Sunday, February 12, 2023

Can the cow and the deer co-exist?

Domestic livestock is not the major cause of loss of wild mammals.

We have all seen it, the graph showing that just 4% of the world’s mammals, by weight, are wild; humans account for 36%, and livestock for the remaining 60%.* It is certainly deplorable that there are so few wild mammals. Most people using these figures and probably most people hearing them, draw the conclusion that domestic livestock has squeezed out wild animals. But that is a far too simplistic conclusion. This is demonstrated both by large-scale top-down analysis and smaller scale empirical evidence. 

To begin with crop lands occupy 1.5 billion hectares and around 1.6 billion hectares of grasslands are effectively grazed by domestic livestock. This makes up 3.1 billion hectares out of a total of 14 billion hectares. Excluding barren lands (glaciers, rough mountains) agriculture occupy “just” one third of total land area (which is of course already a lot and perhaps too much).** Land-use can affect a bigger area then it physically occupies, but clearly agriculture, whether cropping or grazing, can’t be the main reason for why there is so little wild life in the 7 billion hectares of “habitable” land which are not under agriculture management.

On a temporal scale, the decline of wild mammals often predates agriculture expansion. This is apparent in the late Pleistocene megafauna extinction taking place more than 10,000 years ago, well before agriculture and domestication of livestock. There are still heated arguments over if hunting by humans or climate change was the main cause, most likely they were combined. Some researchers have estimated that the total biomass of herbivores, approximately a billion large bodied mammals, at that time equaled current biomass of domestic animals. Regardless of the exact numbers it is apparent that the total weight of wild mammals shrank considerably by this “event”, and that mammal wild life hasn’t recovered since.

Finally, by using data for the total global primary productivity (the net photosynthesis so to say) one can see that of the total net primary production, humans and their livestock “appropriate” around 20 percent for agriculture purposes. This is of course bad enough, but it still means that there is biological space left for many more mammals and other wild life.


Even if cattle, wheat and corn now grow where bison previously roamed in North America, I have seen no convincing evidence that that the extermination of bison was driven by agriculture expansion, but rather by a combination of hunting, disease and indirect effects caused by the decline in Native American populations and abilities to manage the bison herds. Obviously, the enormous expansion of both croplands and ranching in North America would have collided with a bison herd of 60 million head, sooner or later. But cattle and bison can co-exist: according to a study from Utah there is more competition between cattle and jackrabbits than between cattle and bison when they share the same resources. 

The massive death of >500 million ungulates in Africa in the late 19th century i which both domestic and (mostly) wild animals were victims was caused by Rinderpest, a disease brought in by cattle from India. This could in some way be seen as caused by “agriculture” in a wider sense, even if it was more a function of humans moving animals around than agriculture as such as domestic cattle already were all over Africa.

Research in Kenya show a certain level of competition between cattle and small herbivores but not with bigger herbivores. The researchers suggest: “that interactions between livestock and wildlife are contingent on rainfall and herbivore assemblage and represent a more richly nuanced set of interactions than the longstanding assertion that cattle simply compete with (grazing) wildlife”. Studying the populations of domestic cattle and wild life in Northern Tanzania for 17 years, researchers concluded that while there was a high density of cattle and sheep and goat “several wildlife species occurred at densities similar (zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, Kirk's dik-dik) or possibly even greater (giraffe, eland, lesser kudu, Grant's gazelle, Thomson's gazelle) than in adjacent national parks in the same ecosystem.” Research from South Africa shows that there is some competition between oribi antelope and cattle. Cattle facilitate oribi grazing during the wet season because cattle foraging produced high-quality grass regrowth. Despite this, they found that “cattle foraging at high densities during the previous wet season reduced the dry season availability of oribi's preferred grass species.”

In Sweden the number of wild animals have increased tremendously the last 200 years. In the mid-19th century there were just a few hundred roe deer, moose and red deer and now there are around 300,000, 240,000 and 26,000 respectively. Wild boars were exterminated in the 17th century and now there are some 350,000. Beavers were gone by 1870 and now we have 100,000. Hunting of cranes and swans have just started again as their numbers are causing problems for farmers. Even the predators are making comeback. Meanwhile, the number of people, pigs and poultry has increased many times. The acreage of arable land peaked in 1916 and the number of cattle increased with 50% from 1866 to its peak 1936, after which it fell back to levels lower than in the 19th century. This remarkable comeback of wild life is a result of many factors but hunting regulation is the most important one.

