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.