No one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to eating less meat
Scientists have argued that the pressure to eat less meat might actually be counter-productive in some parts of the world, where livestock are essential to the economy and sustainability.
People in industrialised regions like the US or Europe are generally urged to eat less meat and animal-source foods as part of a healthier and lower-emissions diet. However, scientists have stated that such recommendations are not universal solutions in low- or middle-income countries, where livestock are critical to incomes and diets.
“Conclusions drawn in widely publicised 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 industrialised, 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).
The authors of the study claim that of all scientific literature on livestock published since 1945, only 13 percent covers Africa, yet Africa is home to 20 percent, 27 percent and 32 percent of global cattle, sheep and goat populations.
Eight of the world’s top 10 institutes publishing livestock research are in the US, France, the UK and the Netherlands. Only two, including the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), are headquartered in Africa, where the livestock sector is the backbone of the economy and where little data is available.
The authors add that a singular focus on negative livestock-related environmental impacts ignores the critical but more positive role livestock play in ecosystem services, income and asset provision or insurance in low- and middle-income countries. It also overlooks more systemic questions about how animals are raised.
“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 and CIAT.
“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 industrialised livestock production are over fertilising agricultural land and causing environmental problems.”
Across Africa’s savanna, pastoralists pen their herds at night, a practice shown to increase nutrient diversity and biodiversity hotspots, enriching the landscape, according to the scientists. Feed production may also be more local, whereas in industrialised systems, it is mostly imported. In Brazil, soybean – a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon – is made into concentrate and exported to feed animals in places like Vietnam as well as Europe.
“Meat production itself is not the problem. Like any food, when it is mass-produced, intensified and commercialised, the impact on our environment is multiplied,” said Polly Ericksen, Program Leader of Sustainable Livestock Systems at the International Livestock Research Institute.
“Eliminating meat from our diet is not going to solve that problem. While advocating a lower-meat diet makes sense in industrialised systems, the solution is not a blanket climate solution, and does not apply everywhere.”
A need for change
The authors said they acknowledge that livestock systems are known to be a major source of atmospheric greenhouse gases. But they believe more data is needed for low- and middle-income countries to develop national mitigation strategies.
“Better decisions about how to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and agriculture in low- and middle-income countries can only be driven by better data,” said Klaus Butterbach-Bahl, at the Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, Atmospheric Environmental Research (IMK-IFU) Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and ILRI.
“For that, we need more – and not less – locally-adapted and multi-disciplinary research together with local people in low- and middle-income countries, on sustainable livestock development, with all the supporting financial incentives, policies and capacity in place to intensify livestock production in a more sustainable way, on a bigger scale.”