Researchers studying the dynamics of domestic and wild herbivores in Norway conclude that total herbivore biomass decreased from 1949 to a minimum in 1969 due to decreases in livestock biomass. Increasing wild herbivore populations lead to an increase in total herbivore biomass by 2009. “Declines in livestock biomass were a modest predictor of wildlife increases, suggesting that competition with livestock has not been a major limiting factor of wild herbivore populations over the past decades.” There has been a “notable rewilding” in Norway. They conclude that “Norwegian herbivores remain mostly regulated by management”, most notably hunting.

For fisheries and whaling the role of hunting and overexploitation is even more obvious than for the land living animals.

For sure, there are many cases where the expansion of farming causes habitat destruction and loss of wild life. The 2022 global Living Planet Index shows an average 69% decrease in monitored wildlife populations between 1970 and 2018. A team of researchers studied the causes for threats to 23,271 species, representing all terrestrial amphibians, birds and mammals. The six major threats were agriculture, hunting and trapping, logging, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. Their results show “that agriculture and logging are pervasive in the tropics and that hunting and trapping is the most geographically widespread threat to mammals and birds. Additionally, current representations of human pressure underestimate the overall pressure on biodiversity, due to the exclusion of threats such as hunting and climate change.” Exactly how agriculture threatens wild life is not made clear in the study.

The impact of farming depends a lot on the context, which environment, which species of wildlife and of livestock respectively as well as management. How we farm, trade and eat is of critical importance: “In short, the impact of food production on biodiversity arises not from a single fault, but from the nature of the system as a whole”, according to a recent report by UNEP, Chatham House and Compassion in World Farming. 

When land is cleared and plowed and converted into cropland most of the original flora and fauna will vanish from the place and a few new ones will enter. By and large, crop farming and wild life are no good mates, so there is quite a direct link between cropland expansion and reduction in wild life. There are many things farmers can do to make cropping more biodiversity friendly, but grazing animals, boars and other mammals will not be welcome in croplands as little as grasshoppers or lice are. 

For grasslands the story is quite different. If a tropical rain forest is razed to provide grazing for cattle, biodiversity and wild life till be harmed to a very large extent. But most grazing in the world takes place in lands that have either been natural grasslands or which were converted (or restored) to semi-natural grasslands since many centuries or millennia (which is the case of many of Europe’s grasslands). Grazing animals can co-exist with many other mammals and the share of primary productivity that humans and their livestock take from grasslands is much smaller than from croplands, where we take almost all. The biggest conflict is with predators even if there are many examples of how domestic livestock can co-exist with predators. 

Some make the case that domestic livestock, in particular cattle, to some extent can act as ecological replacement for now-extinct megaherbivores and that they can maintain landscapes and functions that otherwise would be lost (see for example here, here and here).

One of our cows in our silvo-pastoral lands. Photo: Gunnar Rundgren.

There are, obviously, many things farmers can do to protect and promote wildlife. But that would be the subject of another set of articles. You can find some examples here and here

For sure, the cow and the deer can easily co-exist. On our farm, there is plenty of wild-life co-existing with our small herd of five mother cows. There are deer, elk, boars, fox, voles, fox, the occassional lynx a huge number of birds including flocks of gees, cranes. In the grassland they all thrive and do little harm, in my field of vegetables, I chase them away.


*Interestingly, the weight of arthropods is ten times more than the weight of livestock and the weight of all the organisms in a living soil is much higher than any animals grazing on the land.

** Many quote considerably higher numbers, e.g. Our world in data. They classify almost all global grasslands as grazing area for domestic livestock, but that is simply not correct. It is only a minor part of the grasslands that are actually grazed. For a detailed analysis see the supplement of Climate warming from managed grasslands cancels the cooling effect of carbon sinks in sparsely grazed and natural grasslands by Jinfeng Chang et al (2021).


Friday, February 3, 2023

Food: away from the market into the civil sphere

In my last article I explained how the agriculture treadmill works. As long as there is an underlying overproduction of agriculture commodities, agriculture will never be profitable in the normal meaning of the word. One agriculture economist in Sweden claimed that, because of this, prices of agriculture commodities are mainly determined by how cheaply farmers are ready to work. This is also reflected in the mostly bad conditions for farm workers.

There are, of course, individual examples of farmers who can make a profit. As the treadmill theory points out, pioneers in adoption of new technology can often benefit for a while, but they will have to continue to be in the forefront year after year. There are also risks with being the earliest adopter, as technologies might not yet be perfected or even dysfunctional. More often it is better to stand in the second line.

