FT : Non-Vegetarians Post Bigger Climate Change Threat Than CO2 Output

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The figures are stark. Livestock produce 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than all the aeroplanes, trains and automobiles combined.  They chomp what grows on 80% of the world’s agricultural land and swallow up, directly or indirectly, 8% of our water.  To feed 6.8bn people, we nourish 1.3bn cattle, 1bn sheep and 16bn chickens. Ruminants such as cows digest grass, a useful ability since we cannot.  But in the process they burp vast quantities of methane, which is 23% more warming to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.  The world’s appetite for animal produce grows apace, as populations in emerging countries become richer.  In 1980, the average Chinese citizen consumed 12.8kg of meat a year, 2.3kg of dairy products and 2.5kg of eggs.  By 2005, meat consumption per person had risen fourfold to 59.5kg, dairy consumption rose 10-fold to 23.2kg and egg-eating had reached 20.2kg, an eightfold increase.  While China is the most striking example, similar increases in the amount of nimal-based protein consumed are seen in every region of the world where prosperity has risen. Even in developed countries, which top the tables, meat consumption edged up to 82.1kg, despite a trend towards eating white meat in place of red. Only in sub-Saharan Africa did intakes decline, to 13.3kg of meat a year.

Partly in response to surging demand, the livestock sector has undergone an unsung revolution in the past couple of decades, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) showed in its report The State of Food and Agriculture 2009 – Livestock in the Balance. Intensive production and vertically- integrated food processing have developed closer to urban populations, often supplied with feedstuff grown far away.  Though livestock graze a quarter of the world’s surface, they also swallow a third of the crops grown, notably in the form of soya beans in an area of Brazil known as the Cerrado, once renowned as a woodland-savannah. The FAO expects further growth in meat consumption by 2050, and even a belated doubling in sub-Saharan Africa, to 22kg per person each year. Little wonder, then, that tackling the environmental consequences, and above all the emissions, is increasingly recognised as an urgent task by many in the livestock industry, as well as by policymakers and environmental campaigners. Yet, according to the FAO, almost 80% of the world’s 1bn undernourished people live in rural areas, and in many poorer countries up to 60% of rural households keep livestock, providing them not just with food, but also a source of income.

Vicki Hird, senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK, an environmental group, notes the contrast between obesity and heart disease compounded by excessive animal protein in some countries, and the need for many poor people to consume more of these foods. She argues in favour of a three-pronged approach to the environmental challenge faced by the livestock industry. Production systems should be reshaped, she says, to reduce pressure on farmers to use ever-more-intensive methods that require feedstuffs imported from afar instead of pasture and generate large amounts of waste. Consumption should be a second focus, with western consumers ideally reducing the amount of meat and dairy products they swallow – thereby creating headroom for undernourished populations to increase their meat and dairy intake. Much more research is also needed, she says, into animal breeds, farming techniques and land use, to provide the data on which to take policy decisions that will minimise environmental impacts. Brian Lindsay, chairman of the standing committee on the environment at the International Dairy Federation (IDF), says: “We recognise that there is an issue that we need to deal with.” But there are no simple policy prescriptions, he says. The dairy industry provides more than half the world’s beef, but an FAO study, Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Dairy Sector, showed huge variations in emissions per kilo of milk product. Emissions from farming in developed cou tries were as low as 1kg of CO2 per kg of dairy produce. In sub-Saharan African they averaged 7.5kg. Mr Lindsay says the IDF has just launched guidelines on standardising emissions data, so that it will become possible to compare mitigation project effectiveness. Though the UK, for example, has set a target of reducing livestock emissions by 25% by 2020, the scope for improvement at individual farms is subject to many variables. Sharing knowledge may have great potential, especially in sub- Saharan Africa, where better feed could unlock dairy productivity and improve emission ratios. But mitigation must be tailored to farms and cultures. And what about consuming fewer animal proteins? “That is a personal choice,” says Mr Lindsay.

Reference : The Financial Times, Nov 29th 2010

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