5% to 10%), the hesitant redistribution of support in a manner that avoided any reference to targeted criteria, the exceptions introduced (by Member States and the European Parliament) in the agreed legislation on the implementation of environmental legislation (the Nitrogen Directive). Stagnation in the one-size-fits-all logic of ‘greening’ (often reproduced in the current debate by expanding it to include various policy ideas of an economic and environmental nature), and, maybe more importantly, in the lagging capacity of the sector to invest in new technologies.

Whichever path EU agriculture takes in the future, it can only gain from an understanding of its-often conflicting -developments. It is neither self — flagellation nor self — congratulation that will take it forward, but a reality check based on facts.

(1) Mottet A. et al. 2017. Global Food Security, 14, 1–8 “Livestock: On our plates or eating at our table? A new analysis of the feed/food debate” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211912416300013

This article was first published on the 2/2020 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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