When worlds collide: Those who eat too much meat – and those who eat too little

Our concern for the environment is proper – and needn’t override concern for the livestock livelihoods of a billion poor people.
In late 2006, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming. A study it had conducted, ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, estimated that livestock are responsible for 18% of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of all the world’s transport.

Animal rights groups grabbed this news and promoted it widely, saying that that keeping a cow was more damaging to the environment than running a sports utility vehicle (SUV) and that the answer was for the world to become vegetarian. Since then, several world leaders have repeated that livestock production is a major culprit in human as well as environmental ill health. Most people would agree that it is improper that a gas-guzzling SUV – a symbol of the rich – is considered a legitimate need, while a cow – a critical income and food source for a billion poor people – is not.

Of course, many people who eat too many animals products have a lot to gain from reducing their consumption of such high cholesterol foods. Unhealthy diets overloaded with fatty meat and dairy products is a leading cause of obesity, diabetes and circulatory disease, mostly in rich countries. But for one billion of the world’s poorest people today, eating less of something you don’t have any access to in the first place is not an option. We cannot fairly equate the problem of heart disease resulting from consuming too much cholesterol with the problem of the malnourishment and resulting death of millions of children under two years old due to their consumption of too little cholesterol. And we shouldn’t try. The health of everyone matters. What tends to get lost in these arguments is science-based evidence that we can work towards one health for all.

For example, all of Africa’s ruminants put together account for just 3% of the world’s methane emissions. So while it may make sense to reduce the number of livestock in rich countries, getting rid of Africa’s livestock populations would make little difference to global warming but would have catastrophic impacts on livelihoods and national economies. That’s because most of the world’s "bottom billion" rely on cows and other farm animals to earn income; without their farm animals, their livelihoods would disappear. And most poor livestock-dependent families don’t actually eat meat – they can’t afford to. They sell it to wealthier consumers and use the money they’ve earned to buy cheaper food.

Ultimately, we need a balanced approach to solving complex environmental problems, one that does not hurt the many people who depend on livestock for food and livelihoods. Asking a person in New York or London or Tokyo to reduce their meat consumption for the good of their health and that of the planet is one thing. It’s quite another to ask a household subsisting on a daily diet of maize meal porridge to do without any animal protein or any livestock income with which to buy more nourishing food.

Having said that, we do need solutions to environmental problems, including global warming, caused by the industrial production of livestock in rich countries. And we do need new livestock feeding systems that meet the needs and circumstances of the world’s small farmers—systems that would allow their farm animals to convert feed to meat and milk more efficiently, and with less emission of methane.

But to join up all our fragmented knowledge, we’re going to need a common currency with which to assess the costs and benefits of different activities and processes. This goes beyond simplistic solutions such as stopping the world from eating meat and dairy. We need fairer ways to look at carbon emissions and perhaps start looking at individuals’ carbon footprints. For example, Stephen Pacala says we should ‘follow the money to find the big emitters’ and he highlights that the richest 500 million people in the world (7% of the world’s population) is responsible for emitting half of the world’s total carbon dioxide. In comparison, the ‘bottom billion’ emits practically nothing. He proposes a cap on personal emissions.

These are the kinds of differentiated solutions we could be exploring and discussing. And with the help of science and equitable and evidence-based policymaking, we can tackle our concerns for the earth and all its people. It’s time our health—the health of the planet and the health of its people—were treated as a single health issue. Different solutions will be needed for different situations. This is within our powers. All we have to give up is the idea that one solution for one group must come at the expense of another.

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