The bare statistics suggest we are looking at one of the world’s great polluters: an industry that accounts for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, takes up more than two thirds of agricultural land and is the main driver of deforestation, biodiversity loss and land degradation. If this were an oil company, courts would be clogged with class action lawsuits.
But this is the livestock industry, a sector that has one of the most controversial and politically sensitive roles in the climate change debate. ‘If you take into account the indirect emissions from land use changes to account for the feed industry, then you’re looking at up to 30 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions,’ says Mark Driscoll, head of food sustainability at Forum for the Future, an independent non-profit working on sustainability issues. The direct emissions are significant too: the rearing of livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5 per cent of GHG emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and utilises 70 per cent of agricultural land, including a third of arable land.
Only nine per cent of emissions in the entire agricultural sector comprise carbon dioxide; 35 to 45 per cent arise from methane and 45 to 55 per cent from nitrous oxide. Most of the GHGs are emitted at the farm level and nearly half are the result of digestion and fermentation processes of ruminant animals. Last autumn, the UN’s Environment Programme even went as far as describing beef as a ‘climate harmful meat’.
The meat industry has also been singled out for its role in deforestation: Greenpeace highlights cattle ranchers who clear-cut millions of square kilometres of forests for grazing pastures, inhibiting the ability to absorb atmospheric carbon; industrial livestock agriculture, it says, generates as much GHG as motorised transport.
The livestock industry, in particular the ruminant livestock sector, specifically cows and sheep, appears to put a spoke in the wheel of climate change mitigation. The sector’s contribution to climate change is undeniable; its role in providing protein equally self-evident. How then, can we make the GHG cuts necessary to stop the world warming while at the same time meeting the protein needs of the projected two billion further mouths by 2050?
As nations become wealthier, they demand more resource-intensive, energy-rich animal products. The FAO says the world needs to produce at least 50 per cent more food by 2050 and that global meat consumption will reach 460 million tonnes in 2050, an increase of 65 per cent on 2009. ‘There’s no getting away from it, production is going to grow. We’re going to have to deal with it,’ says Hsin Huang, secretary general of the International Meat Secretariat, a non-profit organisation that works to represent all aspects of the meat industry to various global bodies such as the FAO and the World Trade Organization.
All this means, suggests Driscoll, that we must acknowledge some unsettling scenarios. ‘The increasing demand for animal protein in emerging economies is one of the key challenges. Some of the projections are quite scary – for example China’s meat consumption could double by 2030.’
About 800 million people worldwide are still chronically hungry. ‘For them, overall increases in both the amount and diversity of foods consumed are critical,’ says Dr Tara Garnett, head of the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford. ‘Greater diversity means more animal but also more plant products, including fruits, vegetables, pulses and legumes.’
There are still about 20 developing countries where per capita meat consumption is below ten kg/year, compared with an average of 80 kg/year in developed countries, according to the FAO, with consumption in the US and Australia as high as 120kg per year. In some of the world’s poorest countries intakes have actually declined in recent years. As a result, international agencies, food scientists, farmers and NGOs are now focussing on just how to address the challenge of feeding the world with GHG emissions rising and extremes in poverty and wealth both increasing.
‘Everything is more nuanced than headlines would suggest,’ says Dr Garnett. ‘We have to eat something and any food will have an impact, but trends towards more diets higher in animal products are worrying. I don’t see how we are going to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions without addressing the driver of production – our consumption habits. It’s always going to use more resources to pass a grain through an animal than to eat the grain itself.’
The livestock industry has made significant progress in improving the environmental efficiency of production in recent years. Undoubtedly it now produces more food with less impact. And further efficiencies can be achieved. ‘The FAO estimates that by improving techniques in the developing world we can cut industry emissions by 30 per cent,’ says Huang.
By storing carbon in soils and vegetation and other measures, the sector says it can reduce emissions by three million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year from 2018 to 2022. The Australian beef industry has reduced emission intensity by 14 per cent since 1981 and research has focussed on algae-based foods to reduce methane emissions from cattle. Other research is looking at the nature of the stomach walls of kangaroos .
In Canada, pig manure is often injected about 15cm into the soil of cropland, which reduces GHGs by reducing exposure of manure to air. It also eliminates runoff, thereby protecting waterways and preserving nutrients in manure for fertiliser. In France, La vache verte (‘the green cow’), a movement by cattle, goat and sheep farmers has reduced the sector’s climate footprint by nearly 15 per cent since 1990 and aims to implement farming practices to reduce the carbon footprint of milk production and meat by 15 to 20 per cent over the next decade.
In New Zealand, meanwhile, GHG emissions from sheep and beef decreased 14 per cent between 1990 to 2008; over the same period, there was a reduction of 3.12 million tonnes of carbon equivalent a year, while total meat and fibre production increased 15 per cent.
