Foodosophy – Livestock

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Wednesday 27th March PM
Topic: What role for livestock in a sustainable food system?


The Foodosophy Group meets roughly monthly as way of forcing its members to actually sit down and read the things they’ve been meaning to read, and then come together to discuss them. The remit is around Food and its relationship with philosophy, politics and economics etc. Open to all – see here for more details.

This month’s Foodosophy meeting attempted to tackle the livestock issue: given the apparently huge environmental cost of livestock, how should they fit into our agroecological system, if at all?

“The livestock sector accounts for
30% of land surface of the earth
20% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions
10% of water use”

What we discussed:

1. Livestock’s Long Shadow (FAO 2006) a damning FAO report in which the group, assembled in the James Street Tavern, nonetheless detected a tension in the attitude towards ‘intensity’. On the one hand the report is critical of intensive livestock rearing, but on the other it finds in intensification a potential solution to livestock’s long shadow, particularly with regard to land use and habitat conversion for cattle, i.e. the higher the stocking density the less land is needed.

2. An Inconvenient Cow (Matthew J Rales 2009) is a response to the Long Shadow report, it argues that livestock are not the problem per se, but rather that we should be questioning intensive, industrial livestock. Done properly, livestock are an important part of the system. The Inconvenient Cow critiques Long Shadow’s recourse to technological solutions (e.g. special feed that reduces enteric fermentation and therefore reduces methane emissions per cow), and the potential for these to underpin a paradigm of corporate agriculture dependent on hi-tech products rather than good old fashioned time-tested range management. There was discussion in the group as to how far agroindustrial corporations are able to influence international reports like the Long Shadow (see also this article by Robert Goodland in the NYT).

3. How to green the desert and reverse climate change (Allan Savory TED Talk 2013) This was a late submission to the week’s reading list, but provoked some wide-ranging discussion. Savory is a compelling speaker, and the images he shows of livestock regenerating previously desertified land are powerful – but we wondered what a closer investigation of his arguments reveals. A few responses sent round by the group after the discussion suggest that the discussion is (of course) more complex than Savory lets on – and certainly a live scientific issue. Here are just two counterpoints to the intensive grazing idea: (1) from the Food Climate Research Network Forum; and (2) an article ‘Meat, Lies and Videotape (A Deeply Flawed TED Talk).

From here we entered into a chain of discussion that touched on the Oostvaardersplassen re-wilding project in the Netherlands, the dialectic and the dialogic as introduced in Richard Sennett’s book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation, Mark Lynas and GMOs, agricultural co-operatives, permaculture, the scientific method, feminism, dualism and other isms. We also talked about Trealy Farm’s charcuterie and meat course (read a blog about it here) and Simon Fairlie’s Meat: a Benign Extravagance.

Thanks to all who came! Next month we will be discussing Roger Scruton and the relationship between conservatism and environmentalism… If you’d like to join in, email us

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