To eat meat or not to eat meat: that is the question

foto asd

By Anna Sophia Doyle*

I was browsing through one of my favorite environmental news and commentary sites (favorite as it’s both intelligent but also hilarious when reporting on very serious issues such as climate, food, energy, etc.) and came across a great article on whether eating meat could be eco-friendly.

Having wrestled with the subject myself and in honor of it being Meatless Monday, I thought I’d share some if the article’s insights with the Development Roast readers as well as a few other thoughts and related links.

The author sets out to investigate whether eating meat can be environmentally sustainable and begins with the commonly held assumption that eating meat, is in fact, bad for the environment. According to calculations by Vaclav Smil, from his book Should We Eat Meat? Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory, it takes 3.3 pounds of feed to produce a pound of chicken meat, 9.4 pounds of feed to get a pound of pork, and a staggering 25 pounds of feed for a pound of beef. From an efficiency perspective, it would make more sense for humans to just eat plants directly, rather than feed them to animals to produce food. In terms of efficiency, the same holds true for land-use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and fertilizer use, among others.

According to Frank Mitloehner, professor of animal science at UC-Davis, however, agriculture would be unsustainable without animals. He points out that only 18 percent of feed given to livestock is edible by humans, with mostly crop residues and grass making up the rest. Thus, eating meat actually provides humans with energy that would have been otherwise inaccessible. This is especially true in countries where much of livestock is grass-fed, such as Bolivia.

Animals are a source of high-quality nutrients (often consumed as dairy instead of meat) as well as fuel, for people in some of the world’s poorest areas. Yet we often overlook the fact that livestock also provide a wealth of other valuable resources that benefit human life in countless ways. Just eliminating the use of animal manure in agriculture would require doubling or even tripling the amount of chemical fertilizer used, an untenable prospect. Check out Christien Meindertsma’s fantastic TED talk “How Pig Parts Make the World Turn” to find out some of the 185 total products we use everyday that come from pigs.

I was recently introduced to the work of Allan Savory via another must-watch TED talk, which offered a novel and utterly fascinating perspective on the role of livestock in mitigating climate change. Savory is a Zimbabwean ecologist and environmentalist who was once a staunch opponent of livestock due to its presumed role in accelerating soil erosion and desertification. Yet after years of research he came up with the concept of holistic management, which entails bunching and moving large herds of livestock in patterns that mimic nature, in order to reverse desertification, sequester carbon and mitigate climate change. According to his theory, “[the soil and vegetation in] the seasonal humidity environments of the world developed with very large numbers of grazing animals,” that aided in the biological decay of grasslands and prevented their oxidation (which leaves soil bare and releases carbon). The key then, is to use livestock as proxy for former herds and predators to mimic the natural processes that kept grasslands healthy. We must, in Savory’s own words, “do the unthinkable.” While his approach has garnered widespread support, it has also earned him fierce criticism. Watch the entire talk below and make up your own mind!

So going back to the question at hand, whether eating meat can be environmentally sustainable, I’d be tempted to say yes, in principle. More importantly however, is that considering global trends in meat consumption, especially in developing countries, and the numbers of true vegetarians (around 2-4 percent of the population in the United States, for instance), advocating for the complete elimination of animal meat and byproducts from our diets doesn’t seem like the most effective policy choice. Instead, focusing our efforts on reducing meat consumption to more sustainable levels and improving the efficiency of meat production worldwide would yield better environmental results.

According to one calculation, we should reduce the adult per capita consumption of meat to 25-30 kg per person per year. With the current world average at 40 kg/per capita, this would imply a reduction of 25-37 per cent. Bolivian’s, who currently consume 59.1 kg/per capita, would have to reduce that figure by about half. Although reducing the amount of meat we eat on average by around 30% doesn’t seem like an impossible task, long-range global forecasts point in the opposite direction: consumption of meat is predicted to rise from 275 million tonnes (Mt) in 2010 to 455 Mt by 2050.

