The contribution of animal-source foods to global warming cannot be ignored. But encouraging everyone to become vegetarian or even vegan can’t be the silver bullet solution envisioned by some, argues Polly Ericksen.
By Polly Ericksen, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
If we want to fight climate change and contribute to global development, is the solution really as simple as becoming vegetarian or even vegan as is sometimes suggested?
The answer depends greatly on where we live, and the truth is that the global consumption of meat, milk and eggs is much more complex than it may first appear.
For those of us in the developed world the actions we take may need to be quite different from those in the developing world who face a very different reality when it comes to dietary choice, health, livelihood and even experience of climate change.
In other words, what might seem like a silver bullet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions risks undermining other development goals such as ending hunger, improving health and eliminating poverty.
We cannot ignore the important role that animal-source foods play, especially in developing countries, when we talk about tackling climate change. Instead we need to find a middle ground.
Livestock for sustainable development
The benefits of meat and dairy are often under-appreciated by those in affluent countries where there is a plethora of choice. But animal produce offers key sources of high-quality protein and some fats and micronutrients – especially vitamin B12 – many of which are more bioavailable than they are in plants and which are often lacking in the diets of those in developing countries.
Eliminating the consumption of animal-source foods would have an untold impact on those already most vulnerable in the world. As it stands, 800 million people go hungry each year because they do not produce enough or earn enough to satisfy even their basic food needs. Two billion people around the world suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, including 161 million children under five whose growth and cognitive functions are stunted as a result. A diet including just 20g of animal protein a day can combat this.
In addition, a billion people earning less than US$2 a day around the world depend on livestock for their livelihoods. The sector represents 40% of the agricultural GDP of developing nations – and as much as 60% in some poor countries.
In semi-arid or arid environments, livestock commodities are often the only viable agricultural products that can thrive. In these cases, livestock graze on rangelands fed by rainfall and can be much less carbon intensive than in industrial systems more common in the developed world. Medium levels of livestock grazing have actually been shown to be more sustainable for the management of rangelands than none at all. And when properly managed, livestock grazing can also help sequester large amounts of carbon in soils.
Livestock also provide farmers, particularly those in poor countries, with an important safety net in adapting to the impacts of climate change. Increased incidents of extreme and unpredictable weather can make cropping less reliable, and animals tend to be more portable and resilient in the short term.
Thus, in a developing world context, livestock is an essential component to broad sustainable development.
The developed world response
However, at the other end of the spectrum, consumers in developed countries have a different set of experiences.
Here, animal-source foods are much more widely available. Meat consumption, for instance, was essentially double that in developing countries at the turn of the century.
Those consumers in the developed world who have access to a diverse set of food options may be able to source some of their calories and nutrients from alternative sources and have less impact on the climate as a result. If, for instance, consumers in the United Kingdom reduced their meat consumption to be in line with World Health Organisation guidelines, then greenhouse gas emissions would fall by 17% in Britain alone.
Consumers in the developed world can also work to reduce the amount of food they waste. It is estimated that around 20 per cent of both meat and milk is wasted globally; in Europe, around half of this happens at the “consumption” stage, in other words after these foods have already been produced, processed and distributed. This means consumers can play a big role in reducing livestock’s overall carbon footprint by simply lowering the amount of this food that they waste.
And even more, governments, the private sector and researchers in the developed world can invest in innovations that could make the livestock sector more climate friendly globally. For example, the German government helps fund the Kenya-based Mazingira Centre, a state-of-the-art livestock research facility housed at the International Livestock Research Institute. And the Food Climate Research Network, based at the University of Oxford, does research on the importance of animal sourced foods and how to produce such foods more efficiently in a European context, for instance through better animal feeds and feeding techniques.
Nuancing the debate
To date, the benefits and impacts of livestock have been borne in an unbalanced and unequal way.
But recent estimates predict that meat consumption in the developing world is set to expand significantly in the coming decades – growing at a rate of 2.2% per year from 2005-7 to 2030 versus growth of 0.6% per year in developed countries – as a result of a growing population, urbanisation and incomes, although this varies greatly by country.
Much of this should be applauded for the potential it offers in closing these regions’ development gaps. There is a middle ground that can be found in balancing these needs alongside tackling climate change. The solutions are largely dependent on what options we have and where we live. In other words, it is entirely possible for us to “meat” in the middle.
Polly Ericksen leads the research program on Livestock Systems and Environment (LSE) at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). She has over 18 years of experience working on agricultural development, natural resource management and global environmental change in developing countries. She has a PhD in Soil Science and an MSc in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a BS in History from Swarthmore College.