Campaigns in rich nations that put pressure on the developing world to eat less meat could harm the lives of millions, new research has found, highlighting the dangers of one-size-fits-all climate remedies.
In the race against climate change, many advocates in the West have identified meat production as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and say it is imperative for people around the world to consume less meat, or give up meat entirely.
But researchers at PASTRES (Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins), supported by the European Research Council, say the black-and-white “meat and dairy are bad” message is heavily skewed towards intensive Western farming practices. Such Western-centric advice, they claim, threatens to undermine economies that rely on non-intensive, relatively low-impact cattle farming in the developing world.
In the study, PASTRES researchers looked at the sources for the figures used by Western researchers, media and policymakers to draw conclusions about the climate impact of animal farming, and found that the data used often come from a limited set of cases in Europe and North America. These data, the researchers found, are regularly used to make assumptions about the farming that takes place in other, less industrialized regions, such as West Africa.
“The livestock sector has become the ‘climate villain’ of agriculture,” said Professor Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies think tank, and one of the study authors. “But as global leaders make decisions about the future of food and farming, it’s vital to understand the differences between ways of producing animal products in different parts of the world. While richer consumers should undoubtedly rethink their diets, for many people throughout the world, pastoralism can and should remain part of a low-carbon future.”
The United Nations has calculated that some 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from meat production. Riding on such observations, a 2019 UN special report on climate change and land explicitly called for changes to the human diet, largely around much lower meat consumption. Such advice has percolated into national campaigns in Western nations calling on people to drastically curb their meat intake. As reported by Forbes, the U.K.’s National Food Strategy this year recommended a 30% reduction in meat consumption. But such narratives have also led to blanket, globe-encompassing statements in the media such as “Treating beef like coal would make a big dent in greenhouse-gas emissions,” as seen last week in The Economist (paywalled).
While he agreed that Western consumers should make an effort to reduce their meat intake, Scoones said that solutions appropriate to the West and pushed through western development agencies and conservation organisations in the developing world may do more harm than good.
“Some meat and milk production is of course very damaging to the environment, for example in the Amazon where forest is being clear-cut for cattle farming,” Scoones told me. “The key is for policies to take account of the differences between beneficial forms of production and those that are really harmful.”
Crucially, the PASTRES report notes that, “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 … Therefore, large reductions in animal-source foods by everyone would be highly inequitable, with impacts being disproportionately felt by low-income, rural populations in low- and middle-income countries.”
Scoones further explained that “extensive pastoralists,” which describes livestock farmers who allow their animals to range over a large area, are a lynchpin of many developing economies, and should not be lumped in with intensive Western meat producers.
“A generalised anti-livestock narrative can act to undermine the livelihoods and diets of poor and marginalised people,” Scoones said. “Well-meaning attempts to address climate change can exclude livestock keepers from their land. This may have the effect of actually reducing biodiversity that is in some cases enhanced by grazing, and increasing emissions through wildfires that are reduced by grazing by livestock use. With a rising sense of urgency to respond to climate change, there’s a real risk of policies being developed that harm extensive pastoral systems and ways of life.”
The points raised by the PASTRES researchers lend additional weight to concerns voiced by rural smallholders in African nations, summarized in a Guardian opinion piece last month, which warned that “the growing chorus of criticism directed against industrial farming in the West is threatening to undermine support for livestock everywhere—including in the developing world.” Writing ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit, which took place September 23, Ugandan veterinarian and farmer Emma Naluyima Mugerwa and child and maternal nutrition specialist Lora Iannotti pointed out that, in the developing world, the animals many families keep “are often their most valuable economic and dietary assets. They serve as a hedge against the impacts of the climate crisis on their farms. They help ensure children don’t grow up malnourished.”
In other, recent research conducted on agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, the stark differences between regions’ agricultural make-up are rather well illustrated. These include a paper in Nature Food by researchers at the University of Illinois, published last month and cited widely in the press. While media focused on the paper’s lead conclusion—that global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods—little heed was paid to other findings that showed agricultural emissions per capita in North and Sub-Saharan Africa are a fraction of those in North America, the EU and South America.
Regional variations also underpin another issue that PASTRES highlights in its report —specifically, assumptions about what animals are being farmed. Scoones pointed out that, in much of the world, “livestock” refers to animals other than cows.
“It’s not just cattle, but goats, sheep, camels, llamas, yaks, reindeer and other animals that form the basis for diets and livelihoods in vast areas of the world,” he said. “There’s an assumption that land can simply be converted to other uses, but in many areas that’s just not the case—think of mountainous areas in the Himalayas or drylands in the Sahel.”
In short, PASTRES argues, “focus on the production process, not the product.” An equitable approach to livestock production would take into account the diversity of farming methods, “integrating contextual factors such as livelihoods, nutrition, food security and local agro-ecological conditions.”
Meanwhile, for those in the West who still aren’t ready to leave meat behind, Scoones suggested that awareness and informed decision-making are key to reducing dietary climate impacts.
“This isn’t always easy, but find out about how your food is produced,” he said. “Consumers can help by supporting higher standards, buying from local markets or suppliers if they have the option, and if they are confident that they can know where their food comes from.”
Originally published by Forbes