If we look on the supply side, the good news is that given the great variation in the efficiency of livestock production around the world, there is vast room for improvement in the low-efficiency regions. One study showed that cows in impoverished regions like Sub-Saharan Africa are fed up to 10 times as much as cows in richer regions to produce a kilogram of meat. Thus, the amount of carbon released by livestock production in these regions is also 10 times higher than in places like the United States and Europe. While these intensive farming practices often get criticized for being pollution-generating and cruel to animals, they are also incredibly efficient.

What’s the take away then? Demand management and supply efficiency might mean we could all enjoy sparing, yet guilt-free, steak dinners –or falso conejo- for years to come.

P.S.: Read the other article’s in the Grist Special Series “Meat: What’s smart, what’s right, what’s next” for more on the future of lab-grown meat, the moral argument as to why we should be eating blue whales instead of chickens and lots of other thought-provoking material!


ChartsBin statistics collector team 2013, Current Worldwide Annual Meat Consumption per capita, ChartsBin.com, viewed 21st August, 2015, <http://chartsbin.com/view/12730>.

Johnson, N. “Can meat actually be eco-friendly?” Grist. 15 July, 2015. <http://grist.org/food/can-meat-actually-be-eco-friendly/>

Herzog, K. What’s the difference between eating pork belly and puppy belly? Not much. Grist. 17 Jul7, 2015. < http://grist.org/food/whats-the-difference-between-eating-pork-belly-and-puppy-belly-not-much/>

Smil, V., Eating meat: Constants and changes. Global Food Security (2014)

Walsh, B. The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production. Time. 13 Dec. 2013. < http://science.time.com/2013/12/16/the-triple-whopper-environmental-impact-of-global-meat-production/>


* Anna Sophia Doyle in a junior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Development Studies in La Paz, Bolivia.


Earth Overshoot Day – August 13th, 2015: So what?

By Susana del Granado *

Let’s suppose a billionaire has given you 1 million US$ with the sole instruction that you live wisely from it. Thus, you decide to put all the money in the bank at the highest annual interest rate in the market (5%) and live only from the interest, which means you have 50,000 US$ a year or 137 US$ per day to spend. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s not miss the Open Government train


Photo Credit: liberation (289/365) via photopin (license)

By: Fabián E. Soria* y Pablo A. Rivero*

Public administration is evolving towards Open Government, a new paradigm that makes use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) but also changes the processes and information management within the public sector in order to bring the government closer to the citizens and become more efficient.

There are two important factors in this topic: first, what does it exactly mean (and why is it important) to “open the data and processes in the public sector”. Second, who is this information for (i.e. who will make use of open data)?

Read the rest of this entry »

Oil exploitation in protected areas – a contradiction in terms?

LykkeAndersen2By: Lykke E. Andersen*

During this week’s Climate Change Conference in La Paz, several participants expressed concern about Bolivia’s plans for oil drilling in National Parks following the recent Supreme Decree 2366 of 20 May 2015, which explicitly permits oil drilling in some protected areas in Bolivia in the name of poverty reduction and integral development for the people living in these areas.

In the conference session on Climate Change and Ecosystems, the panelists were asked if it was not contradictory to allow oil exploitation in national parks, and if anybody knew of any examples anywhere in the World where it had been done successfully. One of the panelists, Stanley Arguedas, Co-President of the Commission on Environmental Management of the International Union of Nature Conservation (CGE-IUCN) from Costa Rica, admitted that he did not personally know of any successful examples, but that, in theory, oil exploitation could be done in protected areas without compromising the objectives of the national park.

This tiny theoretical opening, coming from a top conservationist, is what I would like to explore in this blog.

