Does Pastoralism Have a Place in the Future of Food? | Civil Eats

Does Pastoralism Have a Place in the Future of Food?

People have been herding animals for millennia. The author of ‘Hoofprints on the Land’ argues that, unlike industrial-scale animal operations, the approach plays a vital role in our ecologies and economies.

Ilse-Kohler-Rollefson, a camel, and the cover of the new book, hoofprints on the land

In an industrialized world, pastoralism might seem irrelevant or even backward. But that’s a misconception, says German scientist Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, who has lived around Raika camel herders in India for more than 30 years and co-founded the country’s first camel dairy. In her new book Hoofprints on the Land, Köhler-Rollefson uses compelling stories backed with rigorous research to argue that nomadic livestock herding has a vital role in our ecologies and economies.

For nearly 10,000 years, pastoralists have domesticated and managed grazing animals such as reindeer, camels, yaks, alpacas, goats, sheep, and cattle. These animals, Köhler-Rollefson explains, are integral to humanity if we are to survive in increasingly hot, dry, and unpredictable climates. They are locally adapted and can produce food, fiber, and fertilizer without fossil fuels, chemical inputs, food inputs, or the need to till land or clear native vegetation.

“Livestock are not an obsolete technology that one chucks out because something newer and better is available.”

Hoofprints on the Land comes at a time when concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs or factory farms, are on the rise in the United States and other Western countries. As of 2020, the U.S. had more than 21,000 CAFOs. These operations house anywhere from hundreds to thousands of animals who are confined indoors for at least 45 days at a time, with precise portions of food—often corn and soybeans—brought directly to them from vast monoculture farms.

While this form of livestock production has faced increasing criticism, there has also been a rise in veganism and massive investments in high-tech meat alternatives such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. A number of vocal advocates, including Guardian columnist George Monbiot, have argued for replacing animal agriculture of all kinds, including pastoralism, with precision fermentation, a method of producing protein in a laboratory.

Köhler-Rollefson, who in 1992 founded the League for Pastoral Peoples, an advocacy organization designed to provide an international platform to herders, sees these high-tech approaches as further severing people’s relationships with land and animals. “Livestock are not an obsolete technology that one chucks out because something newer and better is available,” she writes.

We can expect to hear a lot more about pastoralism in the coming years, as the United Nations General Assembly recently declared 2026 the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists after more than 300 organizations worldwide formed a coalition and supported a proposal. Civil Eats talked with Köhler-Rollefson about the differences between pastoralism and industrial livestock production, the benefits of the former, and why she believes we can’t all go vegan.

Through living with Raika camel herders, you’ve been able to witness the deep relationships that herders have with their animals. Why do you think it’s important to support and revive bonds between humans and livestock?

If we want to call ourselves humans, we need to not treat animals as machines. We need to realize they are co-creatures. I’m shocked about what’s going on in the industrial livestock sectors. I was recently reading about ventilation shutdowns in poultry industries in the U.S. and how some veterinarians are saying it’s the most humane way to kill large numbers of animals [during avian flu epidemics].

My background is in veterinary medicine, which I studied because I love animals. Then, after I graduated, I realized I wasn’t cut out for this kind of work because I prefer healthy animals. Creating conditions for animals to remain healthy is more important than profiting from animals being sick.

I left veterinary medicine and looked for a new orientation, and I found it while going on an archeological dig in Jordan. There, I saw a Bedouin and a camel herd walking through the landscape, and I was totally struck by the harmony between people and animals and the voice communication. I started doing research on camels and found out how important they are in arid areas.

I worked for a long time on archeological sites, identifying animal bones to interpret past economies and ecologies. After doing that for 10 years, I had the urge to work with living animals again. I got a fellowship to work in India on the camel economy and camel management systems. And when I came across a Raika, I felt this is the way it should be, the relationship between people and animals.

“The breeds that pastoralists have created over centuries are one of our best, most important assets to adapt to climate change.”

In your book you write, “While normal agriculture is based on uniformity, stability and control, herding capitalizes on variability.” Can you talk about what you mean by variability?

Grazing livestock on pastures can directly convert a lot of different plants into a product. In pastoralism, you miss the step that you have in crop cultivation of removing the native vegetation and then putting in a monoculture. I’ve heard pastoralists say that they like a varied environment, like hill or flat territory, fallow fields, the forest, and so on, because it means at any time of the year, there’s always something [the animals] can find to eat, and they can move their animals according to where the circumstances are best. When rain falls in one place, they can all run there. Camels can smell the clouds, and they know from a far distance where the rain has fallen, for instance.

You talk about the dangers of relying on a select few high-yielding livestock breeds who can only survive in industrialized food systems. Why is breed diversity so important and how does pastoralism support the diversity of domesticated animals?

Humans are always associated with destroying biodiversity. But farmers and pastoralists have created biodiversity by developing strains of seeds and breeds that are adapted to very specific ecological conditions, as well as their own specific utilization patterns. Some people use camels for milk, others for meat, and some for transportation. It’s both certain ecological settings and cultural preferences that come together to create breeds.

