European livestock farming contributes to many sustainable development goals

On 14th of October, the European Commission published an external report entitled “Future of EU livestock: how to contribute to a sustainable agricultural sector?”, written by Dr Jean-Louis Peyraud (INRAE) and Dr. Michael MacLeod (SRUC). This study contributes to the debate on the sustainability of the livestock sector. It outlines the importance of the livestock sector and the challenges it faces. Please find below a summary of this report:

Livestock farming is of crucial importance for many European regions, economically, socially and environmentally. In 2017, the value of livestock production and livestock products in the EU was equal to 170 billion euros, representing 40% of the total agricultural turnover. The EU-28 is a net exporter on the world market and the international trade surplus in livestock commodities has steadily increased since 2000, reaching 3.7 billion euros in 2019. Moreover, the sector employs around 4 million people. Poultry and pig farms are the largest farms in terms of the number of salaried positions.

A nuanced environmental impact

In 2017, the agricultural sector generated 10% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), less than industry (38%) or transport (21%). Globally, half of the agricultural land used for livestock consists of permanent grassland and marginal land that cannot be readily cultivated and are used exclusively by ruminants. Some temporary grassland could certainly be cultivated but that will lead to the loss of ecosystem services they provided.

A decrease in livestock farming in Europe would have negative environmental consequences

The idea of reducing the EU livestock production as a way of simultaneously tackling environmental and dietary issues is to be considered with caution. As a matter of fact, the global demand for livestock product is increasing and the European livestock sector is more efficient than in numerous other parts of the world. This idea may thus lead to net increases in environmental impact.

Furthermore, the net environmental impacts of reducing livestock in Europe could have negative impacts in terms of land use. Conversion of pastures to arable crops could lead to soil carbon losses and increased pesticides use, while conversion of pasture to woodland will provide benefits in terms of carbon storage, but may have negative impacts on, for example, rural vitality or wildfire risk.   

Challenges for the future

The sector faces certain challenges to ensure that Europe can meet its medium and long-term commitments. According to the report, several issues will have to be addressed in the future (2030-2050), among others:

  • Reduction of GHG emission (as agriculture and in particular livestock are partly responsible for this as they represent an important source of greenhouse gas)
  • Improvement of animal welfare
  • Improvement and enhancement of innovation in farming systems.

The Farm to Fork strategy has the potential to improve European agriculture. The main goal would be to reach a low carbon, resource efficient agri-food system that provides a wide range of environmental goods and services (such as healthy soils, biodiversity and an attractive landscape).

The study concludes that the debate about livestock should be broadened and moved away from simplistic plant vs animal or extensive vs intensive positions as livestock contributes to many of the sustainable development goals.

Consult the report