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The ethics of grazing livestock - a brief overview

Bruce Watt, Central Tablelands Local Land Service, 66 Corporation Avenue, Bathurst, NSW 2795

Paper presented at the Australian Veterinary Association Annual Conference, Perth 25-30 May 2014 (including a full list of references rather than the ten specified for an AVA conference paper)
Posted Flock & Herd June 2015


Livestock graziers are criticised as unethical on welfare, environmental, human health and equity grounds. While those who consider that animals have similar rights to people will always regard livestock production as unethical, those of most other philosophical persuasions can accommodate grazing livestock provided welfare is guaranteed. It is also argued that it is more efficient to grow crops to feed people than to grow grain to feed animals to feed people and furthermore that by feeding grain to animals, food is taken the mouths of poor people around the world. However, much of the world's land cannot be farmed but is suited to grazing and the dumping of cheap grain is actually highly destructive to poor farmers. Grazing livestock have the potential to cause environmental degradation and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions but they can also be run in a manner that promotes perennial pastures and maintains biodiversity.


If meat, milk and eggs were on trial for crimes against the environment, the prosecution would have an easy ride. And that says nothing of animal welfare issues.1

Livestock producers face increasing criticism on philosophical, environmental, equity and health grounds. In the opinion of the author, some of the criticism levelled at grazing livestock is undeserved and grazing livestock can be raised in an ethical manner. The two million year tradition of hominids as carnivores will be mentioned as a partial explanation as to why people continue to utilise grazing animals. Then the philosophical, environmental, equity and human health arguments involving grazing livestock will be mentioned.

Pre-history of grazing livestock

Two million years ago Homo habilis processed animal carcases, transporting both bones and Oldowan stone tools to semi-permanent base camps. Homo erectus ate even more meat although this may have been derived more from scavenging than hunting.2 Modern Homo sapiens was clearly a skilled hunter and some anthropologists have argued that the cooperation, food sharing and intelligence involved in hunting was an important driver in human evolution.2

Although cave art from at least three continents suggests that human ancestors had a deep reverence for the animals they hunted, they hunted them nonetheless.4 Modern Homo sapiens became the top predator in the ecosystem across much of the world, exterminating many species, most notably the megafauna, in their wake.5,6

Some human ancestors altered this relationship, domesticating animals and in turn being domesticated. Dogs were first, followed by sheep and cattle. Nomadic pastoralists followed mobs of sheep and goats, leading them to better pastures, protecting them from predators and in turn utilising them for meat, wool and skins,7 practices which are continued by some tribal groups today.

Brief history of the philosophy of animal utilisation

The Old Testament view of animal utilisation was and remains fundamental to many people. Genesis states that 'every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the green plants.'

While the Romans took the exploitation and persecution of animals to new levels, some Roman and Greek thinkers argued against the utilisation of animals. Roman poet Ovid ascribed vegetarianism to Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras. Pythagoras allegedly became a vegetarian because he considered animals, by supplying people with wool and milk, are more valuable and worthy of respect when alive than dead. Pythagoras may not have been motivated entirely by compassion. He also believed in transmigration, in which the souls of the dead migrated to animals. Aristotle on the other hand, considered that since nature does nothing without a purpose, animals are clearly put on this earth for the benefit of man.8

The beliefs of the Classical philosophers influenced Western views on the exploitation of animals for the next two millennia. Contractarians advocated the view that morality was about agreement. They considered that animals, because they were unable to agree to behave in a rational fashion, should be excluded from the moral concern of those capable of abiding by a contract.9

Modern views on animal exploitation

In 1789, the great English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham questioned contractarianism. Bentham was one of the founders of the philosophy known as utilitarianism, which considered the measure of right to be the greatest good for the greatest number. While he is regarded as one of the founders of the modern animal rights movement, Bentham considered that it was acceptable to kill animals for food so long as they did not suffer.

