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Hooked on meat: there’s no easy way to end the global habit

Raising livestock accounts for the largest single land-use on Earth. Cattle, sheep and goats, pigs and poultry occupy around…

A long road to travel yet. C. Frank Starmer

Raising livestock accounts for the largest single land-use on Earth. Cattle, sheep and goats, pigs and poultry occupy around 30% of the planet’s land area not covered in ice, generate 40% of the world’s agricultural GDP, provide livelihoods for 1.3 billion people, and nourishment for 800m people who would otherwise go without.

Despite this massive environmental, economic and social impact on the world, it is not a thoroughly studied industry. The results of a four-year livestock study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compiles worldwide data that reveal the important role of livestock. While the study lays out the industry’s considerable greenhouse gas emissions, it also shows that demands to reduce numbers and meat consumption will come with unwanted consequences.

The study, a joint effort by researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, examined 28 regions, eight livestock production systems, four animal species, and three products (milk, meat and eggs). The result is the most systematic analysis to date. Lead author Mario Herrero said: “Livestock are not well represented by accurate data, so we set out to do this with the idea to provide the standardised, coherent information necessary to allow others to do more sophisticated studies.”

Livestock by numbers

Based on data from 2000, the world produced 59m tonnes of beef, 11m tonnes of lamb, mutton and goat, 91m tonnes of pork, and 124m tonnes of poultry, together with 586m tonnes of milk.

Cattle livestock unit density, 2000. Mario Herrero

Many studies have examined the environmental cost of livestock, for example the amount of grain or feed eaten by cattle, and the impact of that on direct food supply for humans. But of the 4.7 billion tonnes of feed eaten by livestock, almost half that, 2.3 billion tonnes, was grasses not fit for human consumption. This was followed by 1.3 billion tonnes of grain, and agricultural crop residues, silage, forage, and legumes make up the rest. There was substantial variation between different areas – in North America feed is largely grains, for example, while in the developing world agricultural leftovers and grasses are much more common.

Industrial scale production accounts for almost all pork and poultry produced in Europe, North America and China, while in South and Southeastern Asia up to three quarters is from small scale farmers. But nutrition varied widely between different production methods, for example feedlot operations, mixed crop and livestock, or grazing systems. Depending on the region, feed and production system used, the amount of meat produced could be less than the amount of feed fed to livestock to produce it. Feeding livestock for meat was up to five times less efficient than feeding them for milk.

Greenhouse gas feed efficiency of cattle, CO2 per gram of protein, 2000. Mario Herrero

The global picture is complex, and that’s why finding a solution is not easy, Herrero said. “There is no one size fits all policy. It is very hard to talk about the sector as a whole. It’s great that people want to solve the ‘big problems’, but the solutions that will work are at the community level, entirely dependent on the local circumstances.”

Cattle-based climate change

Greenhouse gas emissions of livestock is one area that has been researched. The study found non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions from livestock in 2000 were around 2.45 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent, mainly methane from cattle, which accounted for 77%. The developing world accounts for two thirds of the world’s cattle emissions, and more than half of emissions from pigs and poultry. The highest regional emissions were from South Asia, Latin America, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

Cattle methane emissions, CO2-equivalent, 2000. Mario Herrero

Besides emissions from the animals themselves and their manure, the enormous logistics behind industrialised cattle production also adds to carbon emissions. For example, where does the feed come from? “Provenance of feed matters a lot,” Herrero said. “If the Amazon has been cut down to grow soy beans fed to cattle, that carbon dioxide emissions of the changing land use will be tremendous compared to say, grain from the plains of Canada.”

Many have called for a reduction in the demand for meat and the numbers of livestock due to their associated greenhouse gas emissions. For example Tony Weis, Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario and author of The Ecological Hoofprint said that industrial cattle farming “has no place in a sustainable society”, and that demand for meat, and the allure of meat as a marker of wealth, must be ended.

But Herrero said such claims don’t take into account the role livestock played in communities around the world. “Livestock are too important socially. They contribute 40% of global agricultural GDP and provide a livelihood for more than a billion people,” he said. “If you limit and decrease the number of livestock, the immediate question is: what are those people going to do? The economic repercussions are huge. The easy bit is to focus on the environmental impact, but the obvious solutions have tremendous social implications.”

He added: “That’s why analyses so far are unconvincing. We need to know what would be more sustainable levels of consumption, and how we are going to design systems that target change towards the groups we’re interested, mainly in the developed world, and not just hammer the world’s poor – whose meat consumption should probably actually increase to ensure they have proper nutrition.”

We need to ranch smarter

The implications of the study is that for millions of people, the cattle that underpin their livelihoods could be better fed, reader and managed much more efficiently. This would provide better use of resources, and a better rate of produce against carbon emissions. And, undoubtedly, it’s clear that we have to answer tough questions over how much meat and animal produce is sustainable, culturally appropriate, and ethical in a growing and resource-hungry world.

