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Is a shift to less intensive animal farming systems environmentally sustainable?

The market for animal products produced using less intensive forms of animal agricultural has grown significantly over the past 20 years.  This has largely been due to consumer concerns about food safety, the environment and animal welfare.  In some European markets, free-range and organic animal products have overtaken those produced using conventional intensive systems.   Organic animal production aims to provide a natural environment for animals, to foster natural behaviours, and to avoid the use of synthetic chemicals.  While the precise standards may vary, organic certification bodies usually require the use of free-range production systems.

Although these trends have been strongest in developed countries, they are now expected to expand in developing countries such as China, India and Brazil as their middle classes continue to grow and disposable incomes increase (FAO 2006).  With this growing prosperity, however, will be a massive increase in the overall volume of meat, dairy and eggs consumed throughout the world.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that world meat and dairy consumption will double by 2050 resulting in approximately 465 million tonnes of meat (or 120 billion animals), and 1,043 million tonnes of milk being consumed each year.  This anticipated expansion in meat and animal product consumption poses a number of significant challenges for food security, environmental sustainability and animal welfare.  Some have argued that free-range or organic systems of production would not be capable of meeting this increasing demand for animal products and that there is simply not enough suitable land to accommodate extensive methods of production on a world-wide scale.

A recent study by the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna investigated this very issue.  The report, Eating the Planet: Feeding the World Sustainably, Fairly and Humanely (2009), modelled future food demand estimates against different livestock production systems (including intensive and free-range) and found that it would be possible to satisfy the world’s increasing demand for animal products through free-range production systems, and that it was possible to achieve this without further deforestation.  The report also found that if meat consumption rates were reduced, particularly in the West, the feasibility of the free-range scenario would improve significantly.  The report found that the additional land area required for free-range systems did not have a strong effect on its feasibility.  This was largely because much of the meat consumed (particularly beef and lamb) already derives from extensive systems of production.  Therefore, the increased land demand for conversion to free-range systems is only relevant to those species which are currently farmed under intensive methods, such as chickens and pigs, which do not require extensive areas of land to be considered free-range.  With respect to grazing animals, the report found that current grazing land could support increases in grazing intensity sufficient to accommodate the increased demand for beef and lamb without requiring any increase in total grazing land area.

Australia in particular is well placed to accommodate the increasing market for less intensive methods of production due to its vast land area.  Australia currently has the largest land area under organic management in the world, at 12 million hectares (IFOAM et al 2011).

So if this trend towards free-range and organic animal agriculture is to continue, what will it mean for the environment?  Some reports have suggested that a shift to less intensive forms of animal agriculture has the potential to create negative environmental impacts with respect to land degradation, loss of biodiversity and greater global warming potential (FAO 2006).  However, many of these potential impacts can be avoided through well-managed farming systems in which stocking densities are kept at appropriate levels and integrated farming strategies employed.  Integrated or ‘mixed’ farming involves the production of multiple crops and/or species of livestock within the same farming system, in which “crops and animals are considered not as diversified but as integrated components” (Nardone 2004) resulting in improved environmental performance and productivity.  A number of studies have compared intensive and organic farming systems for their environmental performance based on a range of factors including energy use, global warming potential, groundwater pollution, soil acidification, and biodiversity impacts and  have concluded that organic systems present clear environmental advantages over conventional animal agriculture (see Koepke 2003 and Sundrum 2001).

A further significant advantage of less intensive farming is that the extra resources expended to reduce environmental impacts are factored into the price of the subsequent product.  Intensively produced animal products do not factor in the environmental costs of production (Pew Commission 2008).    This means the costs to the environment go unaccounted for and prices for intensively produced animal products are kept artificially low, distorting the market.  In this sense, the environmental costs associated with intensive farming are what economists refer to as ‘negative externalities’.  In contrast, the price set for organic food products effectively internalises many of those externalities.  Organic poultry production in the UK for instance has been estimated to reduce negative externalities by approximately 66%, while organic pig production achieves a reduction of up to 70% (Pretty 2005).

Less intensive systems of animal production can have clear environmental advantages over conventional intensive systems.  RSPCA Australia believes the Australian Government should invest further in the promotion of less intensive animal agriculture and actively support these environmentally sustainable and higher welfare systems of production into the future.


Food and Agriculture Organisation (2006) Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM

IFOAM, FIBL and ITC (2011) The World of Organic Agriculture – Statistics and Emerging Trends 2011. See https://www.organic-world.net/yearbook/yearbook-2011.html for statistical summary.

Institute of Social Ecology (2009) Eating the Planet: Feeding the World Sustainably, Fairly and Humanely

Koepke, U. (2003) Conservation agriculture with and without use of agrochemicals, 2nd World Congress on Conservation Agriculture, Producing in Harmony with Nature.

Nardone, A. et al (2004) Sustainability of small ruminant organic systems of production, Livestock Production Science, 90: 27-39.

Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Agriculture (2008) Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America

Pretty et al. (2005) Farm Costs and Food Miles: An Assessment of the Full Cost of the UK Weekly Food Basket, Food Policy, 30: 1-19.

Sundrum A. (2001) Organic livestock farming: A critical overview, Livestock Production Science, 67: 207-215.

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Updated on December 7, 2020
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