It’s not just about genetics, it’s also about culture: learned behavior that is passed on from mothers to offspring. [This learned behavior] means these animals that are locally adapted can make use of a variety of vegetation without any external inputs.

High-yielding breeds [such as those in CAFOs] are also adapted to very specific environments—artificial environments where the temperature very often is controlled. They get a specific diet, usually a uniform diet from monocultures. And they have an incredibly narrow gene pool, so it means they’re also vulnerable to shocks or disease outbreaks. Diseases spread very easily in a genetically homogenous population, whereas the locally adapted breeds have been selected for resilience for centuries.

Pastoralists also cultivate diversity within their herd. For instance, they’ll have some camels who are good milk yielders but are more sensitive to drought, and they’ll have others who don’t give that much milk, but they’re very resilient. The breeds that pastoralists have created over centuries are one of our best, most important assets to adapt to climate change. Again, I have to plug camels because when the temperatures rise even higher than they are now, camels are the best prepared to cope with that.

You also mention how in some places that are arid or very hot or very cold, like Mongolia, people can’t survive without livestock.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

They couldn’t. It’s very ethnocentric and even colonialist to say there shouldn’t be any livestock in the world anymore. A huge proportion of people wouldn’t have anything to eat or no livelihoods. It’s totally out of the question.

A lot of people, at least in Western culture, believe that ecosystems are better off if they’re left completely “wild”—as in, without human influence. Yet you write, “Grazing by domestic livestock has not only enriched biodiversity but also created some of our favorite landscapes,” like the savannas of East Africa. How many ecosystems aren’t actually wild?

“A lot of wild herbivores are gone, but we do desperately need animals in the landscape.”

A lot of these big grasslands that we have in Africa, Tibet, and other places have been created by the impact of grazing livestock. Grassland only stays grassland if it’s being grazed. Only then do the grasses develop deep roots, and only then do you prevent shrubification. Archaeologists say that it’s people and their livestock that have created these ecosystems and that they have co-evolved.

The idea of kicking out pastoralists in order to have a wild environment doesn’t work at all. You are probably aware of [the global conservation effort] called 30×30? A lot of so-called wild areas are managed by pastoralists. If we put them in charge of continuing to manage these areas, then I’d be very much in favor of 30×30. But what’s more likely to happen is that governments come and want to manage them. That’s what we see in India, that the pastoralists get kicked out.

In addition, we have witnessed a huge extinction of megafauna. A lot of wild herbivores are gone, but we do desperately need animals in the landscape. We don’t have enough wild animals now in many landscapes, so domesticated livestock can play that role.

Globally there is a lot of heated debate about the impact that livestock has on climate change, particularly around the methane that cattle and other ruminants produce. New studies, such as the 2020 peer-reviewed life cycle analysis on the regenerative grazing practices at White Oak Pastures, Georgia, show that animals raised on pasture emit fewer emissions but require more land. What is your take on this conversation?

Frank Mitloehner of U.C. Davis says that all the methane that is emitted by ruminants is biogenic methane. It is already in the system, and whether it passes through livestock or not, it’s a product of the disintegration of plant mass. In addition, grasslands are top carbon sinks and sequester more carbon than forests because of their extensive root systems and because the grass keeps growing and absorbing carbon.

[Note: Mitloehner has been criticized in recent months after it was reported that the Clear Center he runs is predominantly funded by the meat industry and coordinates with an animal feed industry group on messaging campaigns.]

“CAFOs are very, very wasteful, because high-quality feed is given to those animals, whereas pastoralist systems use waste material—very cellulose-rich fibers, thorny plants, all kinds of biomass.”

The other issue which has come up more recently is that methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for very long—like 10, 12 years or so—whereas the CO2 that comes from fossil fuels is additive. Every time we use fossil fuels, we have more and more CO2 in the atmosphere, whereas methane gets broken down and goes round and round. Livestock do have methane emissions, but I think it’s totally overblown how dangerous that is.

[Note: Methane has a shorter lifetime than carbon dioxide but a warming potential 27 to 30 times higher over 100 years.]

Also, very few studies on emissions have been done in non-Western countries [or on pastoralism]. There’s a complete bias. But pastoralist systems are solar powered! There are no fossil fuels involved, no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides, no herbicides. These are perfect systems. They mimic the wild. The only difference is that the animals are tame, that they have a relationship to humans. Otherwise, they perfectly resemble nature.

In your chapter “Feeding the World,” you discuss how pastoralism is “by far the most efficient way to produce protein,” and argue that it’s misleading to use the metrics of calorie output and land use to indicate that herding livestock is an inefficient way to produce food. Can you say more?

There are so many holes in that argument. To start with calories: we have plenty of calories in the world. We do have a shortage of protein, especially high-value protein. The Food and Agriculture Organization studies show that countries like the U.S. feed much more protein to their animals than they get out of them. CAFOs are very, very wasteful, because high-quality feed is given to those animals, whereas pastoralist systems use waste material—very cellulose-rich fibers, thorny plants, all kinds of biomass. And they convert it directly into protein. Countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, which have the supposedly backward pastoralist systems, actually produce 20 times as much protein as they feed to animals.

