Meat the future: making choices on livestock production

10 Mar, 2015 09:00 AM
Farming makes a huge contribution to global greenhouse emissions, mainly through methane from livestock.
Half the world’s grain is used to produce animal feed, and animal consumption is projected to double
Farming makes a huge contribution to global greenhouse emissions, mainly through methane from livestock.

OPINION: THE merits of eating less meat in a bid to improve environmental sustainability have been frequently debated on The Conversation website and elsewhere.

This week saw the launch of a new book, Meat, The Future: How Cutting Meat Consumption Can Feed Billions More, which delves deep into this question, covering meat-related issues ranging from water and carbon intensity, to health and food security. One chapter, written by us, (Stuart White, and Dana Cordell, University of Technology, Sydney) focuses on the influence of dietary choices on world phosphorus use from fertilisers, and the fate of these nutrients in the ecosphere.

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  • It’s an issue that has already gained plenty of attention. When Al Gore released his influential 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth, he focused on how changing our energy systems could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore mitigate climate change. But he was roundly criticised for ignoring another significant source of greenhouse gases: livestock and eating meat. (Gore took this critique on board and subsequently adopted a plant-based diet.)

    The same year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation released a watershed report on the environmental impacts of livestock production, finding it responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions – a bigger share than transport (although its analysis was subsequently debated).

    Then, in 2009, the Worldwatch Institute estimated that the production of animal-based foods (meat, dairy, eggs) across the whole production chain accounts for 51pc of greenhouse emissions. The difference between the two estimates was mainly down to differing assumptions about the lifetime of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere.

    There can be no doubt that it is a significant and growing contributor. Half of the world’s grain is now used to produce animal feed, and animal consumption is projected to double between 2000 and 2050. The linkage between food, diet and global sustainability has not had the attention that it deserves.

    Global resource use and dietary choices

    Phosphorus is a unique and critical global resource, essential for growing crops (as for nitrogen) but impossible to substitute or manufacture. The world’s main source of phosphorus fertiliser is highly concentrated geo-politically (more so than oil), and with production likely to peak this century. The use of phosphorus is influenced by changing diets in a major way, with the global growth in per capita consumption being driven by the increase in the consumption of animal products.

    Why do animal products have such a disproportionate impact on resource use and waste generation? The main reason is that eating animal products is a very inefficient way of getting the dietary resources we need, including and especially protein. On average, it takes three to ten times the amount of resources to produce a unit of animal protein as it does for plant-based foods. As farming becomes more industrialised, we are feeding animals with food that we could simply eat ourselves.

    As it happens, in some high-income countries, people are increasingly losing their appetite for meat and other animal products such as dairy. Consumption is plateauing and declining. Certainly a contributor to this is awareness of the health implications of the high levels of meat consumption that are the norm in rich countries. Just in the past fortnight, new US government dietary guidelines have recommended a reduction in meat consumption, explicitly linking diet to environmental impact.

    However, the consumption of meat and dairy products is increasing rapidly in some emerging economies (including in South America and China), although less rapidly in others (India). This is the key driver for global growth in demand for animal products, leading to increased phosphorus use, greenhouse emissions, land clearing and biodiversity loss and health impacts.

    Ultimately this issue will require, at a global level, the kind of “contraction and convergence” approach that is being considered as a response to greenhouse gas emissions. Countries with high consumption of animal products will need to reduce their per capita consumption and give everyone the chance to converge on a globally sustainable level. In China alone, there are serious limits to that country’s ability to sustain the phosphorus throughput that would be required if meat consumption levels were to rise as projected.

    The animal cruelty question

    Meat is a complicated issue. Its consumption impacts on resource use (globally critical nutrients, water) and waste generation (agricultural run-off, greenhouse gas emissions), land use and biodiversity, food security, health, international development and animal cruelty. Regarding health impacts, non-communicable diseases are emerging as the largest cause of premature death, and in 2008 one in three adults in the world, a total of 1.46 billion, was obese or overweight, a 23pc increase since 1980.

    Yet it is the animal cruelty dimension that generates the most heat in this debate, despite suggestions that it should not be raised. What is undeniable is that meat-eating is inefficient, involving far more plant and cereal production to create the same amount of food and thus must be a topic of debate.

    The new book does not simply chronicle the problems. There are chapters that discuss the potential for modifying dietary preferences, in the interests of people and the planet. This is a vexed issue because of cultural norms, values, habits and the power of industry lobbies and marketing. The new US nutrition report starts to provide some balance here.

    But the question that the book leaves us with is clear: given that it is possible to have delicious, nutritious, satisfying food without the impact of our current over-reliance on animal products, why wouldn’t we choose that?

    The Conversation

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    Date: Newest first | Oldest first


    10/03/2015 1:28:29 PM

    Why does the Land continue to run these anti farming articles? Are you purposely trying to drive away your readers? I can tell you it is working, you have succeeded with me. I bet I am not the only one that is sick of you pushing the global warming and animal liberation down our throats every week.
    Old mate
    10/03/2015 4:59:01 PM

    anti-farming Invey? anti-cattle maybe - but (a) that ain;t all of us and (b) are you saying these aren't discussions worth having? I for one welcome a bit of robust debate rather than hearing the same old-same old.
    10/03/2015 7:32:15 PM

    Authors of articles like this could at least be honest and mention there are many locations where livestock are raised that are entirely unsuitable for the growing of crops so unless these same authors and their follows are going to go out and graze the grasses and vegetation that these livestock are raise on then they should note that there are exceptions to their observations. Also many livestock are also fattened or finished on waste products from other agricultural production so again unless these are to be consumed direct by humans I think the reprocessing through livestock is fine.
    11/03/2015 8:45:50 AM

    The position put forward here is both ill informed and inaccurate on so many levels. Amongst the many inaccurate assertions it makes, it seems to link the obesity problem in western society to consumption of meat products. Uh-uh... it's carbohydrates and processed sugars. The claim that it takes 3-10 times more resource to produce animal protein over plant protein is staggeringly ill informed. If we are to believe the science on climate change, then some science needs to come into this discussion as well, because this is not science, it's opinion.
    11/03/2015 2:47:32 PM

    The watermelons always show their true colours with these type of articles. By ignoring the blindingly obvious fact that the only reason grain is feed to cattle, is because it has been deemed too low quality for humans. (and there fore worth less). No farmer anywhere passes up a higher price for milling gain, to sell it as lower price feed grain.
    11/03/2015 5:12:43 PM

    I want to see these guys eat grass and drink brown water from dams. That's what my sheep and cattle do.
    Ralph Graham
    2/11/2015 10:15:36 PM

    There is a need for those making assertions that the writers of the book are ill informed to actually read the book. The book is not written by journalists, vegans or animal activists, but by an eminent world wide group of scientists who researched the information thoroughly. The hope for agriculture is that it will quickly change from animals and crops to just crops. Plant protein can be produced with massively less resources, on massively less land and feed massively more people, all the planet actually - no more starving. Time for change is desperately now The facts:


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