Meat debate heats up in Italy after remarks by new ‘super minister’

Italy's 'super minister' for ecological transition, Roberto Cingolani, while was sworning in in front of President Sergio Mattarella and PM Mario Draghi. [EPA-EFE/AMMENDOLA]

Italy’s livestock farmers are fuming after the newly appointed ‘super minister’ for the ecological transition said the amount of animal protein consumed should be decreased and replaced with plant-based alternatives.

In one of his first public speeches, environment minister Roberto Cingolani acknowledged that over-consumption of meat is harmful to health.

He also pointed out that animal protein requires six times as much water to produce as the same amount of vegetable protein, while intensive livestock production accounts for 20% of global CO2 emissions.

“By changing our diet, we will have a co-benefit: improving public health, decreasing water use and producing less CO2,” he concluded.

A physicist and former chief of the Italian Technology Institute, Cingolani has been tasked by Prime Minister Mario Draghi with the ambitious goal of transforming the Italian production system towards a more sustainable model.

Italian media dubbed him a ‘super minister’ for the ecological transition since he has been put at the helm of an enhanced environment ministry in charge of managing the lion’s share of the grants and loans from the Next Generation EU (NGEU) spending, the EU’s massive stimulus and recovery plan.

The issue of meat consumption was addressed in the EU’s new food policy, the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, which lays out a commitment to “help reduce the environmental and climate impact of animal production”.

Support for a move to a “more plant-based diet” did remain a key element of the F2F as part of efforts to reduce not only risks of life-threatening diseases, but also the environmental impact of the food system.

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However, his statement on meat consumption has triggered harsh criticism from the livestock sector associations.

The Italy meat supply chain stakeholders have urgently demanded a meeting with Cingolani, asking for some clarifications.

The president of the Italian association Carni sostenibili – literally ‘sustainable meat’ – Giuseppe Pulina, considered Cingolani’s words an “abnormal overestimation of climate-changing gas emissions from intensive meat production.”

In a letter to Cingolani, Pulina recalled that Italy’s livestock farmers use 25% less water than the world average for meat production, or around 790 litres of water per kilogram of beef.

He also mentioned the efforts in coping with the ‘super bugs’ threat, with a historic drop in antibiotic sales in Italy of 42% from 2010 to 2018, according to the latest figures from the European Medicines Agency (EMA)

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Meat producers also highlighted that Italy is among the lowest-ranked European countries for meat consumption, with 36.8 kilograms consumed per year.

But according to Italian Greens MEP Ignazio Corrao, the issue raised by Cingolani is key to the ecological transition, as it is now clear that a radical change is needed in the meat production model.

“The EU continues to heavily finance intensive livestock farming, while small farms that produce in a sustainable way disappear in total indifference,” he commented.

Corrao suggested that Cingolani should take concrete action and allocate resources to the transition from intensive livestock farming to sustainable production methods, promoting the many small-scale quality products produced, for instance, in southern Italy.

“This is not about criminalising anyone. It is about acknowledging that this system is leading us to ruin,” he concluded.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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