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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Too many goats

Simplicity matters

This morning I had the chance to talk to a bunch of year 7s about what we do, with the aim of inspiring some of them to think about careers in the environmental/sustainability world.

What's great about having only 10 minutes to talk to lot of smart 11 and 12 year olds is the discipline of simplicity. All too often "Sustainability Inc" overcomplicates to the point of obfuscation.

There are way too many animals in Mongolia

Simplicity matters because it keeps us focused on what really matters.

There are too many animals in Mongolia. Way too many. So there's not enough food for them, and the animals congregate around water sources accelerating the degradation of the landscape.

That's 40 to 50m too many animals. And the trend is upwards.

The problem is sometimes articulated as "not enough grazing for the livestock" but actually the real issue is too many animals. Too many animals for the grazing.

The consequences are both massive biodiversity loss and desertification of the rangelands, screwing up carbon sequestration across 88 million hectares (UK + France + a bit more).

So we all lose.

Nature simply cannot recover whilst there are so many animals. Livestock reduction is a necessary precondition for regeneration.

Why so many animals?

Cheap cashmere.

Most of the increase in animal numbers has been in cashmere goats, driven by an explosion in cheap cashmere. Since 2000 global cashmere volumes have increased by a factor of 6x (Kgs of finished product), while prices have declined in real terms.

Google "cashmere market forecast" and you'll see that there's every expectation this growth will continue at breakneck pace.

But livestock reduction is hard - so it doesn't get addressed

We won't achieve any successful regeneration without tackling this issue. But it's hard because right now there's an economic trap for herders which means "goats = money". So it's the hardest nut to crack - but livestock reduction is the fundamental building block for regenerating the rangelands.

It is incredibly hard because herders are dependent on income from the goats. And because prices are depressed (and don't recognise quality differentials sufficiently if at all) the only way to maintain incomes is to have more goats.

Conservation organisations find it impossible to affect animal numbers because they can't address the economics, so they don't.

Fibre buyers have structured supply chains to seek efficiency and scale rather than restoration of biodiversity - it helps their procurement negotiations to have a lot of animals.

They simply don't see it as their job to shift the economics and bring numbers down, so they don't.

So instead most "sustainable" work focuses elsewhere, most often on 'improving quality' i.e. the comforting fiction of "sustainable production". Some even try to justify their lack of action by claiming "it is immoral" to ask herders to reduce animal numbers.

The morality of profit before nature is a tricky defence for sustainability folk to say the least.

Livestock reduction is not immoral, it's necessary. But the only way to do it is to supplant the herders cashmere income with other income from other products and other activities - we have to get them out of the economic trap.

That requires a systemic approach that integrates the commercial and the conservation sides, and which reconstructs value chains for biodiversity and not monocultures. Hence Good Growth.

Simplicity matters. Excess livestock is a massive yet somehow ignored problem. We have to deal with it.

Any "sustainability" program, any sustainable supply chain initiatives that try to skirt this issue not only aren't being effective, they are verging on greenwash.

"Sustainable production" is a myth, there are only "sustainable landscapes". "Sustainable production" cannot lead to "sustainable reduction" and we need to call it out. If the cashmere industry doubles in size again how much grassland will be left?

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