Another strategy is to avoid “commodity hell” A version of this is to go for a special niche in the market. It can be a new crop or a new production concept. Many years ago our farm was the first to cultivate daikon radishes on a semi commercial scale in Sweden. We grew thousand square meters, got a bumper crop and very good prices when we shipped them to the market in Stockholm. Next year we sowed three thousand square meters. But with that we saturated the market and had to lower the price and still ended up throwing away half of the crop.

We were also very early organic farmers, starting in 1977. At that time, organic farming was seen as a promise for small farmers in less favored areas. From 1983 onwards we developed organic sales to supermarkets through a cooperative (which we managed) which had mostly small growers as members. We expanded and at the peak years (late 1990s and early 2000s) we grew vegetables on around 7 hectares. It was hard work but it was also – kind of – profitable. Over the years, more and bigger farms converted to organic. Around 20 percent of the Swedish arable land is now organically managed and organic farms have an average size bigger than conventional. Imports also started to flow (Swedish vegetable production in general has a hard time competing with imports from countries with better climate and lower labor costs) and the prices of our crops were lower in the year 2000 than in 1980, while the value of the money was halved at the same time. Gradually the farm changed focus back into more local marketing.

Daikon radishes and organic farming are both good – but neither is a recipe for commercial success. Organic farming is certainly much better than conventional but it is no savior of small farms. As a matter of fact, the high costs for certification (for which I am very much to blame as being one of the pioneers in the organic certification business...), which is nowadays an integral part of the organic market, is proportionally a much bigger burden for small farms and the bureaucracy involved in compliance procedure also discriminate against small farms. The spread and success of organic also lead to a conventionalization of organic producers with less diverse production as a result.

Research in Brazil and Italy concludes that ” there was a significant and positive correlation between the crop richness index and the share of farm sales through alternative food networks.” But the researchers also pointed out that: ”proximity to densely populated areas is a necessary precondition for the development of the short food supply chains needed to stimulate the diversification of organic agriculture.” While I am certain that there are more possibilities for those living close to cities I am not convinced that this statement holds as a general rule in the long run. It is quite possible that local rural people will participate in alternative food chains. If the distance to major market hubs is great, the pressure of competition is much lower and potential customers may not have so many alternatives. In addition, peripheral areas are much more likely to engage in the “informal economy”.

Just a week ago, I visited farms in the region och Waginger See in Bavaria, not a densely populated area after continental European standards. Most of the organic farms I visited had a diversified production oriented to the local market. The one with the most diverse production was also a community supported agriculture farm, in German called Solidarische Lantwirtschaft. This farm, Blümlhof grows all kinds of vegetables and fruits, rye and dinkelwheat and has sheep cows, donkey, pigs, bees, chicken, horses and what not. They are three families working together and have some 50 “co-farmers” as they call the members of the CSA. Those commit 160 euro per month for a year at the time. For that they can take as much as they want of the harvest, the milk, the meat, the honey and the eggs pending availability of course, following the old principle “to each according to their needs”. 

Elke and Hubert Hochreiter at Blümlhof, photo: Gunnar Rundgren

This kind of consumer-producer relations are based on cooperation and joint values and not on commodities and transactions. Food is not, should not, primarily be seen as a commodity to be bought or sold. To a large extent food is an expression of culture, solidarity and connectedness with the land. Food is also a human right. This also means that food takes the central stage in efforts to transform society. The main path towards true sustainability therefore lies in considerable changes in the market – or even more to develop distribution outside of what is normally called a market.* 

Pickling cucumbers and preparing tomatoes for drying, photo:Gunnar Rundgren

There is not one single solution, but many. Increasing self-sufficiency in food and food preparation is another important step in changing our relationship to food. Growing, preserving, preparing, cooking and eating, taking care of the leftovers and waste of our food gives us control over a bigger share of our lives and at the same time, pulls a big chunk of the real economy out of market, away from competition and from the profit and machinations of corporations as well as the – often well intended but nevertheless stifling -  meddling by governments. Growing, storing and preparing food, cooking and eating together with others is important parts of  building a community. Even from an evolutionary perspective these are essential elements of being human and cornerstones of human cultures.  


* I will not delve deeper into what a market is and what it is. Suffice to say that a transaction that involves money isn’t necessary a market transaction and that a market has to have a certain level of competition and choice in order to qualify as a market, in my view.  Admittedly, there is no straight-forward definition of what constitutes a market.