In the Western world, consumers are regularly advised to cut down on the amount of meat they consume to improve planetary and human health.
One need only look to the EAT-Lancet Commission dietary guidelines of 2019, which suggest global consumption of red meat will need to decrease by more than 50% by 2050 to keep within planetary boundaries.
However, in a perspective published in journal Environmental Research Letters, scientists stress that recommendations to reduce meat consumption – in an effort to lower carbon emissions – should not be universal. Indeed, such guidance ignores low- or middle-income countries (LMICs), they say, where livestock is critical to incomes and diets.
The researchers believe that ‘negative narratives’ associating meat consumption with adverse environmental impacts are ‘mostly rooted’ in industrial livestock production systems and the overconsumption of animal source foods in Western countries.
In the perspective, they argue that such narratives overshadow the various complex and often positive roles livestock plays in LMICs in Africa, South America, South- and South-East Asia.
“Conclusions drawn in widely publicised reports argue that a main solution to the climate and human health crisis globally is to eat no or little meat but they are biased towards industrialised, Western systems,” said study lead author and environmental scientist at the Alliance of Biodiversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Birthe Paul.
The researchers note that since 1945, just 13% of scientific literature published on livestock covers Africa. This is at odds with the continent’s global share of livestock they suggest: Africa is home to 20%, 27% and 32% of global cattle, sheep and goat populations.
Further, only two of the world’s top ten institutes publishing livestock research are headquartered in Africa – where the sector is considered the ‘backbone’ of the economy. The other eight are located in the US, France, the Netherlands, and the UK.
Spotlight on the positives
In ignoring LMICs’ livestock production and meat consumption, many of its positive impacts are also obscured, the researchers argue. In these countries, livestock plays an important role in ecosystem services, income and asset provision and insurance. How animals are raised in LMICs is also largely out of focus.
In LMICs, feed product may be more local than in Western industrialised systems, for example. Soybean is a good example of this: the legume is produced in Brazil and exported all around the world as animal feed.
And in Africa’s savanna, farmers pen their herds at night. This practice has been proven to boost nutrient diversity and biodiversity hotspots.
“Mixed systems in LMICs, where animal production is fully linked with crop production, can actually be more environmentally sustainable,” added co-author An Notenbaert from the Alliance of Biodiversity International and CIAT.
“In sub-Saharan Africa, manure is a nutrient resource which maintains soil health and crop productivity; while in Europe, huge amounts of manure made available through industrialised livestock production are overfertilizing agricultural land and causing environmental problems.”
That is not to say that livestock production in LMICs is not contributing to climate change. Livestock systems are recognised to be a considerable source of atmospheric greenhouse gases. But as Polly Ericksen, Program Leader of Sustainable Livestock Systems at the International Livestock Research Institute stressed: “Meat production itself is not the problem.”
‘Lower-meat diets should not be advocated everywhere’
Rather, it is the way livestock is mass-produced, intensified and commercialised that is negatively impacting the environment, suggested Ericksen.
“Eliminating meat from our diet is not going to solve that problem. While advocating a lower-meat diet makes sense in industrialised systems, the solution is not a blanket climate solution, and does not apply everywhere.”
According to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), meat consumption in sub-Saharan Africa is significantly lower than that of the US – which is estimated to become the highest in the world in the coming years.
Due to low incomes, climate-induced heat-stress in animals, and other factors, the FAO predicts meat consumption in sub-Saharan Africa to be as low as an average of 12.9kg per person by 2028. This, it says, will lead to human health implications such as malnutrition and stunting. By 2028, US meat consumption is expected to rise to more than 100kg per person.
So how can LMICs help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to nourish their populations with meat? For starters, more data is required for LMICs to develop climate-friendly strategies, stressed the researchers.
LMICs also need to avoid the industrial farming techniques associated with high emissions, they suggested. These countries need to look beyond making animals more productive, towards resource-efficient and environmental systems that actively reduce emissions from agriculture. Potential solutions could include improving animal feed to cut methane emissions, better managing grazing land, and mixing crop and livestock so that manure is ploughed back into the soil.
Research co-author Klaus Butterbach-Bachl from the Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, Atmospheric Environmental Research, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and ILRI said better decisions about how to reduce global greenhouse emissions from livestock and agriculture in LMICs can only be driven by better data.
“For that, we need more – and not less – locally-adapted and multi-disciplinary research together with local people in low- and middle-income countries, on sustainable livestock development, with all the supporting financial incentives, policies and capacity in place to intensify livestock production in a more sustainable way, on a bigger scale.”
Source: Environmental Research Letters
‘Sustainable livestock development in low- and middle-income countries: shedding light on evidence-based solutions’
Published 21 December 2020
Authors: Birthe K Paul, Klaus Butterbach-Bahl, An Notenbaert, Alex Nduah Nderi and Polly Eriksen