Livestock goods and bads: Two European views

On 10 April, we interviewed ILRI Board Chair Knut Hove, from Norway, and Program Chair Jim Dargie, from the UK.

HOVE: In the last year media attention on livestock ‘bads’ has gone away in Norway. It has not had an impact on meat production in Norway. My country’s strategy to use the whole country, and we are located so far north, with such large grasslands, that ruminants will always have a place there.

DARGIE: In the UK, people are still questioning why so much of our crop area should be used for producing food for livestock. They have concerns about using so much energy for this in this era of climate change. Questions are being raised by the government about what should be its appropriate response to meet the rising meat requirements. There is going to be greater emphasis on home-grown food production to lessen the greenhouse gas emissions due to transporting foods. Bear in mind that people in our countries are overfed, and in that context, meat production is often seen as a public bad.

HOVE: On the other hand, in our countries diets like the Atkins are very popular, which encourage you to eat more protein and less carbohydrates. In Norway, the focus of most people’s concerns are the high levels of methane produced by industrial livestock production practices and the treatment of animals in these intensive systems, such as raising battery chickens and using feedlots for beef cattle. In the Scandinavian countries, we haven’t reached this industrial level yet—we tend to have small, family run farms that make use of grazing and grass production. We have strict controls on how many chickens or cows a farmer may raise. Norwegians are given many incentives for practicing small-scale sustainable agriculture.

DARGIE: This was the European Union’s response to overproduction of livestock foods—the milk mountains and so on. Governments rather than farmers have been paying for the environmental costs of agriculture in Europe. HOVE: The rising human populations need to be fed and they need to be fed efficiently. And that is the hard problem we face. As long as we have this wealth of fossil energy, we in Europe have been able to scale up, scale up, scale up, to mechanize our agriculture, with most of us having left the farm. (In the seventeenth century, everybody was producing food here.)

DARGIE: What’s going to suit one country is not going to suit many others. Many rich countries have turned food production into big business—they are producing food to sell elsewhere. And this is depressing incentives for sustainable agriculture elsewhere. The question is, if we include the costs of environmental services, are these rich food producers really efficient? One of the problems at the moment is putting a dollar sign in front of environmental services, or environmental bads. That is a big big issue. And how we cost factors will vary enormously from one country to another.

HOVE: Many researchers are working to get these figures. We in the developed world have lived on polluting and we have had strong economic growth. Now we have to pay for that. Now we have to pay for our wealth by cleaning up. That’s the chance for developing countries.

This post is part of a series associated with the ILRI Annual Program Meeting in Addis Ababa, April 2010. More postings …