But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?10

Singer, a modern utilitarian, argued; 'given that an animal belongs to a species incapable of self consciousness, it follows that it is not wrong to rear and kill it for food, provided that it leads a pleasant life and, after being killed, will be replaced by another animal that will lead a similarly pleasant life and would not have existed if the first animal had not been killed'.11

Regan advocated a more extreme view, that animals have rights and so animals should not be utilised or exploited by people.12 Some animal rights advocates regard the fight for the rights of animals as the next step in the long road to abolishing slavery, to achieving equal rights for women and equal rights for oppressed minorities. The ethical consequence of this view is to become a vegan, abstaining from eating or otherwise utilising any animal products.9

Consequences of animal rights

Rawls argued that the consequences should be considered when evaluating a particular philosophical position. '… other things being equal, one conception of justice is preferable to another when its broader consequences are more desirable.'13

Lierre Keith explored the consequences life as a vegan, intending to live without causing animals to suffer. However after twenty years she concluded that it is impossible to avoid killing animals no matter what her dietary preferences were. 'I wanted to believe that my life - my physical existence - was possible without killing. It's not. No life is.'14

Keith instanced the near extermination of the American bison as the destruction of an ecosystem for agriculture. She maintained that less than 1% of the American prairie, home to the bison, and a wide range of other animals and plants, remains. The rest has been cleared to grow crops like wheat, corn and soybeans. She argued that agriculture permanently destroys whole ecosystems whereas grazing systems, conducted well, need not.14

Keith also noted that millions of animals die in the conduct of agriculture, including rodents that are poisoned and ground dwelling birds and reptiles that die during ploughing and harvesting. She wrote, 'there is a reciprocal relationship between animals and plants: predator and prey, until the prey becomes predator. It is only our attempt to remove ourselves from that cycle that destroys it.'14

Equity, the ethics of feeding grain to livestock

It is estimated that 470 million hectares, one third of the world's arable land, is used to grow feed for livestock.15 It is argued that it is more efficient to grow crops to feed people than to grow grain to feed animals to feed people. However, most would agree that there is more to life than efficiency. In the developed world at least, most people consume a wide range of products and services well beyond what would be judged efficient.

An extension of this argument is that those who feed grain to animals are in effect, taking food from the mouths of poor people around the world. However, the dumping of subsided grain into poor developing nations has been shown to be highly destructive to local farmers. Moyo, a Zambian born critic of much of the aid given to Africa, considered that the effectivenss of aid 'should be measured against its contribution to long-term sustainable growth, and whether it moves the greatest number of people out of poverty in a sustainable way.' She argued that 'instead of flooding markets with American food that puts local farmers out of business, the strategy would be to use aid money to buy food from farmers within the country, then to distribute that food to the locals in need.'16

In many farming systems, livestock are complementary to cropping. Cropping land is rotated to a pasture phase to restore nitrogen (through legumes pasture species), to restore soil organic matter, to control weed species including those with herbicide resistance and to spread risk and diversify income. In these agricultural systems it is highly efficient to feed grain during seasonal feed shortages and to finish livestock for market. Livestock also consume agricultural products that are either waste or unsuited to human consumption. In addition it can be argued that these 470 million hectares, currently used to grow food for livestock, represent a buffer that could be used to grow food for people directly in the face of rising grain prices, famine or rising demand for food.

Role of livestock in developing countries

It has been estimated that worldwide, 1.3 billion people depend either wholly or partially on livestock for their livelihood.15 Fairlie noted that the poor and landless are more likely to keep livestock than the rich.' He quotes FAO figures that 'sixty percent of all rural households in poor countries keep livestock.' Livestock not only provide fibre, meat and milk but they are also provide muscle power as draught animals and their manure is used for fuel, building and to fertilise crops.17

Fairlie quotes Maneka Gandhi on India.

If you take the cow or its cow dung away, we are done for. We will die as a people. The Indian reverence for the cow may seem like sentimentality but it is born from solid practical considerations. In India, all essentials are transported by road. The entire rural economy moves on four legs. A government study estimated that draught animals saved us 780 billion rupees on fuel and transport costs.17

Environmental aspects of grazing livestock

Some environmentalists criticise those who graze livestock as contributing to land clearing and therefore a loss of biodiversity, for contributing to soil degradation and erosion, for green house gas emissions (both from land clearing and the eructation of methane) and for the profligate use of scarce resources such as water.15

Undoubtedly livestock grazing can be a potent force in environmental change. Overstocking leads to loss of ground cover, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. In many parts of the world, livestock are grazed on common land exacerbating this problem. It is estimated that of the world's 3.4 billion hectares of pasture land, 20% is degraded while 73% of the world's 'drylands' are degraded.15 However, environmental damage is not inherent to grazing livestock and skilled graziers aim to maintain ground cover and can graze livestock in mixed pasture systems that preserve biodiversity. Other land uses including urban development, cropping and forestry clear land completely, with total destruction of the previous ecosystem.

