Page last updated at 17:13 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Balancing the global need for meat

Carlos Sere
Carlos Sere

While meat is all too abundant in the rich North, it is very often a life-saving source of protein in the developing South, says Carlos Sere. In this week's Green Room, he says backing a worldwide curb on meat consumption is likely to do more harm than good.

African herdsman with his livestock (Getty Images)
Livestock production remains an essential pathway out of poverty in many poor countries

Daisy the cow, the emblem of healthy wholesome living, is under attack in rich countries.

She is deemed to be destroying the environment by emitting tonnes of greenhouse gases and contributing to an upsurge of obesity and heart disease.

But Daisy, and her farmyard cousins Billy the goat and Porky the pig, are treasured in poor countries.

These animals provide protein, nourishment, and a livelihood to more than a billion poor people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Rich and poor worlds are colliding when it comes to the value of livestock production and consumption.

In this case, both points are understandable - for their own worlds. The rich world may need to cut back on livestock consumption and production, but the poor world cannot afford to do so.

'Factory farming'

According to a recent report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock production, dominated in the West by large-scale factory farming, is responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions; a bigger share than all of the world's transport.

Grilled steak (Image: BBC)
Livestock producers in rich countries practice factory farming, which can treat animals inhumanely and depends on vast amounts of resources

But as the world moves to address climate change and reduce emissions, we must make sure that the push to reduce the environmental impact of livestock production in rich countries does not hurt the availability of milk, meat, eggs, and other products in developing countries.

While people in rich nations are harming their health by eating too much fatty red meat and cheese, many people in the cities and rural areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, particularly children and women in their child-bearing years, are malnourished because they are not consuming enough eggs, meat, and milk.

Research shows that very modest amounts of animal-sourced foods in the diets of the poor can have tremendous health benefits.

Milk and meat enhance the growth and cognitive development of children subsisting largely on starchy diets.

Livestock producers in rich countries practice factory farming, which can treat animals inhumanely and depends on vast amounts of resources, particularly in the forms of water, cereals, and energy.

However, most livestock producers in poor countries operate small family farms with just a few animals that, while producing methane gas, roam free and eat grass and other wastes rather than grain.

Meeting needs

Concern for the environment is legitimate, but it should not override concern for the livelihoods of 1.2 billion poor people.

Iraqi woman herding cows (Getty Images)
Policymakers and aid agencies need to use different strategies for different regions and populations

Science can serve as an honest broker in the complex and often controversial debate over livestock and environmental issues.

Our role may be inconvenient to some, but empirical evidence is needed in this discussion.

The global agricultural research community is working to develop a more comprehensive, integrated agenda that should provide crucial, objective evidence on the trade-offs between food security, livelihoods and the environment.

Our research tells us that we can often protect the livestock livelihoods of poor people while also conserving environmental resources.

Among the ideas being discussed in rich countries to reduce consumption of livestock foods are a "methane tax" on large feeding operations.

It is based on emission measurements and encouraging a "locavore" movement, creating demand for local livestock products not produced by large-scale, factory farm operations.

Such ideas are worth considering, but they will need research analyses and political debate, and eventual buy-in, to take hold.

Livestock production remains an essential pathway out of poverty in many poor countries, where increasing consumption of animal products also helps reduce malnutrition among the poorest communities.

When allocating resources for agricultural development, which is a long-neglected sector, policymakers and aid agencies need to use different strategies for different regions and populations.

Now we need both worlds to understand one another.

The view from the North and the South - from the feedlots of Chicago and the semi-desert scrublands of Somalia and Ethiopia, from those who eat too much protein and those who eat too little - is very different.

When advocating policies that affect the developing world, we must respect all ways of life, including those born of necessities now remote in the developed world.

If you are asking people in New York, London or Tokyo to reduce their meat consumption for the good of their health and the environment, that is reasonable.

But asking a family on the edge of the Sahara Desert or the outskirts of the packed slums of Mumbai to give up protein from animal foods, particularly milk, is a quite different request.

As a proverb in the Horn of Africa goes: if the herds die, then the people will die too.

Dr Carlos Sere is executive director of the International Livestock Research Institute

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Dr Carlos Sere? Are calls to cut meat consumption failing to take into account the needs of the world's poorest communities? Are intensive farming methods wasteful and exacerbating the environmental impacts of the global livestock sector? Or are there more environmentally benign ways for people to get their vital intake of protein?

I don't think anyone is calling for an end of subsistence farming or husbandry. A farmer's cache of livestock in sub-Saharan Africa isn't a concern to most climate-wary activists, and if it is, it shouldn't be. Herding and husbandry on the scale you describe in developing nations has been occurring for thousands of years. What IS a concern is the way meat consumption functions in a number of developed countries, where dollar hamburgers and chicken patties have become a staple diet for millions. The mechanics of providing meat and dairy products at those levels of price and availability are disastrous for human and environmental health the world over. If anything, agriculture and sustainable livestock practices need to be fostered and encouraged in developing nations. Improved nutrition not only improves cognitive development and overall health, but can indirectly impact the growth and political stability of a developing nation. And stable nations built on healthy people is s!

omething few can argue against.

