An old agricultural system could gain new traction as the meat industry and meat-eaters alike come to terms with the environmental effects — and for some, moral implications — of raising animals as food. Farming methods that include silvopasture present the opportunity to produce animal protein in a sustainable manner that benefits farmers, the animals themselves, the planet and even profits.
Our present system, which relies on open pasture grazing and supplemental grains, is not sustainable. As many scientists urge the population to cut back on meat for the sake of the planet and some governments even aim to curtail its consumption, a quality-over-quantity approach such as through silvopastoral agriculture is likely to encourage premium prices while improving the quality of life for livestock, the communities they are raised in, and the overall environment by discouraging deforestation and encouraging biodiversity.
Silvopasture is a type of agroforestry that introduces animals to graze in a natural, uncleared (or replanted) setting complete with trees, shrubs and hearty grasses. (Other types of agroforestry include alley cropping and forest farming.) This can be as simple as rotational grazing or a more intricate system that includes trees grown for harvest and sale, shrubs planted for their protein content or fiber, and specific grasses selected for their performance. This latter type protects the farmer by diversifying their agricultural portfolio as they are also able to produce timber, fruits, nuts and more from the same land.
Further economic benefits of this system include savings on pesticides and chemical fertilizers as well as grain feed. This is because by rotating grazing, which is a major part of the system, the parasites that normally infect livestock have their life-cycles disturbed and are less able to attach to a host. The trees also provide homes to birds which protect the livestock by dining on ticks and other bothersome insects while the livestock fertilizes the soil. And with 25 to 33 percent of cattle deaths linked to being fed grains they are ill-equipped to digest, it simply does not make sense to continue feeding our food 36 percent of the energy from our planet’s crops in the first place. As Vivian Arguelles Gonzalez of McGill University put it, “There’s no need for them to compete for crops that might otherwise be eaten by people, and challenge global food security.”
There’s no real need to clear forest land for livestock either when silvopasture is better for animals in many ways, including the more diverse diet that comes from grazing on a variety of grasses, shrubs and trees. Further, the shade provided by trees reduces stress and promotes a better quality of life for livestock. While that may not matter to many consumers, a quick internet search suggests that factory farms are one of the leading reasons cited by a sizable portion of vegetarians and vegans for not eating animal protein. Likewise, meat that has been labeled to suggest it came from healthier, happier, pasture-raised livestock fetches at a much higher price from some consumers than the standard cuts. These realities hint at the possibility of a premium market for silvopasture-raised meat — and profits that should encourage rapid expansion, an issue agroforestry faces as a whole.
Beef is the No. 1 cause of deforestation, but scaling up silvopasture — and agroforestry in general — can go a long way toward reforestation. It can also benefit the communities where animals are raised for food: When animals leave their waste in the forest, there is no need for a lagoon and sprayfield system, nor does the odor waft toward neighbors on the wind. This could be a likely boon considering the negative reaction many communities have upon hearing the news that a pig or chicken farm is moving in nearby.
Trees are certainly better at storing carbon than manmade poo-lagoons. And land that supports a variety of plants, animals, insects and birds will, without a doubt, make for a healthier and more sustainable environment. Farmers who have fruit, nuts, fibers, and timber to fall back on will not be devastated when the market for a given protein bottoms out or if their herd gets ill.
The argument for silvopasture is clear. While this system is still practiced on a small scale in much of the Global South, an expansion in size and geography predicated on its status as producing a premium product should lead to a growing market that will, along with declining overall meat consumption, help reverse deforestation and biodiversity loss while combatting climate change.
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