Skip to content
Start of page content below the header
15 March 2017

High-steaks decision: Does livestock have a role in sustainable food systems?

Photo: Deborah Namayi Muricho, Department of Agricultural Economics, and University of Nairobi, Kenya

Livestock trading at Chepareria market. Photo: Deborah Namayi Muricho, Department of Agricultural Economics, and University of Nairobi, Kenya

Is it OK to keep eating meat? Or even milk, cheese and eggs? It’s almost guaranteed that this topic will come up whenever dinner table conversation turns to sustainability.

Livestock production has been implicated in many of our biggest environmental challenges, from climate change to deforestation to the critical state of many coastal ecosystems. At the same time, animal-sourced foods are excellent sources of protein and other nutrients essential for mental and physical development, especially in young children; not to mention being in high demand among the burgeoning middle classes of emerging economies.

So, how do we reconcile our nutritional needs and our taste for animal-based foods with environmental sustainability?

Ahead of the CFS 43, SIANI spoke with Delia Grace – a veterinary epidemiologist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and a member of the HLPE livestock project team – about the so-called omnivore’s dilemma, the critical issues in livestock production around the world and a vision for policy-makers who will be implementing the recommendations mde by the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE).

So should we stop eating meat to slow climate change and environmental degradation?

DG: There’s a tendency to look for simple black-and-white solutions. But once we start to explore these issues in depth we find out that they’re not as simple as that.

When it comes to meat, we can say that some people eat too much of it and, perhaps, the wrong type, and it would be good for the planet and for them to eat less. But there are also many people who do not eat enough meat, or enough high-quality protein that they can easily get from their local environments.

At the moment there are around 2 billion people in the world who suffer from micronutrient deficiency. This means they may have low iron, low zinc, low B vitamins. And these micronutrients are very rich in animal-sourced food, but are not particularly rich in plant-based foods. And so for those people we certainly don’t want to send out the message “stop eating meat”. There are fairly comprehensive studies from Africa in which they asked mothers what their infants had eaten in the last 24 hours. These show that less than one in five kids under the age of two are getting milk each day and less than one in three are getting meat. These kids are mainly growing up on a diet based on corn and water and this is not doing them any good; many of these kids are stunted.

So, it’s a very nuanced message. Some people should eat less high-protein food and some people should eat more.

Why is livestock the topic of this year’s HLPE report?

DG: I think there are two main reasons. One is that livestock is a very important sector in terms of its impact. Livestock uses a lot of the world’s agricultural land and it’s also the agricultural sector with the highest economic value. Also, livestock commodities are highest in value; milk, for example, is the single highest value commodity. So livestock is a big part of agriculture.

At the same time, livestock accounts for a big part of the negative impacts of agriculture. So, the livestock sector is important because it gives us food and provides livelihoods for many people but also has high environmental and social impacts and there are concerns about animal welfare.

Livestock is also the fastest-growing agricultural sector worldwide, while other agricultural sectors are more static. That is why it is of such a big interest to the global food security, and especially for the HLPE report series which is very much directed towards the future. The report includes many foresight exercises looking at what is on the horizon and just over it.

Generally speaking, what’s wrong with our livestock systems? Why do we need to change them?

DG: Again, despite the fact that simple messages are always more attractive and easier to understand, the answer to this question is: it’s complicated and the messages should be nuanced, depending on the context.

We are not saying that everything needs to be changed and that the livestock sector is not working; we are saying that it is doing many good things and many bad things. And we need to strengthen the good things and mitigate the bad things, and that requires doing different things in different places, considering that different people have different needs.

So, what are the bad things? The livestock sector may be responsible for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions; it is a substantial contributor to climate change. Air, land and water pollution from intensive livestock systems is also a big problem. Poor animal welfare, when animals are kept in unsatisfactory conditions, concerns many people.

There is one issue that I am especially interested in. I am an epidemiologist and I mainly work with diseases. Livestock-sourced foods pose the greatest food safety risks. If you get ill from eating any food, it is most likely to be a livestock product or to be more precise, an animal sourced food, as fish are included in the risky food group too.