You make a valid point about the industrial farming system's ability to provide meat and dairy for developing nations and that attacking it could negatively impact the poor and malnurished. Keep in mind, though, that there are plenty of other non-animal sources of high-quality protein. Unfortunately, the consumer choices of those in developing nations largely shapes the path of production. Until millions start trading beef for tofu, the "protein" industry will continue to center on animal products. Thank you for the article.
Matt Wendus, Arlington, VA USA

I've been a vegetarian for 24 years and I can't believe anyone would suggest people on subsistence diets should be told not to eat meat. They need all the food they can get! At the same time, intensive farming is responsible for many enviromental problems and the West must ensure that 'Transition Nutrition' doesn't continue to affect poorer countries. I.E. You don't need to eat meat on a daily basis, just because you can afford to.
Regan Smyth, Holywood, Co. Down

The good doctor makes a basic mistake when he says that poor people in the global south are malnourished because they don't have access to animal products - they're malnourished because they don't have access to a healthy, diverse diet, which might just as well be vegetarian/vegan as not. The point is that social structures are enforcing lack of access of good quality food of ANY kind.

That said, he's completely correct that we're at very different points here in the global north than in the south. There's no need for people in industrialised nations to eat meat and dairy products every day (or even at all, let's be honest); we've just become habituated to a diet that has changed drastically over the past 40 years, and to spending a lesser proportion of our cash on food and more on luxuries such as entertainment and holidays. We're living with affluenza, constantly expecting more while excoriating those lower on the social ladder for having too much.

At root, while we're at different points along the way, both north and south's social and environmental problems are about how we've structured our cultures: inequality and the disempowerment of the many are fundamentals of our societies, leading to lack of collective responsibility, a gulf between the rich and poor, and excess as aspirational behaviour. It was (environmentally) sustainable when we were tiny populations with limited technology, but it just doesn't work now.
Kaz, Macclesfield, UK

I agree with the comments made here. How many times do we have blanket wonder solutions suggested? What's wrong with un-trendy reduce, reuse and recycle combined with buying local produce? I've heard people advocate the benefits of switching from red meat to fish! What would that do? Fisheries are collapsing, fish farms are unsustainable, local geography is unsuitable for arable farming but suited to sheep. Oh, and there are conflicts between animal welfare and low-energy food production so that argument is dodgy too. Some people are making this more complicated than it needs to be.
Louise, Galashiels

Dr Sere makes some excellent points in this article. However, I am not aware of any organisations that have accused small-scale livestock farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America of destroying the environment and causing climate change.

The route of the problem is the high level of consumption of meat and dairy in the West, and all the resources and energy required to feed, house and slaughter the animals raised to fulfill that demand; not farmers in developing countries.

It is also debatable whether people in developing countries need milk, eggs and meat specifically. Whilst they may need more protein in their diets, animal products are not the only source. Many more people could be fed on plant-based sources of protein such as grains, soy, nuts and seeds.

It is also worth noting that many of the people suffering from malnutrition in Latin America live right next door to massive soy planatations - an excellent source of protein. So why are they suffering from malnutrition? Because we feed 90% of the world's soy to animals. If Dr Sere is really concerned about hunger in developing countries, where is his request to reduce meat consumption and free up some of the 754 million tonnes of grain and 200 million tonnes of soy so that more people can be fed?
Sophie Pritchard, Wareham

Dr Sere, I don't think that anyone was proposing that poor African pastoralists should have their protein consumption curtailed.

Your argument is disingenuous - but then your job depends on a livestock industry - you know full well that the vast majority of the approx. 60 Billion animals eaten by humans each year (!) are raised industrially, using environmentally damaging practices and fed on grain, soya and other foods which could much more efficiently be consumed direct by humans. Except in a few desolate places like the Sahel, farmers are better to devote their time to growing crops.
Erin, UK

The times i have heard the words "nobody needs meat, we can just go to the chemist and get supplements, look, im perfectly healthy" yet they allways seem to forget, in africa and india, some people cant get A-Z multi-vitamins and SOY powder.
kyle, widnes

The fact that it takes 7 tons of grain to produce 1 ton of beef is pretty obscene and ludicrous. Why not feed people on that grain?
Jo Midgley, Newport, South Wales

Producing protein through the medium of animals is inefficient and likely to lead to further food shortages and malnourishment. People are not malnourished because they are not eating enough meat and dairy products. They are malnourished because they are not eating enough nutritious food because it is unavailable and/or unaffordable due to the demands of animal agriculture. Moving away from animal agriculture is the only answer to food shortages. Give food to humans, not animals.
Alan Swain, York, UK

Put too many livestock on the edge of a desert and it will become the desert. Like all animals, livestock are very inefficient ways to generate food in terms of solar energy required. If the ecological costs are not considered, many poor people will have even more serious problems to contend with, regardless of climate change.
Cliv e Hambler, Oxford, UK

I agree with Dr. Sere. Very much so because dietary fads are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Diets that are optimal for everyone are hard to find in the scientific literature showing that everyone is different when it comes to diet and nutrition.
Osama Rajkhan, Bangkok

Sounds like a politically driven article to me - possibly US farmers union? We all know that there are low emission agricultural industries that, while not being as tasty as a decent steak, still provide adequate protein.

