Italy’s ambition to ‘lead the ecological transition’ sparks meat sector criticism

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Italian meat industry fires back at the incoming Minister of Ecological Transition / Pic: GettyImages-jenifoto
Italian meat industry fires back at the incoming Minister of Ecological Transition / Pic: GettyImages-jenifoto

Related tags Meat production Environmental impact Carbon emissions Health

“Italy can be a leader in the ecological transition,” Italy’s new environment minister said this week. But comments on the need to reduce meat consumption have proven controversial – and sparked a backlash from the meat lobby.

Italy appointed its new Minister of Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani, just last month. Cingolani, formerly scientific director of the Italian Institute of Technology, hit the ground running. The Minister has outlined an ambitious role for Italy in a global transition to a greener future.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government has placed sustainable development at the heart of its draft National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR), with the aim of become a global leader in sustainable development as it looks towards 2040.

“At this moment it is essential to ask ourselves what Italy we want in 2040 and what role do we want Italy to play in this not too distant future. I believe that Italy can aspire to be a reference nation. It has an intrinsic international leadership because it has excellences that no one else has,”​ the new Environment Minister suggested at a presentation of the PNRR analysis carried out by the Alliance Italy for Sustainable Development.

However, Cingolani noted during the online event, ‘sustainability is a compromise’.

“There is no single recipe that maximizes the result and cancels the problems. Being sustainable and having a successful ecological transition means finding the right compromise between different needs.”

Miniser Cingolani speaking at the presentation of the PNRR analysis - Pic - Italian Ministry for the Environment
Minister Cingolani speaking at the presentation of the PNRR analysis / Pic: Italian Ministry for the Environment

What are the ‘right’ compromises? Comments made by Cingolani suggest the meat sector could be one such sacrifice he is willing to make in the development of a more sustainable food system.

"All the problems of sustainability are interconnected,”​ he explained at an event on the National Strategy for Sustainable Development. “It is no longer possible to separate epidemiology from what we eat, from the model of economic development, this cross-correlation requires solutions that are multiple and are inspired by the concept of co-benefit.”

Reducing meat consumption offers a ‘co-benefit’ for human and planetary health, he continued.

“We know that those who eat too much meat suffer from impacts on health, so we should decrease the amount of animal proteins by replacing them with vegetable ones. On the other hand, animal protein requires six times the water of plant proteins, with the same quantity and intensive farming that produce 20% of CO2… By increasing vegetable proteins we would have a benefit by improving public health, decreasing the use of water and producing less CO2.”

‘We would like to share the real numbers with you’: Carni Sostenibili

Responding to the comments, industry association Carni Sostenibili (literally ‘Sustainable Meat’) argued that an inaccurate picture of the footprint of Italian meat consumption is painted if you look at global figures.

“We would like to share with you the ‘real’ numbers of the Italian livestock sector, aware that behind the data there is the work of professionals, scientists, farmers, breeders, agronomists, veterinarians, who daily transform research and innovation into good practices to protect people, animals and the environment,”​ Carni Sostenibili president Giuseppe Pulina insisted in an open letter highlighting the efforts industry is already making on sustainable development.

“We know that the road to a complete sustainability of human activities, including meat production, is a long path, a transition in fact. On this path the hope [of] our sector, increasingly a reference model for the rest of the world, [is that] you become part of the solution and not just a problem to be dismissed quickly.”

So, according to Carni Sostenibili’s figures, what environmental impact should be attributed to Italian meat and dairy production?

“Since 1970 it has almost halved the emissions of the main greenhouse gas, methane, to produce a kilo of animal proteins, going from 28 kg of CO2 equivalent to 12 kg,”​ Pulina claimed citing ISTAT historical data and other sources.

He noted that this progress places emissions produced by Italian animal husbandry below the global average. FAO estimates emissions from all animal husbandry contribute 14.5% of total emissions. ISPRA puts this figure at 5.2% for Italy. Similarly, Italian producers use 25% less water than the global average, Pulina stressed. And on antibiotics, the EU has recorded a 42% reduction in use in the country between 2010 and 2018.

GettyImages-OksanaKiian pasta Italian food
Italian meat consumption is shaped by the 'healthy' Mediterranean diet, argued Pulina / Pic: GettyImages-OaksanaKiian

Echoing Cingolani's desire to deliver 'co-benefits', Pulina also examined the social and nutritional impact of meat production and consumption.

The meat association highlighted the contribution the livestock sector makes to employment, providing 250,000 jobs and a turnover of €40bn.

Pulina placed meat consumption firmly in the context of the traditional Mediterranean diet, which sets an ‘example of healthiness all over the world’. Italians have among the lowest ‘real’ meat consumption in Europe (a measure that differs from ‘apparent’ consumption because it excludes the non-edible parts of an animal) at 368kg per year, he said. For beef, ‘real’ consumption is an average of 9 kg per capita per year, ‘well below’ WHO recommendations, the meat sector representative insisted.

“We hope that [lining] up the numbers and the most recent research on the sector can represent a concrete contribution to your work,”​ Pulina said, addressing Cingolani directly.

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