However, increases in efficiency in producing meat does raise some difficult issues and poses choices for us going forward. ‘In principle you could breed for good welfare by developing animals that are docile and happy to be cooped up, but this raises ethical questions that we need to explore as a society,’ says Dr Garnett.
There are also practical considerations: good welfare is about matching the breed of animal with the right feed and management techniques. ‘There are huge opportunities for that not to happen,’ says Dr Garnett. ‘We’ve seen high-yielding pigs in low-yielding environments in China.’ This also, she points out, raises issues around the transmission of zoonotic diseases.
The Paris climate accord signed last December also has clear implications for the meat industry. Article 2 of the final text called for increased funding around climate resilient development. ‘The livestock industry needs to be prepared for the discussion that is to come,’ says Huang. ‘We need to show that we are making tremendous efforts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of the techniques are here and now but not yet widespread, mainly because they are costly.’
The livestock industry, though, is entangled with climate change in another way: it is forecast to bear the brunt of extreme and unpredictable weather. The FAO warns that a 1.5ºC temperature rise would affect the livestock sector in many countries, while Alexandre Meybeck, principle FAO adviser, says a 3ºC rise would see the cattle industry ‘suffer much more’. The UK’s National Farmers Union (NFU) says that ‘agriculture is in the frontline of climate change’.
So is super-efficient animal rearing the solution? Parts of the meat industry appear to pull in that direction. The North American Meat Institute argues that intensively reared livestock is better for the environment because it reaches slaughter weight more quickly, and so has less time to produce methane. It maintains that the US livestock sector accounts for less than three per cent of total global livestock emissions and that higher figures are wrong.
Plenty of people would take issue with that position. ‘The issue of intensive meat-rearing in the highly efficient way needed to reduce emissions is also a system that we can find uncomfortable,’ says Steve Wiggins, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute.
It’s a point that the International Meat Secretariat’s Huang acknowledges. ‘It’s inevitable that people are sensitive about the idea that we raise livestock to slaughter. Does it have a good life, are we being ethical? People care about this. We have to realise people will always be critical. Demands from environment and welfare issues will always be with us, they’ll always be a challenge.’ Or, as Dr Garnett puts it: ‘You have to think about the animal welfare consequences, that will give rise to different understandings of what is sustainable or not.’
Wiggins is also sceptical as to whether optimum efficiency would work in practice. ‘There’s plenty of research that shows we can get the methane output down, but I suspect we are twiddling at the margins of the wider issue. I don’t think that is where the big gains are. If we had leadership in the world, we would want to have a conversation about where we are with meat in the future.’
Wiggins and the ODI are wary of demonising the livestock sector though, and he expresses surprise that, since meat production was truly industrialised, it has been the ruminant trade that has been singled out rather than intensive chicken and pig farms. ‘Ruminant meat is in some respects one of the most benign meats going,’ he says. ‘Ruminant livestock takes pasture – i.e. grasslands – that are not much good for other animals, and converts that into protein.’
Huang agrees, pointing to the management of grasslands. ‘Ruminants belch methane, but by eating grass they capture carbon dioxide in the root system in grass and turn it into organic matter,’ he says. ‘That’s a major potential source for reducing emissions and an opportunity to show the industry is already doing something it doesn’t get enough credit for.’ To an extent, Dr Garnett agrees with this point: ‘Some places are really good at growing grass, so you may as well put some animals on it.’
Where would the extra meat to feed the growing demand in the developing world be reared? Huang believes the answer may already be to hand: ‘India and China are land poor, they can’t increase meat production relative to the demand. Indonesians will want to eat beef. It makes sense to produce it in countries that are already quite good at it, that have efficient techniques and lower emissions. There are lots of countries where you can produce it without having a negative impact on the environment – the countries that already have highly efficient and developed livestock sectors.’
Such an approach presents its own dangers, warns Dr Garnett. ‘That raises issues around food security, whether exporting would undermine poor, local farmers,’ she says. ‘It could also reinforce the negative contribution that the global food chain has made to the “nutrition transition”, whereby people in developing countries start adopting the least healthy aspects of the Western diet, and start eating the worst kind of meat. You can end up making people who are poor and thin into people who are poor and fat.’
There are, as the ODI’s Wiggins, points out, other issues connected to wider public health. ‘How do we avoid people in the developing world running into the same obesity problems of the West?’ he asks. ‘Livestock then becomes part of the debate on how we minimise non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cancer. We are touching on something that is rather important and that people care about.’
Fish for meat
One option, suggests Forum for the Future’s Driscoll, would be to shift away from meat altogether, and throw in our lot with aquaculture, where the ratio of feed required is about 1.2kg for every 1kg of fish flesh (livestock generally requires anything up to 20kg of feed for every 1kg of meat). Yet if we’re going to eat more meat, then another way to cut back on the related emissions may be to provide a different diet to the cattle that will provide that protein. More innovative methods may draw on insects, or feeding animals waste products from starch, such as sugar beet leaves.
