The effects of less, but better meat production

Image of bulls in an open, green field, looking towards the camera.

Researchers analysed a farm in east-central Sweden committed to a more sustainable business model. They got an insight into the pains and perks of going through such a transition. Photo: K. Resare Sahlin

Study captures the real-world experiences and effects of a farm’s journey towards sustainability

Story highlights

  • On-farm commitment to sustainability and implementing more agro-ecological practices can improve sustainability overall, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70%
  • Reducing the number of animals on the farm was key for a range of sustainability improvements, including reducing total land use
  • To realise the full sustainability gains, commitment from value-chain actors and policy is key

WE CHANGED A FARM: Going from intensive beef and crop production to organic, agroecological farming can boost labour productivity and safeguard the environment but may also hit finances hard, at least in a transition period.

This is the conclusion from a case study published in Agronomy for Sustainable Development.

Centre PhD student Kajsa Resare Sahlin analysed with colleagues from Sweden and Germany a farm in east-central Sweden committed to a more sustainable business model. They got an insight into the pains and perks of going through such a transition.

This study captures the real-world experiences and effects of a journey towards sustainability.

Kajsa Resare Sahlin, lead author

Improvements and downsizing

Between 2017 and 2020, substantial changes took place at all levels of the farm.

It went from running a farm of 1200 bulls (completely housed indoors) and a cropping system relying heavily on fertilizers and chemical pesticides, to a business with only 350 heifers primarily grazing outdoors and a crop production increasingly based on organic fertilizers.

The researchers used the SMART-Farm tool which is considered to be among the most complete sustainability assessment tools available.

The assessment revealed an overall improvement in the sustainability performance of the farm. CO2 emissions was reduced with almost 70% and had positive effects on biodiversity.

Work environment and health risks also improved while animal welfare increased thanks to better indoor conditions and access to grazing for all ruminants.

Impact on local economy

But the transition had a significant impact on the farming business which was downsized by more than half. In particular, the downscaled beef production had a substantial impact on the net farm income.

It also had a negative effect on the local economy because the farm bought less from local and national sellers and reduced its work opportunities for people in the area - the number of full-time workers went from 14 to less than seven.

The transition however resulted in more value per worker, boosting labour productivity, and despite fewer job opportunities, those available are safer and more viable for the long term.

Despite the reduced overall economic activity, the number of buyers of the farm’s products doubled from pre-transition times and the farm is looking to establish more equal and long-term buyer-seller relations.

Not full potential

But the farm has still not yet fully realised the potential sustainability gains from the agroecological transition, and as many other farmers, it’s a struggle to make the business financially viable. That, according to the authors, is hard, because how the farm operates must be seen in a bigger context.

“It is beyond the control of the individual farm to fully realize its sustainability potential. What value-chain actors and policy makers do is also crucial,” they conclude.

Read Delivering “less but better” meat in practice—a case study of a farm in agroecological transition

Agroecological practices, characterized by Prazan and Aalders (2019), which are applied at the farm in year 1 and year 2. In columns two and three, the black text indicates practices which are conventional or not agroecological, the red text indicates practices which constitute “weak” agroecology, and the green text indicates practices which constitute “strong” agroecology.

Published: 2022-05-16

News & events