Skip to main content

Living with Cows in a Net Zero Future

News | Published  17 November 2021

Eating Better took part in an event during Nourish Scotland’s “Recipes for Resilience” at COP26 called “Living with Cows in a Net Zero Future”.


Eating Better took part in an event during Nourish Scotland’s “Recipes for Resilience” at COP26 called “Living with Cows in a Net Zero Future” which brought together civil society groups, organic livestock farmers in Scotland and indigenous people and pastoralists from across the world, to share knowledge on sustainable farming systems and to explore the future of food production, protecting nature and, crucially, food security in a warming world. 

The phrase “not all meat is created equal” is well used of late, particularly since the publication of the National Food Strategy earlier this year, but it’s especially pertinent when directly comparing intensive livestock production and all the inputs it requires, with extensive livestock systems, where animals roam rangelands for miles, driven by mobile pastoralists and indigenous people, who farm in a very natural way, caring for livestock and landscape. 

As countries commit to reduce methane emissions those attending, “Living with cows in a net zero future,” called for a more nuanced and sophisticated discussion, which differentiates between intensive and extensive systems of production and which doesn’t just focus on meat and dairy and how bad they are for the planet, which, the pastoralists say, is the prevailing narrative in many quarters. 

The event drew on the findings of a report by the Pastres project, “Are livestock always bad for the planet? which highlights the importance of pastoral systems in producing animal protein in some of the world’s most unforgiving landscapes, from the Arctic tundra to the Mongolian steppe, to the African savannas. The report shows how “pastoralism can lead the way towards a low-carbon future on the world’s rangelands,” where grazing livestock can increase soil fertility, improve biodiversity and provide livelihoods, all benefits we see here in the UK with the Organic, PFLA and NFFN movements. 

Simon Billing of Eating Better (bottom, far left) with Ian Scoones (back left), Benjamin Beyeza-Mutambukah from Uganda (second from left)  Hijaba Ykhanbai from Mongolia (third from left) and Fernando Garcia Dory from Spain(third from right) 

Ian Scoones, from the PASTRES project based at the Institute of Development Studies, who co-authored the report, said: “Not all cows are the same. It depends on how and where they are produced. Meat or milk from industrially farmed livestock has a totally different environmental impact to that from extensively grazed livestock. Extensive, pastoral systems can offer a climate-friendly alternative, while also enhancing biodiversity, producing high-quality products and supporting livelihoods.”

Sheep in the shadow of COP26! Fernando Garcia Dory of WAMIP with rare Hebridean sheep from a Lanarkshire farm. The photocall took place close to the COP campus to highlight the role of ruminants in sustainable agriculture.

Fernando Garcia Dory from Spain and spokesperson for WAMIP (World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous people), who brought the delegation to Glasgow, said: “The dominant picture of livestock’s impacts on climate change has been distorted by faulty assumptions that focus on intensive, industrial farming in rich countries. Millions of pastoralists worldwide depend on extensive livestock production, with relatively lower climate impacts, but we are being ignored by debates on the future of food. We are at the forefront of climate change and we need pastoral rights to be protected and affirmed ( such as the right to mobility) in order to ensure we continue caring for the rangelands, preventing fires, maintaining resilient animal breeds and food systems, improving soil fertility and biodiversity.” 

The “Living with cows in a net zero future” event, with its local and global perspective, allowed pastoralists from across the world and farmers in Scotland to explore these themes and find common ground, as small food producers, on the benefits to biodiversity, people and the environment, of farming in tune with nature. 

Award winning Mossgiel dairy farm in East Ayrshire has transitioned to become 100% organic, reducing its stock from 150 to 50 cows, which are grass-fed all year round. 

Owner and farmer Bryce Cunningham told the event that allowing his herd to graze and live a natural life had been better from a business perspective, but has also boosted biodiversity on the farm: “On our farm we have seen quite a dramatic increase in biodiversity. A lot of our neighbouring farmers, who don’t really like what we're doing, will say it's all weeds, but we’ve seen a lot of different insects, a lot of different birds coming back. We’ve left areas just for wildlife, even small areas that are too wet for cattle, we’ve said let nature have it and it’s worked really well.”

Bryce Cunningham, owner of Mossgiel Farm, East Ayrshire (left) and David Finlay, owner of The Ethical Dairy,  Galloway (right)

David Finlay of “The Ethical Dairy ”in Galloway has also transitioned to organic beef and sheep farming and has dedicated around 10% of his land to nature, while winning awards for his cheese and ice cream. He presented at the event and extolled the benefits of farming with nature. 

Of the knowledge sharing with the pastoralists from WAMIP, David Finlay said“It’s proved to me that we all have the same problem - we need to get back to nature and natural systems. Livestock are a fundamental part of a sustainable food system, going forward.”

WAMIP representatives Benjamin Beyeza-Mutambukah from Uganda (left) and Hijaba Ykhanbai from Mongolia

Hijaba Ykhanbai a pastoralist from Mongolia and member of WAMIP said: “Pastoralists are food producers: we are producing eco-friendly food, which is resilient to climate change. The world needs to recognise and respect the traditions and wisdom of pastoral culture, which has developed in harmony with nature.”

Pete Ritchie, Director of Nourish Scotland an organiser of the event, said:Well-managed and at the right density, pastoralism can support sustainable livelihoods, circular food systems, healthy soils and diverse ecosystems. High meat-consuming countries owe it to the planet to cut down on meat and dairy - but there is an important place for pastoralists and their animals in a net zero world.”

Simon Billing, executive director at Eating Better said: “We know what we need to do - moderate our meat and dairy consumption and support sustainable farming practices that are in touch with the land and where ruminants are fed only on grass.  This movement is growing here in the UK, but we can, and should, learn from the indigenous people and pastoralists who have always farmed this way - caring for animals and not taking more than they need. We hope they have a place at the top table going forward”

Read the full report  'Are livestock always bad for the planet?' here