But interestingly, it also highlights the vital importance of grasslands. Despite feeding more than half the world’s cattle, grasslands are seen as expendable when land needs to be developed, or fenced-off entirely when seen as ecosystems to be protected. In some parts of the world grasslands face serious overgrazing, while in others they are the foundation of agriculture. “Grasslands are seen as a cheap option, a ‘free lunch’ with no opportunity cost”, said Herrero. “But there is no free lunch, and destroying grasslands risks losing pasture, soil quality, biodiversity of birds and insects, or affecting water supply and drainage, or carbon sequestration.”

There is no one-size-fits-all policy to fall back on. While we must intensify agriculture in order to feed more mouths, Herrero says, “there are social and developmental aspects to consider; we have to ask ourselves if efficiency is the only measure we wish to use.”

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34 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Interesting reading, as a part time vego I might suggest that getting over eating meat is not that difficult, might fall into that category of first world problems

    "I can't get the particular type of food I want" - well boo hoo

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Greg North

      Abbott's new national austerity diet?
      Well plenty of people have been on it for some time, with the only negative effect being a weird desire to vote conservative.

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    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to James Hill

      No doubting that plenty of people like you are about James creating a more than plentiful supply of ingredients.

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Greg North

      All part of Adam Smith's "progress of opulence".
      Enjoy your meal, Greggy.

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    4. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Michael Wahren

      Plenty of Australian caught flake available Michael, from our southern oceans and though some sharks are known to travel great distances, that's the larger great whites etc. whilst most flake comes from the smaller younger ones.
      I've also got a dark box with viewer I carry with me so in goes the flake and I check for any illuminance before eating.

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    5. Troy Howard

      Mechanic

      In reply to Greg North

      "I've also got a dark box with viewer I carry with me so in goes the flake and I check for any illuminance before eating"

      Nice one Greg, I never thought you had such a good sense of humour.

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  2. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Perhaps a University research lab could try mashing up bland small, pond fish and steeping the stuff in beef flavour and putting it in hamburgers and testing to see who can tell the difference. Or perhaps it's been tried.
    Easy to wean oneself off meat so that a plate with a hunk of steak on it looks revolting. But small pieces of beef rendang are nice sometimes.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Yes, all in the preparation, presentation and taste Colin, there being quite a range of vegie burgers on the market, ones with great soicing too as well as soy based burgers, snags and even lookalike bacon, all of which I've dined on from time to time.
      It is not just the weaning process that can make a steak a bit revolting for toughness, fat and poor cooking can all make it less desirable than a good meat pie and yes, well prepared, beef so tender that it near melts in your mouth is something to…

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    2. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Greg North

      "lookalike bacon" and taste alike too = fatty beef strips with something that gives it a pork boost. Compulsory in a hotel with a Halal certificate here in Malaysia and elsewhere I expect.

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  3. Paul Newell

    logged in via LinkedIn

    In reply to Michael Parker
    What do People want Michael, Nature ruling the world or an Industrial/Export Civilisation, collapsing?
    Humans evolved as omnivores Michael, that eat whatever they chose from their “Habitat in Common”.
    Ecological function is “one size fits all” if you have “Ecological Understanding”.
    From My whole of lifetime experience, living and working in urban and rural landscapes in many areas of Eastern Australia, I find that taking people decisions out of landscape and bringing…

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Paul Newell

      Keep up the good work, Paul.
      "No man is a prophet in his own land" comes to mind, but the internet seems to have removed that impediment to people taking up your ideas.

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    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Paul Newell

      What you do with converting abused land is great for it and obviously for you and your family too with no doubt many people who would aspire to doing something similar and quite a few will be doing their own thing to one extent or another, Northern Rivers alternative life styles comes to mind and not necessarily of the Nimbin Nimbin outlook.
      Unfortunately for the masses it is the masses that drives most things in life for most people and thus we then have the mass production to be attained from farmland which one way or another puts us on the abuse train.

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    3. Paul Newell

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Greg North

      In reply to Greg North,
      Thank you Greg for realising that “the masses” drive everything but not necessarily masses of People, as the living Masses.
      Nature discovered “The Masses” and mass production of plant and animal species long before Man evolved. Multiple species of FREE living “self replacing” Plants and Animals drive the “creation” of MORE soil and MORE water retained locally at scale, so man too can live locally or at a distance, with people then adding to “The Masses” living. This is…

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    4. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to Paul Newell

      Paul

      It is unusual for any discussion to be inclusive of nature and recognize the amazing forces of nature in its own right. And as you point out these forces predate humans and in fact set the stage for humans to exist at all.

      It is uncommon thinking to consider that "that Nature (natural Ecology working) is a far better “farmer” and “grocer” for people’s benefit, than any “controlled” population of people can be"

      Your work is a clear demonstration of nature at work.. Thanks for sharing.

