Current levels of consumption and production of animal products in the EU are pushing us towards environmental calamity, jeopardise human health and cause animal suffering. 

Finding inspiration in Romania, Asger Mindegaard and Simone Lilliu explore ways of making EU livestock farming more sustainable while helping farmers transition to an agroecological future.

Civil society organisations, scientists and citizens have long been calling for a shift in the ways we produce and consume food of animal origin (meat, seafood, eggs and dairy). This does not mean that we all need to become vegans. It means that we need to produce less of these products while increasing their quality, for human health, animal welfare and the environment. 

The debate we need to have in society is about what quantity of animal products we can sustainably consume and how we breed, raise and slaughter these animals. It is about transitioning from the current intensive model of livestock production to one where livestock are part of extensive, circular, and mixed farming systems that preserve our natural resources, support rich biodiversity, protect our climate, and limit animal suffering. Such systems already exist in many places but they remain marginal. 

Roots in the community

In Merești, a small village in the region of Transylvania in Romania, the Sandor family produces traditional Romanian cheese from milk provided by their 40 dairy cows. Some 10 years ago, the family decided to abandon the standard model of selling their milk to the big companies. They now make their living selling cheese, eggs and sausages produced using the local pig breed ‘Mangalica’. The family also runs a small agri-tourism hostel where guests are served food from the farm.  

Mangalica pigs. (Image: Zoltan Hajdu / Focus Eco Centre)

For the Sandor family, good quality food and local tradition and culture go hand in hand with animal welfare and a healthy environment. The whole family is engaged in the production and they have learned the traditional way of making cheese to preserve the local varieties.

According to Huba Sandor (the youngest man in the family business), everything starts with the quality of the raw milk. The cows graze in the field near the village where they can eat high-quality natural fodder while maintaining the traditional landscape. They fertilise the grassland and spread the seeds of different flowers, including medicinal herbs that give extra flavour to the cheese. In parallel, the landscape offers important ecosystem services, such as water retention, biodiversity habitat, soil conservation and a beautiful setting for the tourists visiting the area. “I think that in every moment we have to look for a positive solution, and we find harmony in our lives by working together as a family in balance with nature,” says Sandor.

One of the biggest challenges the family has faced was to sell their premium quality products, as Romania did not have a dedicated market at the time. In collaboration with the local NGO and EEB member Focus Eco Center (FEC), the family began to promote their products locally and today they sell 200kg of cheese weekly at local markets. Thanks to the high quality of the cheese, the customers are paying a higher price in comparison with standard dairy products, covering the family’s needs and even generating enough money to invest in farm development. The Sandor family demonstrates that the model of the ‘reinvented family farm’ has a future,” says Zoltan Hajdu, General Coordinator at FEC. “The demand for good quality and healthy food is increasing and still more people wake up to the importance of local food production in the face of climate change.”

Huba Sandor making traditional cheese. (Image: Zoltan Hajdu / Focus Eco Centre)

A dead end for the planet…

One key aspect that often enters the public and political debates is greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock. In the EU, the livestock sector accounts for around 6% of total GHG emissions and this is not counting the emissions from the domestic production of animal feed, or from the land use change and transport emissions embedded in imported feed (in 2004, emissions embedded in feed imports were estimated to almost match total domestic agricultural emissions). 

In addition, feed production causes habitat destruction and consequently drives serious biodiversity loss, in soy producing countries like Brazil but also in the EU, where animal production claims 68% of agricultural land, much of which is monoculture feed production. Intensive livestock production also causes heavy nutrient pollution which compromises aquatic ecosystems and results in air pollution which can be lethal to humans.

In their comprehensive quantitative model of how an agroecological EU could look, the research institute IDDRI found that livestock numbers would have to decrease dramatically to avoid competition with humans for crops. And this logic led them to draw a conclusion which differs from what is often claimed in climate debates. They argue for the biggest reductions in meat production to be made in monogastric herds (pigs and chickens), as they primarily eat feed which causes feed-food competition. A relatively smaller reduction of  ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) is needed, because these can feed by grazing. Extensively grazed grasslands deliver important co-benefits for landscape management and biodiversity. When looking at environmental challenges holistically, as agroecology does, ruminants have an important place in a sustainable future. But a much smaller place than today.

A field of soy growing in Brazil. (Image: mailsonpignata)

… and a dead end for us

The scale of consumption of animal products and the production methods used pose multiple health hazards to EU citizens apart from the air pollution mentioned above. The high consumption levels of animal products (especially red and processed meat) have been associated with increased risk of ill-health, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some types of cancer, as well as premature mortality. At the same time, a transition to healthier plant-rich diets (when starting from high levels of meat intake) can deliver multiple benefits, including for nutritional and environmental objectives. This is why demand-side measures to promote less but better consumption of animal products are key.

Human health is threatened in other ways too. Many scientists have argued that the species abundance and the homogeneity of modern intensive livestock production are multiplying the risk of creating new diseases that can jump to humans. Additionally, the rampant ecosystem and habitat destruction caused by agriculture, for example to grow feed crops and graze animals, is also linked to the appearance of new zoonotic diseases. In parallel, the overreliance on antimicrobial drugs in intensive livestock production is jeopardising our access to effective life-saving drugs like antibiotics as it accelerates the emergence of resilient ‘superbugs’.

