People in industrialized regions like the United States of America or Europe are generally urged to eat less meat and animal-source foods as part of a healthier and lower-emissions diet. But such recommendations are not universal solutions in low- or middle-income countries, where livestock are critical to incomes and diets, argue scientists in recently published research in Environmental Research Letters.
“Conclusions drawn in widely publicized reports argue that a main solution to the climate and human health crisis globally is to eat no or little meat but they are biased towards industrialized, Western systems,” said Birthe Paul, the lead author and environmental scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
For example, of all scientific literature on livestock published since 1945, only 13% covers Africa. Yet Africa is home to 20%, 27% and 32% of global cattle, sheep and goat populations. Eight of the world’s top ten institutes publishing livestock research are in the United States, France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Only two, including the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), are headquartered in Africa, where the livestock sector is the backbone of the economy and where little data is available.
Authors further argue that a singular focus on negative livestock-related environmental impacts ignores the critical but more positive role livestock play in ecosystem services, income and asset provision or insurance in low- and middle-income countries. It also overlooks more systemic questions about how animals are raised.
“Mixed systems in low- and middle-income countries, where animal production is fully linked with crop production, can actually be more environmentally sustainable,” said An Notenbaert, from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. “In sub-Saharan Africa, manure is a nutrient resource which maintains soil health and crop productivity; while in Europe, huge amounts of manure made available through industrialized livestock production are overfertilizing agricultural land and causing environmental problems.”
Across Africa’s savanna, pastoralists pen their herds at night, a practice shown to increase nutrient diversity and biodiversity hotspots, enriching the landscape. Feed production may also be more local, whereas, in industrialized systems, it is mostly imported. In Brazil, soybean – a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon – is made into concentrate and exported to feed animals in places like Vietnam as well as Europe.
“Meat production itself is not the problem. Like any food, when it is mass-produced, intensified and commercialized, the impact on our environment is multiplied,” said Polly Ericksen, Program Leader of Sustainable…