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    5. Paul Newell

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to James Hill

      Thank You to James Hill, but I am interested in “profit” too.
      And In reply to Greg North who needs to experience and enjoy MORE of Nature at work?
      As any land is regenerating (Evolving in practice, with an intact nutrient/mineral/water Cycle and the Natural Ecology working) there is so much locally accumulating Carbohydrate (carbon and water together), formed from available Carbon Di-Oxide gas, providing energy and Hydration to the land and so much locally accumulating Protein, formed from available…

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    6. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Paul Newell

      Very inspiring, Paul, and good to know that you support profit.
      "Who doesn't profit, loses" is an old motto on the subject.
      Just as long as people do not confuse the natural increase as an excuse to increase the interest on loans.
      For, unfortunately, that is where much "profit" ends up, instead of being reinvested into that profit's source.
      Which is contrary to your advice.

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    7. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to James Hill

      Amazing how much more profitable your farms becomes when your upfront input costs are reduced. eg:

      Save money using your own seeds especially instead of GM seeds.

      Achieve higher yield from crops

      Lower stock feed costs because your paddocks are able to actual feed your animals.
      save money on fertilizers costs.

      Bonus interest cost savings, Given these costs are all incurred up front they accrue high holding costs and high risk because crop failure is always a risk.

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    8. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      Debt seems to be the path to dispossession for landholders all over the planet.
      The mixed farmers of the Scottish Highlands were deemed unable to sustain the same levels of rents as the more profitable solitary shepherd and his dogs.
      And so they were cleared out, mainly because all that went to support people could be transferred instead to the money lenders, with only the labor of the solitary shepherd left to consider.
      This system of shepherding and population clearing was transferred to Australia…

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    9. Paul Newell

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to James Hill

      In reply to James Hill, Joe and Greg,
      Debt always disturbs the Romance of the Land, but as a landowning farmer, I have no debt NOW, other than to Nature and to all the plants and animal species that work for my families benefit and income.
      Meanwhile back at “Hooked on Meat”; Humans evolved to eat from a complex of nutrient sources, from both and multiples of species of plants and animals that “Farm” the land and water system (Ecosystem) for human benefit.
      What is wrong with the food chain is Agriculture…

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    10. Jane Middlemist
      Jane Middlemist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      citizen

      In reply to Paul Newell

      Chiming in a bit late Paul but wanted to thank you for your posts and links to informative pictures. In our very small piece of land we try to use natural processes as much as possible, recycling prunings and kitchen scraps into compost, saving our own seeds, growing some fruit and veg (without insect sprays etc.). Not only nicer food than you can buy but also saves money.

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    11. Paul Newell

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Jane Middlemist

      Good for you Jane and thank you.
      We all need to think in terms of feeding our families first, as life becomes more expencive.
      We need to use sedimentation, natural hydration and regeneration of the whole biological community, locally by Nature doing rather than People doing, as well, at scale to create a surplus for others.
      A civilisation only lives as long as its soil and water and people are slowly becoming the "Stewardship Species", I hope.
      Paul Newell
      paulnewell@lansmanship.org

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  4. Mark McGuire

    climate consensus rebel

    The Conversation. An echo chamber of denial where the truth, no matter how many times it is posted here, is denied to push the dogma. "In 2006, the United Nations concluded that the livestock industry was a big contributor to climate change. Mitloehner convinced the U.N. to recant its claim in 2010. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change used the report to forecast that Himalayan glaciers might vanish within 25 years. http://helenair.com/news/state-and-regional/prof-debunks-flatulence-as-major-cause-of-global-warming/article_1c6c9c5e-2dbb-11e2-9e51-0019bb2963f4.html . Quickly, delete that comment before some one discovers the truth.

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    1. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Truth isn't universal, but we all know "Your Truth" - it takes faith to rely on it though, because it may ultimately be the wrong one...

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    2. Paul Newell

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Nature doing is the only “Truth”, People doing is always Questionable as we evolve our own minds further in “Ecological Understanding”.

      Paul Newell
      paulnewell@landsmanship.org

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    3. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to Paul Newell

      surely, truth is what works ..
      Nature has been working for billions of years..
      how many years has it taken for our farming practices to create a desert?

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  5. Troy Howard

    Mechanic

    Nice a comment section without petty points scoring, just an exchange of ideas - this is why I read these articles to help expand my views and then read Intelligent comments.
    Thankyou all for the good read.

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  6. Will Hunt

    Farmer

    'Provenance of feed matters a lot,” Herrero said. “If the Amazon has been cut down to grow soy beans fed to cattle, that carbon dioxide emissions of the changing land use will be tremendous compared to say, grain from the plains of Canada.”
    Or indeed the grassland plains of Australia where stock are fed very little in the way of grain at all, mostly just 'grasses not fit for human consumption........ and agricultural crop residues, silage, forage, and legumes make up the rest. "

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