Another question is our ethical responsibility not to mistreat the animals we raise for food. Decades of civil activism and scientific research have shown the systematic mistreatment of livestock raised in intensive production systems where animals are treated more like crops than sentient beings, both in production and transport. An agroecological approach to livestock starts from a recognition of the animals as living beings and treats them as such.

“In an agroecological production, farmed animals should have the possibility to express their full repertoire of normal behaviours,” explains Elena Nalon, Senior Veterinary Adviser for Eurogroup for Animals. “Examples could be wallowing and rooting for pigs, dust-bathing and foraging for chickens, the possibility to maintain normal mother-offspring bonds for dairy cattle, absence of mutilations and close confinement. In other words, such systems should offer all farmed animals the possibility to experience good lives.”

Factory-farmed pigs. (Image: agnormark)

ADEPT at profitable conservation

In the Angofa valley south of the historic town of Sighișoara, Romania, EEB member Fundatia ADEPT has decided to take matters into its own hands. In 2018, ADEPT acquired 240 hectares of land degraded by decades of over-grazing with the financial support of the Fauna & Flora International Eurasia Programme. The Romanian NGO manages 60 Aberdeen Angus cattle on the land in a model combining landscape conservation, animal welfare and income generation. The idea is to lead by example and create a reference case to demonstrate the advantages and feasibility of extensive cattle rearing to inspire other producers.

Cattle dairy farming, sheep dairy farming and lamb production are the main commercial farming activities in this part of Romania. As the price of cow milk has plummeted in recent years, cattle herds are increasingly being replaced by sheep who graze very closely to the ground. Sheep overgrazing has become a serious problem for the flower-rich meadows and pastures of Transylvania and the diversity of the flora has fallen significantly in areas where the animals are most abundant. ADEPT promotes extensive cattle rearing for landscape management and chose the Angus breed as it is sturdy and is in high demand on the market. The herd is outdoors all year round and no additional feed is provided apart from hay in the winter.

Although still very new, the project is already showing promising results. According to annual monitoring in cooperation with the international education programme Operation Wallacea, habitat conditions and the diversity of flora on the pastures have improved due to the low-intensity cattle grazing. And ADEPT estimates that the combination of revenues from sale of the high-quality beef and EU support for environmentally friendly production will make the production economically viable. 

“We hope that the Angofa Farm will be a model for profitable conservation management that can be adopted by the many small-scale farming communities of Transylvania who are under a lot of pressure, encouraging the creation of farmer associations which are important for the economic survival of these communities,” concludes Răzvan Popa, Technical Director of ADEPT. 

Zoltan Hajdu (Focus Eco Centre)
Angus cattle of the Angofa valley, Romania. (Image: Fundatia ADEPT)

Fodder for good policy

The farms showcased above are good examples of what agroecological livestock production could be like in Europe. We need to drastically reduce the quantity of animal products in our diets while enhancing the quality significantly. But in the absence of political leadership, exemplified by the lack of initiatives to drive this transition in the European Commission’s recent Farm to Fork Strategy, trailblazers like the Sandor family and ADEPT are more important than ever. To inspire change and demonstrate the viability of different production and marketing models, farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange and the role of associations and cooperatives of farmers and food processors dedicated to sustainable solutions can hardly be underestimated. 

Still, farmers and other food system stakeholders cannot be expected to drive this transition alone. The EU and national governments must support and provide incentives to actors across the entire food supply chain in the transition from intensive to extensive livestock production. From diets dominated by large volumes of low-quality animal products to diets with few but good animal products, and from long export-oriented supply chains to more emphasis on shorter and more regional supply chains. Moreover, the EU must revise its trade policy, to protect these extensive farms from unfair competition with imports from outside the EU produced under less sustainable conditions. 

“Cattle per se do not cause environmental problems, industrial feed production and factory farming do; meat eating per se does not cause health problems, overconsumption of animal products does,” Francesco Ajena, Policy Advisor for IPES-Food points out. “And we overproduce and overconsume because of a political choice, largely embodied in subsidies. Shifting subsidies towards agroecology means abandoning the EU policy of low-cost animal products, while underpinning a shift towards diverse, healthy and sustainable diets,” he concludes.

Currently, a staggering 18-20% of the entire EU budget supports the livestock farming sector. This is because the lion’s share of CAP subsidies is distributed as “income support” on a per-hectare basis no matter what is produced – and a lot of what is produced is livestock feed. This props up intensive livestock production by keeping feed prices artificially low. If we want sustainable agriculture in the EU, this public money must be redirected to reward farmers who produce food in climate-, nature-, animal-, and people-friendly ways. With the right incentives given by the CAP, combined with a focus on demand-side measures, animal farming in the EU can in the future change from a major source of environmental and health problems to become part of the solution.    

Inspiration for an agroecological Europe

As Europe battles COVID-19 the EEB is committed to continuing our work towards a better future where people and nature thrive together. Getting the future of our food and farming system right is a crucial part of it.

This article is the sixth in a series telling the story of agroecological farms throughout Europe. We hope to show what an agroecological future for Europe could look like, and why it’s a desirable path. 

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