No-meat diets won’t fix the climate — too many poor countries can’t adopt them

Removing all meat from the human diet to protect the environment isn’t a workable solution outside rich countries, a new paper reports.

Image credits Ulrike Leone.

Calls to remove all meat from our diets to limit CO2 emissions are only realistic in rich, industrialized regions. In low- or middle-income countries, livestock can represent a critical source of income and food, the paper argues, making such changes practically impossible for locals.

Let’s meat halfway

“Conclusions drawn in widely publicized reports argue that a main solution to the climate and human health crisis globally is to eat no or little meat but they are biased towards industrialized, Western systems,” said Birthe Paul, the lead author and environmental scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Animal sourced foodstuffs such as meat and dairy are a much heavier burden on the environment than plant-sourced items. As such, many governments and organizations around the world are urging citizens to reduce their intake of the former and include more of the latter. As a bonus, plant-based items tend to be healthier, too.

But we should not delude ourselves into thinking this is all it will take to address climate change. For many people, such a shift is simply impossible without a massive blow to their and their families’ financial and food security. Livestock are extremely important sources of food and repositories of value for people in low- and middle-income countries. Asking them to give up animal products is asking them to shoot themselves in the foot, the team argues.

Of all scientific literature published since 1945 on the subject of livestock only 13% covers Africa, they note — yet Africa houses around 20%, 27% and 32% of global cattle, sheep, and goat populations, respectively. Although livestock makes up a key pillar of local economies in Africa, eight of the world’s top 10 institutes publishing livestock research are based overseas. Only two, including the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), are headquartered in Africa.

The authors argue that this has left us biased in regards to research on livestock. As western nations focus more and more on climate change, they’re driven to understand the effects the livestock industry has on climate. This leaves out a lot of the picture, they add, including the positive role such animals can play, both from an environmental and socio-economic point of view. It also leaves out a huge difference — animals in Africa are rarely reared the same way that they are in highly-industrialized nations.

“Mixed systems in low- and middle-income countries, where animal production is fully linked with crop production, can actually be more environmentally sustainable,” said An Notenbaert, from the Alliance of Bioversity International, co-author of the paper.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, manure is a nutrient resource which maintains soil health and crop productivity; while in Europe, huge amounts of manure made available through industrialized livestock production are overfertilizing agricultural land and causing environmental problems.”

A common approach in African savannas is to keep herds in pens at night, which has been shown to increase the levels of nutrients available in the whole ecosystem, the authors argue. Feed is produced more locally and in more sustainable fashion, whereas industrialized nations import most of their feed (which means more fuel and infrastructure is needed to transport it). Such imports are also a driver of ecological damage — the authors note that soybean produced and exported as feed to animals in Vietnam and Europe is a leading cause for deforestation in the Amazon.

While livestock are an important source of greenhouse gases, we simply don’t have the data needed to establish national mitigation strategies in this regard. The authors also urge that we look beyond making animals more productive, and turn instead to looking at how we can be more resource efficient and what systems can be put in place to limit emissions from them.

“Meat production itself is not the problem. Like any food, when it is mass-produced, intensified and commercialized, the impact on our environment is multiplied,” said Polly Ericksen, Program Leader of Sustainable Livestock Systems at the International Livestock Research Institute and co-author of the paper.

“Eliminating meat from our diet is not going to solve that problem. While advocating a lower-meat diet makes sense in industrialized systems, the solution is not a blanket climate solution, and does not apply everywhere.”

Meat consumption in sub-Saharan Africa is much lower than that in developed countries, also. The paper cites estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organization, according to which average yearly meat consumption per capita here will be roughly 13kgs by 2028; in the US, this figure is expected to reach 100kgs in the same timeframe.

The authors point to a range of higher-impact environmental solutions. Among them, improved animal feed so animals emit less greenhouse gases like methane per kilogram of milk or meat. Better land management and approaches such as using manure and crop byproducts for fertilizers (by plowing them into the soil) would have a significant positive impact on farm output as well as the environment.

The paper “Sustainable livestock development in low and middle income countries – shedding light on evidence-based solutions” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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