So the problem is people have to forfeit drinking milk in order to save the planet? Pretty good trade off to me.

Carlos is missing the point on the whole problem - the productive carrying capacity of the many regions of the planet has been exceeded by the population of people. If people on the edge of the Sahara need to import milk from America to survive, then I don't think they should be living on the edge of the Sahara. Tough luck. Sorry.
Reggie Thompson, Australi

When it comes to legislative action to address the negative impact that animal agriculture has on the environment, energy supplies etc, I concur that a one-size-fits-the-whole-Earth approach is wrongheaded. But a feedlot in Africa is still a feedlot and still a bad idea.

"Milk and meat enhance the growth and cognitive development of children subsisting largely on starchy diets." And so would any vegan sources of protein and fat. Any claims that increased animal product consumption would help the world's poor needs to be weighed against what vegan sources could also provide. If not, you're just not being honest.

I'm not really sure that this guy has the right idea, but I really do appreciate that he is framing the issue in a global context (something that most "locavores" and organic enthusiasts usually don't do).
Jess Bednar, Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.A.

Dr Sere makes a very valid point, meat production here in South East Asia is often on a small scale, even to the point of many families having a few chickens. And after all surely an animal that eats plants must by definition be carbon neutral!
Justin Holme, KL, Malaysia

I think this is a very thoughtful and balanced attitude. Just because developed nations have gone to an extreme does not mean that poor nations should also suffer. I think the day of creating public policy based solely upon one aspect of a problem is very narrow-minded and selfish. How can we look at all the sloppy obese people in the developed countries sitting around watching television and horfing down fish and chips or McD's and say that the whole world needs to give up raising beef or eating fat when there are people who barely have enough food for one meal a day? It's time we stopped making decisions based upon an all or nothing kind of mentality. It's not reasonable, realistic, or humane.
Marcy, Indiana, USA

Meat is not the only way to get protein.
M.E. Baz, Pasadena, CA

Cutting the consumption of feedlot meat worldwide is a no-brainer. Grain-fed beef, especially, is damaging to human health, the environment, and the farmland where the grain is grown. No one should eat it, especially not the financially poor in non-industrial countries. The only people who benefit from that industry are the corporate owners who profit handsomely off of highly subsidized grain.

Dr. Sere rightly points out that people with little income benefit greatly from animal protein in whatever form they find it. He fails to mention that animals are also essential parts of ecosystems where they cycle nutrients, disperse fertilizer and seed, and convert grasses and other plant material into nutritious human food. Well-managed herds of grazing and foraging livestock can help maintain healthy savannas, prairies, and arid steppes while simultaneously sequestering carbon in the soils, as several ranchers and farmers have demonstrated.

It would be much more helpful if the question-writers for the BBC's "Green Room" would refrain from implying that industrial animal protein or industrial veganism are the only two choices for a healthy diet, as neither one is good for humans or the planet.

"Are intensive farming methods wasteful and exacerbating the environmental impacts of the global livestock sector?" Are you kidding? Millions of tons of topsoil and chemicals wash out to sea every year, creating massive dead zones in the seas, while factory-scale confinement feedlots pump out sewage on par with major US cities, all so that people can eat hamburgers for $2.99 while stuck in a traffic jam on the highway. Meanwhile, the prairies with 10-foot deep topsoil built by the bison herds are plowed up and sprayed with massive oil-powered machines every year to grow monocrops of GMO corn and soybeans to fatten the feedlot animals. All of these things have been reported on this site, and the editor still asks if these practices are "wasteful and exacerbating the environmental impacts of the global livestock sector?" Unbelievable.
Steve Morgan, Boulder, CO USA

On the whole I agree with the article, but I don't quite see the point - who in the sustainable development discourse is in fact suggesting that the least developed countries, or the poor people in developing and medium income countries, should cut down their meat consumption? I've been following the debate and haven't yet encountered this position.

Yes, the rich need to cut down and the poor and malnourished need to catch up on their meet consumption, but - and this is where I disagree with the article - the overall global meat consumption still needs to be curbed. I suspect that the article presupposes a rather simple rich countries vs. poor countries dichotomy, but most people today live in countries with a medium Human Development Index, countries which usually feature stark social inequalities accompanied by widely differing nutritional situations - waste and excess meat consumption on the one hand, malnourishment on the other.
Daniel, Salzburg, Austria

Moderate consumption of animal products improves health of the malnourished in the same way the that a more sustainable cocktail of vitamins, healthy fats, and minerals would. For instance, had the studies considered the effect on the health of these people after adding avocado and spinach to their diet, we could expect the same and better results. Animal products as vital components of a healthy diet is myth long now dispelled. As for economic importance of the meat industry, the developing world would do well to take the long view and adopt sustainable habits now.
Steve, Seattle, USA

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