‘More efficiency is an important part of the story. Better feed and better breeding will help,’ says Driscoll. He goes further and argues that consumption and production of food are rarely considered together: ‘You need to link those changes to consumer behaviour. How do we meet the protein needs of nine billion people in a way that is healthy? We need to get away from the polarising debate of “meat or non-meat”. We have to link production efficiency with changes to diets, to eat more plant-based protein, increase pulses.’
Alexandre Meybeck of the UN’s FAO agrees that the meat sector must look at innovative approaches. ‘Part of the Paris agreement involves a recognition of the need for more sustainable lifestyles and sustainable production. Reducing emissions in the energy sector is more straightforward. In livestock it’s much more complicated. There will probably be progressive changes in consumption patterns. It may lead to an appreciation of value-added products.’
This, though, is a hugely emotive issue – the notion of people being told what to eat or being incentivised to do so. ‘Governments don’t like telling people what to eat,’ says Driscoll, ‘but there are sometimes huge external costs associated with that which we all pay for in taxes.’
A 2014 Chatham House paper, Livestock: Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector, points out that ‘a number of factors, not least fear of backlash, have made governments and environmental groups reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to shift consumer behaviour.’
The subject of people eating less meat, says Wiggins, may be politically charged, but he wonders whether society, rather than wary politicians, may end up making that choice for themselves. He argues that the trend to eat less meat is already gathering pace in northern Europe. ‘The point of “peak meat” [consumption] happened in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Consumption has come down since then,’ he says. ‘A tax on red meat is no more a red-hot political issue than a tax on sugar, and in the UK that debate [on a sugar tax] has moved on surprisingly quickly. I think the evidence is that we need to eat less meat in the West than we do at the moment.’
However, the IMS’s Huang is doubtful that such a cultural change by itself would bring about a meaningful reduction in emissions. ‘Meat consumption in northern Europe is decreasing,’ he agrees. ‘People there are moving up the value chain, eating less meat but eating more expensive cuts. But there is going to be more than a corresponding increase in the developing world.’
Dr Garnett also suggests a downward trend in Western meat consumption will not, by itself, be enough. ‘We eat more meat in the West but we are relatively few in number. Even if the West goes entirely vegan overnight it will not compensate for the growth in consumption elsewhere.’ Even more pertinently, she points out, is that this issue would be a welcome quandary for some nations: for them the chance to eat more meat would be a fine thing. ‘In some sub-Saharan countries they are eating less meat than they did 30 years ago.’
In a 2015 paper, Gut Feelings and Possible Tomorrows, Garnett outlined four scenarios for how our relationship with meat may unfold. The first, predictably, is business as usual, whereby the world moves to more intensive, highly efficient poultry production. The second sees us eat only meat from animals reared on leftovers, which have less impact on crops for human consumption. Option three is that as a species we conclude options one and two are unsustainable and we develop artificial meat or pursue insect protein. Finally, we move entirely to plant-based material.
‘Usually the future is lots of different things at the same time,’ she says. ‘Life is so complex, you can see multiple diverging things happening. Climate change, political instability, COP21, shifts in culture. I suspect the scenarios will play out differently in different parts of the world. We often muddle through as a species and what happens is that the rich are okay while the poor aren’t.’
Gazing into the crystal ball, Huang sees a world with a good deal more precision agriculture: ‘One of the biggest criticisms of livestock is that it uses a lot of resources, though that’s a criticism that can be levelled at a lot of industries. We have sufficient resources, we just need to better manage them.’
And that sea change in attitudes towards meat may just happen, suggests the ODI’s Wiggins. ‘Things can move quite quickly when there is enough awareness,’ he says. ‘When things matter enough, people do change their behaviour remarkably. If you were an anti-smoking campaigner in the 1960s, you would be pleasantly surprised at what you found today.’
On an upbeat note, Dr Garnett believes that climate change may lead us to adopt better diets and farming practices. ‘Climate change is just a lens through which you look at some of the major issues,’ she says. ‘Climate is really important, but the risk is that you hit the emissions reduction target but miss the point. If we go hell for leather to meet the emissions targets for our food system, we may do that at the expense of biodiversity or animal welfare. We need to think about what outcomes we want.’
Driscoll too sees some hard – and judicious – thinking coming down the track. ‘I think we will get there, I’m an optimist,’ he says, ‘but it will require a significant acceleration of innovation. Governments will need to provide the right incentives and disincentives. It will be hard, it’s going to require the development of some unnatural alliances. But this has to be tackled, otherwise the consequences will be significant.’
This was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.