Description of typical situation
Many global beef production systems and some dairy and small ruminant production systems have been established on rangelands and pastures that were formerly covered with forest. Such deforested lands, which have become grazing lands are found in a wide array of climates across Latin America and the Caribbean (Neotropics), in Sub-Saharan Africa (RCA, Cameroon), and in Asia (Vietnam, China). In the northern part of South America, Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia, semiarid forests (savannahs) are common, while subhumid and humid forests are widespread across the South American continent — for instance, in the Amazon region and in the Pacific flatlands — in sub-Saharan Africa, and in South East Asia. Deforestation of these forests has been considerable and is still continuing, although some jurisdictions have been able to curb the process. Forests may have been cleared for cropland and later on turned into grazing lands due to economic reasons or declining soil fertility, though forests may also have been cleared with the immediate aim to establish rangelands and pasture; alternatively, cattle may have been introduced on cleared land to secure land ownership. Generally, it is difficult to maintain soil fertility on deforested land in these climates due to deficient management and loss of soil carbon after deforestation. The limited soil fertility causes low grassland productivity and low forage quality which subsequently results in low beef and dairy productivity. Rainfall seasonality and extreme climatic events also constrain productivity by limiting forage yields. Access to markets is another limiting factor as commercially oriented grazing systems are often found in regions with relatively limited population densities. Commercialization in local markets is limited, and production, therefore, tends to target markets located far away and for export. Smaller-scale beef and dairy farmers may thus operate at a disadvantage and be relatively poor; these types of producers may keep livestock rather as a way to store capital and to sell quickly for cash in case of an emergency. Once such smaller-scale farmers sell their herds, it can be challenging to rebuild them.
As an example, in Latin America and the Caribbean, grazing systems on deforested land are generally extensive beef production systems. Such beef systems, whether small- or medium-scale, are often market-oriented. Some grass-based dairy production is found. While intensification in the fattening stage, i.e., finishing of animal in feedlots, is being promoted, only a small proportion of beef comes from such feedlots. While potentially leading to lower land requirements and reduced direct GHG emissions per unit of product, the shift to such systems requires more concentrate feed. This may, in turn, accelerate the conversion of pasture and forest to cropland, leading, in turn, to higher climate and biodiversity impacts. In recent years, livestock systems are being developed to restore tree cover, improve grassland productivity, and contribute to carbon capture, soil health, and biodiversity recovery. Such “silvopastoral” systems purposively combine fodder plants, such as grasses and leguminous herbs, with shrubs and trees for animal nutrition, protection, and complementary uses. The trees in the combined system may be fodder trees but can also produce timber or agricultural products, such as fruits or nuts. Such combination of tree and grassland production can be established both in semihumid and dry tropics as long as the species used are adapted to the environmental and soil conditions.
Common environmental issues
The past and present deforestation results in large quantities of carbon lost from soils and aboveground biomass and significant GHG emissions. Deforestation also reduces biodiversity and the replenishment of aquifers. Livestock grazing in grassland regions with unfavorable conditions and low soil fertility carries the risk of overgrazing. Grassland degradation can result as vegetation cover is altered (reduced or even entirely eliminated, or evolving from grass to shrub), and signs of soil erosion appear. This reduces production potential but also the amount of biodiversity, carbon stored in soils, and the replenishment of aquifers (Principles 2, 3 and 4).
Extensive meat production from cattle also has high direct GHG emission intensities due to low animal productivity. Livestock system intensification and, in particular, the rise in beef fattening may reduce these direct emissions but will, on the other hand, increase the use of feeds, such as maize, soy, wheat, and barley. These crops are generally grown on arable land suited for food crops. The resulting competition for land and water between human-edible food and livestock feed production is an important issue associated with the intensification of livestock production in these regions (Principle 1 and 4).