Cutting out meat won’t solve climate change – ‘Meat production itself is not the problem’

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Cutting meat from our daily routines has been widely proposed as a surefire way of reducing our impact on climate change. The rearing of livestock is seen as a major source of greenhouse gasses through the use of land, feed production and transportation of meat products. In January this year, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) proposed reducing our intake of dairy and meat products by one-fifth could save the equivalent of seven million tonnes of CO2 from farms.

Similarly, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) ranks the production of meat, dairy and seafood as major sources of greenhouse emissions

Greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) trap heat in the planet’s atmosphere and contribute to a worldwide rise in temperatures – global warming.

But new research published by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has challenged the notion a completely meatless lifestyle offers a blanket solution to the climate crisis.

Instead, the study’s authors have argued criticisms of the meat industry are too focused on Western industries and cannot be universally applied to low and mid-income countries that practice more sustainable livestock rearing.

The research was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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Birthe Paul, an environmental scientist and the study’s lead author, said: “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.”

According to the research, only 13 percent of all scientific literature on livestock published since 1945 has focused on the African continent.

And yet Africa is home to 20 percent of the world’s cattle population, 27 percent of the world’s sheep and 32 percent of the world’s goat population.

The research has also found eight of the world’s 10 leading institutions publishing livestock research are based in the US, the UK, France and the Netherlands.

For comparison, only two are based in Africa where livestock plays a big economic role.

The study’s authors have further argued focusing on the negative impacts of meat production ignores the positive role sustainable farming can have on the ecosystem.

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

“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 overfertilizing agricultural land and causing environmental problems.”

The researchers have also argued against the importation of livestock feed from abroad – a practice common in industrialised systems.

Natural wonders such as the Amazon Rainforest are being destroyed for soybean plantations that feed livestock in places like Europe and Vietnam.

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Polly Ericksen, Program Leader of Sustainable Livestock Systems at the International Livestock Research Institute, said: “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.

“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 is also a vastly greater problem in the West than it is in underdeveloped nations.

In the US, for instance, meat consumption is expected to surpass 220 pounds (100kg) per person by the year 2028.

In sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, consumption in the same timeframe will hit about 28.4 pounds (12.9kg) per person.

The researchers do, however, admit the production of meat is a major source of greenhouse emissions

But they argue more data from lower-income nations is needed to draft mitigation policies.

The researchers have also proposed better livestock feed and land management can be introduced to lower the amount of greenhouse gasses animals emit.

Klaus Butterbach-Bahl, at the Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, Atmospheric Environmental Research (IMK-IFU) Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, said: “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.

“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.”

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