Banner image of cattle in Brazil by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Globally, the land we use for pasture is contracting, according to a new report from the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank based in Oakland. The technical know-how also exists for this trend to continue, the authors of the report write, even as demand for meat rises, especially in developing countries.

That potential for producing more meat and dairy on less land could benefit ecosystems around the world, in part because pasture covers so much of the Earth’s land area.

“A lot of discussion about farmland expansion and how we need to limit deforestation has been focused on cropland,” Linus Blomqvist, who directs conservation, food and agriculture at the Breakthrough Institute, told Mongabay. “But actually, when you look at it, pasture is twice the area of cropland globally.”

Sheep in Xinjiang, China. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay)

The land that cattle and other livestock occupy on their way to making the milk and meat that humans crave has gone down substantially after the world hit a “peak pasture” point around the year 2000, shrinking by 1.4 million square kilometers (540,500 square miles), the team’s analysis of data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization revealed. That’s a Peru-sized area of land that could be restored to natural grassland or forest, the authors say.

The expansion of pasture has historically had a resounding impact on ecosystems around the world. The authors point out that an area of land about the size of North America has been turned over to livestock pasture in the past three centuries or so. These grazing factories now occupy huge swaths of land where carbon-rich forests once stood in the Amazon and other vitally important forests. And that conversion has caused the extirpation — and in some cases outright extinction — of countless species.

As countries develop, demand for meat often rises, increasing the temptation to further expand livestock-grazing areas into new frontiers. But, contrary to many predictions, global pastureland has waned, even in agricultural powerhouses like Brazil and mega-populous countries like China.

A graph showing the rise and fall of global pasture area since the 1960s. Image © The Breakthrough Institute.

Blomqvist and his colleagues attribute the decline to what they call a “decoupling of production from pastureland,” meaning that farmers can now produce the same amount — or more, in many cases — of meat and milk using smaller areas of land. That’s because farmers are packing more animals into the same amount of space, and individual animals are producing more meat and milk, leading to a “livestock revolution.”

A key to the success of these practices has been supplementing the grass that cattle, goats and sheep eat with grains, and the area required to grow those crops hasn’t dropped off the way pastureland has. Taken together, however, Blomqvist said, “it’s pretty clear that there is still a net decrease” in the amount of land required to satisfy demand for meat and dairy.

Ensuring that pasture expansion doesn’t happen again will require intensifying livestock production in ways that are common in the United States and elsewhere. While the notion of cow-dotted hillsides seems idyllic compared to the common view of a muddy, crowded feedlot, the comparison often isn’t that simple, Blomqvist said.

Cattle grazing on wooded grassland in Niger. (Photo by John C. Cannon/Mongabay)

“The distinction in terms of animal health and animal welfare doesn’t just run along the lines of grass-fed versus feedlot [livestock],” he said. “It runs more along the lines of good and bad management.”

For example, dry feedlots that are shielded from the elements and have controlled temperatures can make for healthier and more productive cattle than in some grass-fed systems, Blomqvist said. Still, he acknowledged that thorny issues remain, such as the use of preventive antibiotics, which are used to maintain the health of animals living in close proximity to each other but can also have adverse impacts on human health.

But, he added, “There’s certainly a place for both technological innovation and stronger policy to get away from it.”

Sheep and goats in Namibia. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay)

The challenge on the horizon is the rising demand for animal products in the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Expanding populations and rising incomes mean that traditional livestock rearing likely won’t be enough. That could make expanding pasture at the expense of natural ecosystems enticing.

Blomqvist and his colleagues say there’s a better way to sate that demand: by introducing some of the techniques that have worked elsewhere. But the context is critically important, he said.

“What we don’t really advocate is plopping down a lot of feedlots in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “It doesn’t really work because there’s too capital intensive, and it’s more expensive.”

Similarly, the highly productive breeds that thrive at higher latitudes and have been integral to the livestock revolution don’t usually take to the warmer climes of the tropics.

Deforestation for cattle pasture in Peru. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay)

But supplementing livestock feed during leaner dry seasons and bolstering individual animal health could pay off dividends.

“Huge improvements can be made from pretty basic veterinary interventions to prevent disease and ensure that animals are healthy,” Blomqvist said.

The authors recognize that, even with the best-implemented tactics for increasing livestock productivity, it’s always uncertain how people will respond. More milk and meat on the market might unintentionally touch off even greater demand, for example — what economists call the “rebound effect” — and that could negate the gains from intensification. But with a concerted effort, the team says, the global drawdown of pasture could continue.

“I would say the potential is definitely there,” Blomqvist said. “Whether or not it’s realized and we will see a continuing decline in pasture really depends on policies and trends and global markets and many other factors.”

  • Since 2000, the area of land dedicated for livestock pasture around the world has declined by 1.4 million square kilometers (540,500 square miles) — an area about the size of Peru.
  • A new report attributes the contraction to more productive breeds, better animal health and higher densities of animals on similar amounts of land.
  • The report’s authors say that technological solutions could help meet rising demand for meat and milk in developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, without reversing the downward trend.

* John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Story originally published by Mongabay.