1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

How to feed the world amid COVID and climate crises

January 20, 2021

Curbing meat consumption is essential in the fight against climate change. But it is a more complicated story in countries that face spiraling food insecurity.

A cow standind in a sparse landscape in Namibia
Meat consumption is linked to climate change. But without it, many in developing countries face health risksImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tödt

The hottest year on record and a global pandemic are fueling fast-rising food insecurity and malnutrition around the world. Almost 690 million people suffered from hunger in 2019, a figure that was projected to rise by 130 million by the end of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the United Nations.

About one in 10 people are currently experiencing severe food insecurity globally, with hunger most prevalent in Southeast Asia and expanding fastest in sub-Saharan Africa. Water scarcity and regional conflicts have only deepened the crisis.

The meat of food insecurity

Sustainable livestock farming will be central to tackling food insecurity in these regions, say experts at this week's Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA), which is themed "How to Feed the World in Times of Pandemics and Climate Change?"

Despite the push to rein in the over-consumption of meat and dairy in the Global North, animals remain a vital and yet diminishing source of nutrition and food security in low income nations — especially in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Welthungerindex EN

Grazing animals convert low quality feed into high quality proteins with essential amino acids that are not found in plants. Pastoralists guide livestock to eat grasses, forages and unused crop by-products and waste that humans cannot eat, transforming this low nutrition food into high-quality meat and dairy proteins — often on marginal, non-arable land.

But while there is "an overconsumption of some meat products in high income countries," there is in fact "underconsumption in low income countries," said Claudia Ringler, deputy division director at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Ringler says "stunting" and "cognitive health" issues linked to malnutrition are often the result of limited access to the more complete proteins that plant-based proteins lack — a point supported by the fact that chronic malnutrition contributed to the stunting of 144 million children under age 5 in 2019.

Human, animal and environmental health

Under the mantra of One Health, a cross-disciplinary approach to health and nutrition that preaches the unity of human, animal and environmental health, food and agriculture experts insist that sustainable livestock farming is a fundamental part of food systems in low-income countries that needs to be harnessed and improved.

A boy drinks milk from a cow
A boy drinks milk from a cow belonging to the family herd on a Nigerian reserve created so that nomadic pastoralists have better access to water and can avoid conflictImage: AFP/Luis Tato
A colorful pastoralist carrying a goat
A Somali-Ethiopian pastoralist in 2016. She is among many who endured a six-month odyssey to find rain and pastures due to droughtImage: DW/J.Jeffrey

"If we are looking at a holistic one health approach, livestock is an integral part of agriculture and one cannot do without the other," said Björn Niere, deputy head of "Pandemic prevention, one health, animal health, biodiversity" at Germany's Economic Cooperation and Development Ministry. 

"Some one billion very poor people rely on food-producing farm animals for their lives and livelihoods," he added.

Niere acknowledges that "pastoralism is sometimes unsustainable due to land pressure and overgrazing" — which is exacerbated by dwindling land ownership in Africa among smallholder farmers. He instead promotes a sustainable farming model known as agroecology that combines mixed livestock and arable cropping systems as the best means to ensure food security. Resilience to water scarcity and drought is another goal, with rising temperatures having recently been linked to increased child malnutrition and less diverse diets. 

This is in stark contrast to industrial meat production in developed nations. When the Meat Atlas 2021 was released in early January, Barbara Unmüssig of the green think tank, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, summed up the argument against agribusiness meat when she said it "pushes people off their land, leads to deforestation, biodiversity loss and the use of pesticides — and is also one of the main drivers of the climate crisis."

Infografik Fleischatlas Fleischkonsum EN

Fighting disease and food insecurity

The call to increase access to sustainable meat and dairy produce across the Global South is complicated by the fact such products are often sold in a "wet" market, like the one where the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, is believed to have occurred. Such a devastating zoonotic disease that is passed on between animals and humans has heightened calls to ban wet markets.

But will such a ban end up threatening food security and forcing the problem underground?

"More than 80% of eggs, milk, meat and fish are sold in such markets in developing countries," said Dieter Schillinger, deputy director general biosciences at the International Livestock Research Institute. "We cannot get rid of them. Rather, we must make them safe. This can be done."

Despite the wild animal trade often remaining unregulated and exploited, Doreen Robinson of the UN Environment Programme fears that reduced access to wildlife will make communities over-reliant on limited forms of meat protein and crops. "The environment offers healthy natural food choices if we take care of it," she said.  

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is now a far greater focus on monitoring these markets for early detection of pathogens. "This fatal situation ... has at least bought to the attention of many that the health of humans, animals and the environment are closely linked," said Björn Niere. 

Pangolins seized by Indonesian authorites
But in some countries, the sale of some exotic meats, like Pangolin, have been linked to the spread of diseaseImage: AFP/Getty Images
A wet market in India
Wet markets, like this one pictured in Calcutta, India, are a common source of food for many across the globeImage: DW/S. Bandopadhyay

The true cost of food?

The irony of growing global food insecurity is the fact that humans currently produce significantly more food than they need. A major culprit is food waste, which also contributes significant greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbates climate change — which in turn will limit future food production.  

If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest carbon emitter, said Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, director and chair of the African Research Universities Alliance Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA).

The amount of wastage at the "farm gate" — meaning food that spoils before it is even shipped — can be up to 60%, she said.

"We have challenged 20 major food companies to work with growers to reduce food loss and waste by 50%," said the ARUA chair, with better refrigeration high on the agenda. "We have to work together."

Meanwhile, some Indian farmers have resorted to direct selling to reduce waste during lockdowns.

Such partnerships will be integral to achieving the interrelated goals of zero hunger and carbon neutrality by 2030 and 2050 respectively. Sibanda says this mission must be founded on a science that is "transdisciplinary," and which "seeks to transform food, land and water systems in a climate crisis."  

India's fight against hunger

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.