With the land use question, you have to be aware that only one-third of the world’s agricultural land can be used for crop cultivation. The other two-thirds can only be utilized by means of grazing because you can’t grow crops. It’s too dry, too steep, too stony, or too cold. But you can still produce food there with animals.

You write that animals, unlike plants, need to move around to be who they’re supposed to be and fulfill their ecological functions.

Today’s food system is complex.

Invest in nonprofit journalism that tells the whole story.

Yeah, exactly. That’s the fundamental principle that I think we should try to implement as much as possible: Let animals move to their feed. And we have reversed that system. We immobilize the animals and we ship around the feed for them. It’s totally senseless. But I realize the powers are too big to be controlled. The commercial interests are too powerful.

In the U.S., regenerative grazing—a practice you say has “adopted many pastoralist principles”—is gaining in popularity. As an example, you mention “carbon cowboys” using the system of adaptive multi-paddock grazing. What is the difference between regenerative grazing and pastoralism?

“I do think it makes more sense ecologically and ethically to eat some livestock products, but to make sure that they’re coming from [good sources].”

I think they are two sides of the same coin, but they’re being applied in different contexts. What pastoralists are doing is a continuation of something that has been done for many thousands of years, whereas regenerative grazers have realized something is wrong, so they are going back to something—they want to improve it again. In addition, pastoralists do not own the land that they utilize, whereas the regenerative grazers are operating on private property. They have some control and secure access.

I think both are of the same importance and they need to join hands. This is also what I’m hoping to achieve with the book—to make the regenerative grazers aware that there’s an extensive human heritage around this way of deploying livestock. And to let the pastoralists, who have been told that they’re so backward and that they must stop what they’re doing, know that in the Global North, it’s regarded as something very positive.

What are some ways you think people can support pastoralism in the U.S., since we don’t have a longstanding Indigenous history of pastoralism?

There’s the Navajos, but even [Navajo pastoralist traditions] are only a few hundred years old. You did have the history of buffalo hunting. The buffalo were not domesticated, but they were managed in a way. It might not be that different, buffalo herding from pastoralism.

(I’ve heard of people) who are using goats for fire prevention. That’s apparently very big and it’s growing because there are so many forest fires in the U.S. There are also people in some parts of the Midwest grazing sheep to keep lawns short.

We have this map of pastoralists on our website, and there are some entries in the U.S. We have approximately 700 groups worldwide registered.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I want to say something about going vegan and vegetarian. I do think it makes more sense ecologically and ethically to eat some livestock products, but to make sure that they’re coming from [good sources]. I think that’s better than becoming totally vegan or going for those artificial alternatives. We do need livestock on the landscape, and we don’t currently have enough wild species. Pastoralist animals can fulfill much of the role of wild animals. If we accept that animals in the landscape are necessary, then it also means at some stage they need to be eaten. My suggestion is to eat less meat overall, but when you do, eat meat that comes from animals that were properly treated, that had a good life.

Kayla Frost is a freelance journalist, farm worker, and aspiring forager living in rural Alaska. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Methane from feedlot cattle is a big problem but not so much with methane from cattle who live their lives on pasture. In a pasture there are two zones where methane is oxidized (neutralized): (1) At the soil line (right were the cattle's faces are when grazing) are methanotrophic bacteria that oxidize methane, thereby preventing if from rising to the atmosphere. (2) Another oxidation zone is a little higher where water is transpired; there, hydroxyl radicals oxidize methane. But this service doesn't occur outside the pasture context; certainly not in the steel boxes where methane from cattle is measured!

More from

Animal Ag

Featured

A two-panel comic of a test farm hoop house growing corn and cactus and other crops on the left, with chef lisette garay working in her restaurant kitchen on the right.

Comic: Adapting Oaxacan Corn for Tortillas—and New Markets—in the Pacific Northwest

In this illustrated report, we explore how the Organic Seed Alliance is working with local farmers, scientists, and chefs to adapt crops to new environments—and the changing climate.

Popular

These Chicago Urban Farmers Are Growing Local Food in the Wake of Steel Industry Pollution

Xavier “X” Colon, a young person with long braided black hair, a baseball cap, and a bright orange hi-visibility shirt, stands in the fields at South Chicago Farm. (Photo by Paul Gordon)

For Some Food Professionals, COVID Has Cast a Long Shadow on Their Senses

A food professional with long covid smells coffee to overcome anosmia and parosmia

The Field Report: New Research Shows Dangerous Levels of ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Freshwater Fish

a fisherman pulls a largemouth bass that is probably polluted with PFAS from a freshwater lake

As Grocery Stores Get Bigger, Small Farms Get Squeezed Out

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 13: Produce is offered for sale at a grocery store on October 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. According to government data released today, the food at home index, a measure of grocery store prices, increased 0.7% in September from the month prior and saw a 13% increase over the last year. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)