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Review: Make ruminants green again – how can sustainable intensification and agroecology converge for a better future?

  • B. Dumont (a1), J. C. J. Groot (a2) and M. Tichit (a3)


Livestock farming systems provide multiple benefits to humans: protein-rich diets that contribute to food security, employment and rural economies, capital stock and draught power in many developing countries and cultural landscape all around the world. Despite these positive contributions to society, livestock is also the centre of many controversies as regards to its environmental impacts, animal welfare and health outcomes related to excessive meat consumption. Here, we review the potentials of sustainable intensification (SI) and agroecology (AE) in the design of sustainable ruminant farming systems. We analyse the two frameworks in a historical perspective and show that they are underpinned by different values and worldviews about food consumption patterns, the role of technology and our relationship with nature. Proponents of SI see the increase in animal protein demand as inevitable and therefore aim at increasing production from existing farmland to limit further encroachment into remaining natural ecosystems. Sustainable intensification can thus be seen as an efficiency-oriented framework that benefits from all forms of technological development. Proponents of AE appear more open to dietary shifts towards less animal protein consumption to rebalance the whole food system. Agroecology promotes system redesign, benefits from functional diversity and aims at providing regulating and cultural services. We analyse the main criticisms of the two frameworks: Is SI sustainable? How much can AE contribute to feeding the world? Indeed, in SI, social justice has long lacked attention notably with respect to resource allocation within and between generations. It is only recently that some of its proponents have indicated that there is room to include more diversified systems and food-system transformation perspectives and to build socially fair governance systems. As no space is available for agricultural land expansion in many areas, agroecological approaches that emphasise the importance of local production should also focus more on yield increases from agricultural land. Our view is that new technologies and strict certifications offer opportunities for scaling-up agroecological systems. We stress that the key issue for making digital science part of the agroecological transition is that it remains at a low cost and is thus accessible to smallholder farmers. We conclude that SI and AE could converge for a better future by adopting transformative approaches in the search for ecologically benign, socially fair and economically viable ruminant farming systems.

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