Grazing ruminants eructate methane, a potent green house gas. While methane is 26 times more effective in blocking infrared radiation than carbon dioxide, it is unstable, remaining in the atmosphere for about 12 years.18 Therefore it can be argued that grazing ruminants whether the past massive herds of wildebeest and bison or modern livestock have always produced methane which contributes to the greenhouse effect, but that this is a carbon neutral. What is not carbon neutral is the burning of fossil fuels.

Beef production in particular is regarded as being particulary extravagant in water consumption. Fairlie comments, 'of all the statistical clichés about livestock that are passed like a relay baton from one article or website to another, there is one that stands out in its enormity.' This is the claim that it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef.17

Water consumption is relevant and can be estimated if livestock are produced on irrigated crops or pasture because that water can be measured and could be used for other purposes. Water consumption is also relevant if livestock are fed grain because the both water and the grain have alternate uses. However, livestock can also be produced on rangeland that is unsuited to cropping. In this instance the water either drunk or consumed in pasture is recycled as urine or manure and rain falls on that pasture whether it was grazed by livestock or not.

Red meat and human health

The literature on the health consequences of diet is massive but remains contentious. In some celebrated studies, data has been used selectively or extrapolated from animal studies. Major epidemiological studies face the difficulty of separating causation from correlation.

While it has been acknowledged that livestock contribute protein and micro nutrients to many of the world's 870 million food insecure people it is also claimed that red meat in particular leads to cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer in affluent countries. However, this claim has been disputed. As an example, Cordain et al. point to the paradox that while most of the 229 hunter gather communities studied relied on meat as the mainstay of their diet, cardiovascular disease and cancer was rare.19

In Western diets, increasing meat consumption (particularly red and processed meat) has been frequently shown in epidemiologic studies to be positively correlated with CVD mortality (Hu et al., 1999, 2000; Menotti et al., 1999). Additionally, meats contribute the highest percentage (27%) of total fat for all food groups to the US diet as well as the highest percentage (28%) of saturated fat (Popkin et al., 2001). Hence, a high meat diet regardless of its fat quantity and type is generally perceived to be unhealthy and to promote cardiovascular and other chronic diseases (Barnard et al., 1995). In this paper, we provide further evidence substantiating the dominant role of animal foods in hunter-gatherer diets and show how these nutritional patterns do not necessarily promote atherosclerosis and CVD.18


Singer and Mason,20 Pollan21 and Roberts22 are highly critical of modern agriculture as epitomised by large scale cropping and intensive livestock production in the US. They argued that concentrated livestock systems compromise animal welfare, have a poor employment record, are heavy users of non-renewable energy and water (some also non-renewable) and pollute the air and water.

However, Singer and Mason remarked that raising livestock doesn't have to be like this. They cite the farm of Patrick Francis (editor of the Australian Farm Journal and co-owner of a small beef operation in Victoria) who grows trees both for amenity and to store carbon and who runs his cows on pasture. They noted that 'the lives of these cattle were, it seemed, entirely comfortable. They had what cattle need: plenty of grass, clean water, shade, and their own social group.'20 Variants of this livestock production system are standard practice both in Australia and worldwide.

The author considers that high quality food and other products can be produced from livestock grazing land that is unsuited to cropping or other uses, or in a manner complimentary to agriculture or arable farms, in a sustainable and ethical manner.

Acknowledgement / disclosure

Ray Batey's constructive comments are appreciated. Some of the material in this paper was derived from two newspaper articles on this topic written by the author previously. The author is a livestock veterinarian and has raised sheep and/or cattle for thirty years.


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