There are also many emerging diseases. Some of them come from or through livestock, like, for example, avian influenza. Although it has dropped out of the public consciousness and does not make headlines, it is still a big problem and there are outbreaks going on all over the world. It’s possible that an outbreak will come along which may easily spread from animals to humans and it will make the headlines again.

The same can be said about the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the West Nile virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)- coronavirus and other emerging diseases, many at the human-livestock interface. So, these are the points of concerns, the aspects of livestock management which we need to change.

Obviously, livestock rearing and meat eating have been criticized, but they also have health benefits and high traditional value? Could you elaborate?

DG: These are quite difficult to capture. Livelihood benefits we understand a bit better. We know, for example, that around 1 billion people depend on livestock to some extent, and these are usually poor people and most of them are women.

However, not everything can be reduced to dollars and calories. In many cultures livestock is an important part of the culture. People keep them not only for what they produce, but also because livestock can act as a financial instrument. For instance, when someone very poor needs to borrow money he or she can use their sheep as a warranty. Livestock is what we call a piggy-bank of the poor. Many poor people buy school books by selling eggs from their chicken or cover their hospital expenses by selling their cow. So, livestock is very important for social resilience and ability to cope.

There is another area, which is probably the hardest to capture of all. It is about the social status from owning livestock and biophilia, a psychological benefit that people get from being close to animals. I remember a widow in Bangladesh who had lost her house and was sleeping in someone else’s home, but she had a goat and her goat had become her companion, and was giving her a reason to wake up every day.

So, we have to take the other benefits of livestock rearing into account, even though it’s not a language policy-makers are used to.

There is a classification of livestock farms in the report (smallholder mixed farming systems, pastoral systems, commercial grazing systems, intensive livestock systems). What’s important for smaller-scale farms and what are the steps that should be done by large-scale industrial players? What can they learn from each other?

DG: In many ways, this farm classification reflects a difference between low- and middle-income countries, where there are more small- and medium-scale farms, and high-income countries, which tend to have large-scale industrial production.

Again, it is complicated, because both small- and large-scale farms have their strengths and weaknesses.

Large intensive farms are very good at producing large quantities of cheap protein at prices that people can afford. And actually they produce less greenhouse gases per unit of milk or per kilogram of meat than the smaller more extensive farms. So, some environmentalists think that we will need to intensify in order to reduce inefficiency. On the other hand, large-scale intensive farms pollute more.

The great advantage of medium- and small-scale farms is that they are able to harness ecological cycles, working together with nature. So, for example, manure in a large-scale farm is a waste product and a big problem to deal with and in many countries lacking good governance it simply gets dumped into a river or a lake. In smaller and medium-scale farms manure is a valuable resource, it is used as fertilizer and plays a big role in crop production. Also, a lot of animal feed in small farms comes from byproducts, like straw. When you run a farm with 50,000 cows you are not able to make use of these processes, so you have to buy feed, which is often either corn or soybeans, which could be consumed by people. Meanwhile the grain farmer may be burning straw.

So, although smaller farms are less efficient, they are more ecologically grounded, which ultimately makes them cheaper to run with less pollution and less waste, which is a big issue in large scale production systems with complex supply chains.

Let’s say I am a policy-maker responsible for reform of the livestock sector in my country, what are the three key things I should have in mind?

DG: First, it is important to recognize that it is a complex problem, so there won’t be a simple way out. Such policy requires a very nuanced solution which fits into the context of your country. If your country has high stunting in children, your policy will be considerably different from a policy of a country with high rates of childhood obesity.

Another thing to have in mind is to incorporate the discussion on sustainability issues into the discussion on food security and the development of the livestock sector. These three need to be joined up. The problem in the past has been that these discussions have been going on in different communities, so policies on food security have not reflected environmental protection needs; or vice versa: environmental policies were not concerned about malnutrition and related health problems.

The third important thing to have in mind is that sustainability isn’t just about environmental sustainability. We used the three pillars of sustainability in the HLPE report. One is environment. Another we call economic, but it really goes beyond just economics, expanding to livelihoods and to abilities of countries to be food-secure, to trade, to provide their population with incomes. The third is social sustainability. We need systems which are equitable, which give people a voice.

So, a system which is environmentally sustainable but is not socially sustainable cannot be overall considered sustainable.