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Tropical glacier loss: Real and fake solutions

Lykke Andersen

By: Lykke E. Andersen*

Bernard Francou, a famous glaciologist from the IRD in France, today made a very interesting presentation in La Paz about the loss of tropical glaciers around the World. It was only one of many interesting presentations made at the Climate Change Conference that is taking place these days, but it was so interesting indeed, that it inspired me to write my second blog in one day.

Francou documented the decrease in tropical glacier mass starting roughly in 1976 for the glaciers in the Andes and the Rocky Mountains and about a decade later for most other tropical glaciers in the World. Although tropical glaciers contain only a tiny part of all the ice on the planet, their melting currently contributes to about 26% of global sea level rise.

Read the rest of this entry »

Making smarter climate change policies requires us to acknowledge the limits to our knowledge

LykkeAndersen2By: Lykke E. Andersen*

There is little doubt that human greenhouse gas emissions, mainly arising from the burning of fossil fuels and forests, are warming the planet. The physical properties of CO2 in the atmosphere imply that a doubling of CO2 concentrations from the current 400 parts per million (ppm) to 800 ppm would directly cause an increase in the average global temperature of about 1°C, and with that increase in temperatures we would also experience an increase in global precipitation. That much we know with a high degree of certainty.

Anything beyond that, however, is highly uncertain. While most climate models incorporate positive feedback effects that amplify the initial direct warming effect several times, historical data suggests that there are important negative feedbacks that help stabilize global temperatures. Most importantly, Earth’s temperature has oscillated within a relatively narrow band for hundreds of millions of years despite much higher and much lower CO2 concentrations in the past (see Figures 1 and 2). In addition, during the last couple of decades, global temperatures have not increased nearly as much as suggested by the models with strong positive feedbacks. Thus, we should have only low confidence in our knowledge about feedback effects and temperature increases beyond 1°C.

Read the rest of this entry »

Pope Francis’ encyclical: A landmark in environmental thinking

By Susana del Granado *

The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.”

Pope Francis, 2015

“I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” is one of the beginning lines of the Pope’s encyclical, released by the Vatican yesterday at noon. Traditionally the encyclical is a letter from the Pope to the Bishops about Catholicism, but it has evolved into an open letter to society discussing the Pope’s insights and concerns on a particular matter. Pope John XXII (1963) was the first, to my knowledge, to address society in general in his efforts to reform the Catholic Church.

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Can you envision a sustainable world? Do you dare to dream today?

By Susana del Granado *

“A vision comes not from the intellect or the mind but from the heart, from the soul”

Donella Meadows

Today, June 5th , we celebrate World Environment Day and, as a celebration, the United Nations Environmental Program has launched a campaign and a contest about “sharing your dream[1]” to move people to imagine a sustainable future and to trigger discussion on the objectives for sustainable development[2].

A vision is a desirable future and, by definition, it is a positive image of what you want to see in the future. Donella Meadows, an environmental scientist and leading author of “The Limits to Growth”, while presenting at an ecological economics conference, inspired and requested her audience to envision a sustainable future. To develop that vision, she asked them to get comfortable, to close their eyes, to take a deep breath, and to dream:[3] Read the rest of this entry »

Time travel and other environmentally friendly pleasures

Lykke Andersen

By: Lykke E. Andersen*

“That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest. ”

Henry David Thoreau

In honor of World Environment Day, I have compiled a list of delightful activities that bring great pleasure at little cost and with very little environmental impact. Consider doing more of the following: Read the rest of this entry »

Deforestation and reforestation in Bolivia: A thought experiment

LykkeAndersen2By: Lykke E. Andersen*

Within the Bolivian government, there are parts that encourage a massive expansion of the agricultural frontier, and other parts that work to control deforestation in order to reduce the local and global impacts of climate change. These are pretty much opposing policies, so consider the following hypothetical question: How large an area would we have to reforest in order to compensate the carbon emissions caused by the expansion of the agricultural frontier by 2.5 million hectares, if we wanted to reach carbon emission neutrality by 2030. Read the rest of this entry »

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