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Eat less meat to save the planet?

October 16, 2020

More plants, less meat — it's a simple way to sustainably feed the planet's exploding population. But for the millions who depend on livestock to make ends meet, it's not so simple.

A herdsman prepares cows for his customer after cattle transactions at Illiea Cattle Market, Sokoto State, Nigeria
Image: AFP/Luis Tato

Environmental researchers have long touted the benefits of eating less meat and animal products, not only to improve our health but also the health of the planet.

Direct and indirect emissions from the livestock sector — which includes cows as well as goats, sheep, pigs and poultry — are responsible for the equivalent of 7.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide every year, roughly 14.5% of all human-caused emissions. 

That's according to estimates from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which points out that about 65% of the sector's emissions can be linked to cattle in the form of beef and dairy production. 

But it's not just emissions that are a problem for the planet: Animal husbandry dominates about three-quarters of agricultural land, pollutes water and drives deforestation, particularly in the Amazon rainforest.

Why billions of people still need meat

It certainly wouldn't hurt the Western world to reduce its meat consumption — Europeans, for example, consume twice as much meat as the global average and roughly three times as much dairy. But it's a very different story for the global south. 

More than 1.5 billion people around the world can't afford a diet that meets the required levels of essential nutrients, according to FAO estimates, and animals provide a vital source of protein in the form of milk, meat and eggs.

How will our diets change in the future?

"You can find nutritious foods in many things — pulses, fruits and vegetables. But the livestock sector is key, and dairy is key," Carin Smaller, director of agriculture, trade and investment at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), told DW. 

A major report on world hunger and climate change released this week by Ceres2030, a collaboration between the IISD, the International Food Research Policy Institute (IFPRI) and Cornell University in the US, highlighted the connection between livestock, livelihood and land.

"In these areas where we see significant hunger, livestock are integrated into the farm production: the cow creates manure, which fertilizes the maize, which both the humans and the livestock eat. Livestock is a key piece of maintaining this system," said Isabelle Baltenweck of the International Livestock Research Institute, a contributor to the Ceres2030 report. 

The report made the point that cereals such as rice and maize have helped many countries to meet minimum calorie needs, but said the focus on these crops has "discouraged the production of a diversity of cultivated and non-cultivated foods, including animal-sourced foods, that provided better nutritional outcomes."

Read more: Climate finance hits hurdle in greening meat and dairy

A farmer walks through a paddy fields in Morigaon district, in India's northeastern state of Assam
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Boro
Angeline Kadiki, a sorghum farmer, inspects her small grains crop thriving in the dry conditions in the Mutoko rural area of Zimbabwe
Cereals such as rice (above), maize and sorghum (below) have helped alleviate hunger, but aren't always enoughImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Njikizana

Livestock's role in ending hunger

Livestock also allow millions of farm workers, pastoralists and smallholders with limited access to land to make a living, said Baltenweck. This critical support, along with the recognized nutritional benefits, make animals an important part of the efforts to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. 

The Global Hunger Index revealed this week that some 690 million people around the world faced chronic hunger in 2019 — that's more than twice the population of the United States. "In the decade to come economic growth will help reduce poverty and hunger around the world, but it won't be enough, especially for farmers," said David Laborde, a senior research fellow with the IFPRI.

If nothing is done to address the issue, the FAO has projected that the number of people suffering from extreme hunger could grow to 840 million over the next 10 years. The problem is expected to be severely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences, largely in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

$330 billion needed to 'end hunger' by 2030

The Ceres2030 project, an in-depth survey of more than 100,000 agricultural reports and articles published in the last 20 years, found that it would take an additional $330 billion (€282 billion) to reach the UN sustainable development goal "to end all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030." 

According to the report, for this goal to be reached international donors would need to provide an additional $14 billion per year, with low- and middle-income countries making up the difference with an annual $19 billion. 

Infographic showing the Global Hunger Index for 2020

The money would go toward improving food storage, transport and processing systems. It would also increase training, networking and financial support for farmers, especially for young people and women who are often excluded. Women, who make up about two-thirds of livestock keepers in low- and middle-income countries, are also more likely to experience food insecurity.

At the farm level, these funds would also go toward developing climate-friendly solutions like more resilient crops and green farming technology to help the livestock sector curb its agricultural emissions.

"There's no shortage of ideas and innovation and technologies, but they're not being adopted and used by the poorest," said Smaller. She gave the example of dairy yields in some parts of Africa, which can be up to 20 times below what they are in developed countries.

"If we can increase the productivity of those cows, not only do we provide more dairy products to people living in these low-income countries and where there are high levels of hunger, but we also reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each liter of milk," she said.

With more productive cattle, herd size could be limited — as could the levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas also produced by cattle that is responsible for nearly half of all livestock emissions.

Some other sustainable practices include:

  • Making use of crop residues (including stems, leaves, husks, roots and seeds) to feed animals, reducing the need for purchased feed
  • Managing grazing lands to increase the quality of vegetation that animals eat, and at the same creating potential carbon sinks
  • Improving animal health through feed supplements and veterinary care, increasing livestock productivity
  • Introducing energy-efficient technologies like anaerobic digesters, which break down manure into biogas, a source of renewable energy

Drone technology takes farming into the future

Looking for 'a global green agricultural revolution'

Although donations this week have reached a total of $300 million from the governments of Spain, Norway, Australia and Germany and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — the latter two also co-funded the Ceres2030 project — calls are growing louder for more to be done.

German Development Minister Gerd Müller, for example, pointed out that the planet has the potential to feed 10 billion people and that a "global green agricultural revolution" akin to the Fridays for Future climate movement would be needed. He called for more support — both financial and political — from global players like China, the US, the European Union and the African Union.

Smaller, too, called for more. 

"If people are serious about achieving this goal of ending hunger, protecting the climate and improving the incomes of the world's poorest producers, then everybody's going to need to contribute," said Smaller. "It's definitely not going to happen just with the traditional G-7 donors."

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues