Monday, December 3, 2012

Best of MMM: A Veggie Considers Meat

It would be a little uncharacteristic of me to spend an entire week at a meeting on climate change and not even bring up the topic. So, on my last day in Doha, and during the one full day devoted to agriculture and rural development, I am posting on agriculture's major contribution to climate change - Livestock. This post is from last year, but as far as I know, animal-based agriculture still contributes around 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
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Photo credit: Neil Palm/CIAT
No, I am not considering EATING meat, but the press coverage livestock has experienced lately in the foodie and agriculture world merits some attention. This industry has often held a central role in sustainability discussions, as well as those focused on rural development and food security. In the past couple of weeks, several articles (and articles on those articles) have emerged addressing the part livestock plays in climate change, land degradation, and world food system.

First, let’s establish a bit of background on the livestock industry. According the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock contributes 40% to global agricultural production and is the base of sustenance (both financially and nutritionally) for close to one billion people. While it also supplies 15% of daily energy consumption and 25% of dietary protein, the industry itself experiences many market distortions fueled by poor policies that ultimately cause a disproportionately greater environmental impact than economic/human benefit. Animal-based agriculture has two faces: it is both an integral part of an agro-ecosystem’s waste and nutrient cycle, as well as a performer in the great climate change and land degradation saga. I’m going to leave out regional differences and the whole discussion on development and changing dietary preferences, but the FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture Report provides plenty of statistics and analysis to give you a good grasp of the topic.
Now that you have some context for our discussion, we can get to the meat of the issue (yes, pun intended). My biggest beef (again? groan!) with the world’s meat obsession is the discrepancy between large industrial production and small-scale traditional farming methods. Apparently, I am not the only one (of course not!). The recent deluge of articles centers around this dichotomy. Noted livestock naysayer and Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, has changed his tune from “veganism is the answer” to “it’s all about how you do it.” Monbiot argues that, “Cattle are excellent converters of grass but terrible converters of concentrated feed [like corn and soy]. The feed would have been much better used to make pork… And pigs should only be eating grain when there's a surplus -- the rest of the time they should be eating from the endless human food-waste stream.” How old-school. Can you imagine a system where the wastes of one process feed the production of another good? That sounds almost…efficient.
While animal agriculture is a major driver of deforestation, particularly in South America, and a competitor with humans for grain, it also can play an integral part in a climate and human friendly agroscape. A study by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) demonstrated that raising cattle on pasture, supplementing this diet with crop residues, and restoring degraded lands will make serious inroads into curbing greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock production. As it is, most of the climate change contribution of livestock results from deforestation and land degradation (and the extent attributed to the animals is another hot point of debate). Researcher, Philip Thornton, also puts this forward as opportunity to level out the burden placedon developing nations by establishing a carbon market for these services.
So, if I have not exhausted your attention span, there is much more information available on this hot topic, and some related domestic policy issues. Here are a few more articles for your perusal:
FDA's Proposed Regulations for Antibiotic Use in Animals and the Failure of Food Safety Legislation.
A Report on Livestock's Environmental and Social Impact to get your hands on (go Cardinal!)
World Resource Institute explains The Role of Livestock in Poverty Alleviation

On a whole livestock production is an issue on the gray scale (approach with a critical eye and an open mind). While I am not advocating that everyone now consume copious amounts of meat, if you do eat meat be conscious of the source and methods of production. Consider your choices and make educated decisions.

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