In the fight against climate change, western countries have identified meat and dairy farming as a significant contributor to GHG emissions. Climate advocates have pushed for a reduction in meat consumption or giving it up entirely as solutions for a stable climate.
A report from PASTRES (Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins) contradicts this blanket messaging that says meat and dairy are the enemies, and livestock farming should be slashed significantly.
The report says that this type of narrative is highly biased towards Western farming practices. More importantly, such western-centric advice can be damaging to developing countries that rely on non-intensive and low-impact cattle farming.
Researchers, policymakers, and the western media use limited cases in Europe, North America, Australia, China, and Brazil to generalise that dairy and cattle farming is terrible for the climate. The report says that these blanket statements could be detrimental to less industrialised regions like West Africa without looking at the differences in farming or animal production processes.
According to the report:
“Urgent climate challenges have triggered calls for radical, widespread changes in what we eat, pushing for the drastic reduction if not the elimination of animal-source foods from our diets. But high-profile debates, based on patchy evidence, fail to differentiate between varied landscapes, environments and production methods. Relatively low impact, extensive livestock production, such as pastoralism, is being lumped in with industrial systems in the conversation about the future of food.”
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization data shows that 14.5% of human GHG emissions come from meat productions. Based on this calculation, they recommend that we have less meat in our diets in a 2019 UN Special report on climate and land. The UK’s National Food Strategy followed the advice and recommended 30% less meat consumption for Britons.
There’s no question that western countries should reduce their meat intake. Still, such recommendations will do more harm than good in developing countries, according to Professor Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies think tank and one of the study authors.
Talking to Forbes, Scoones notes that “Some meat and milk production is of course very damaging to the environment, for example in the Amazon where the forest is being clear-cut for cattle farming,” adding that, “The key is for policies to take account of the differences between beneficial forms of production and those that are really harmful” (Vetter, 2021).
“A climate policy that misses its mark and damages livelihoods is inappropriate and unjust,” the report says.
The PASTRES report also crucially adds that a western recommendation to shift to a plant-based diet will hurt vulnerable populations and those struggling to access critical nutrients like the essential amino acids found in meat and dairy. “For vulnerable populations, animal source foods are a requirement for adequate nutrition, reducing stunting and wasting and improving cognitive health, especially in the first months of life” ( Houzer, E. and Scoones, 2021).
For the livestock and dairy industry to meet the climate challenge in the future, the report presents six recommendations:
- First, “focus on the production process (industrial vs. extensive pastoral production) and not the product (meat and dairy) by applying a systems approach incorporating both costs and benefits and realistic baselines. Avoid generalized global assessments that do not differentiate between systems of productions.”
- Second, “Avoid basing policy on simplistic, narrowly framed Life cycle assessments.”
- Third, “Support more research on carbon and nitrogen flows, context-specific emissions and carbon sequestration in extensive livestock systems, including in pastoral areas across the world.”
- Fourth, “Develop practical solutions to mitigating GHGs together with livestock keepers, drawing on local knowledge and practices: This can focus both on feeding and manure management systems to reduce methane emissions and mobile grazing to encourage carbon sequestration.”
- Fifth, “avoid generic recommendations on shifts in diets to address climate change: Focus instead on the rich, northern ‘consumption elite,’ where the problem lies. Aim to level up access to high-quality nutrition addressing issues of distribution and equity, including high-density nutrients from meat and milk, especially for young children and undernourished populations”.
- Sixth, “Beware of elusive promises of quick-fix alternatives, whether of industrially produced meat or milk substitutes or alternative land uses that exclude livestock and people..bringing pastoralists and other low-input, extensive livestock producers – and the organisations that represent them – into global debates on climate change and the future of food systems.”
Read the entire report by clicking the link below:
Watch this two-minute report primer video.
Houzer, E. and Scoones, I. (2021) Are Livestock Always Bad for the Planet? Rethinking the Protein Transition and Climate Change Debate. Brighton: PASTRES. Retrieved from https://pastres.files.wordpress.com/2021/09/climate-livestock-full-report-en-web.pdf
Vetter, D. (2021, October 5). How the West’s Climate Campaign Against Meat Could Harm Millions in Developing World. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidrvetter/2021/10/05/how-the-wests-climate-campaign-against-meat-could-harm-millions-in-developing-world/?sh=b65034b51f58
Are livestock always bad for the planet? (2021, September 22). STEPSCentre. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oD7qTKTO7AY&t=14s