ILRI director general Carlos Seré responds to an August 2007 New York Times article about animal rights groups promoting vegetarianism as an answer to global warming
Claudia Deutsch reports in the New York Times (29 August 2007, and picked up in the International Herald Tribune), that animal rights groups are coalescing around a message that ‘eating meat is worse for the environment than driving’. They are urging people to curb greenhouse gases by becoming vegetarians. These groups are citing a study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that states that livestock business generates greenhouse gases. That’s true; methane and carbon dioxide produced by livestock contribute about 15 per cent to global warming effects. But simply focusing on this contribution to global warming distorts the problem and, more importantly, fails to offer solutions. Research tells us it would make little difference to global warming if we somehow removed all the livestock in, say, sub-Saharan Africa. The impact on livelihoods there, however, would be catastrophic.
What the animal rights folks are not saying (and the FAO report does say) is that for some one billion people on earth who live in chronic hunger, in degrading poverty and in degraded environments, the lowly cow, sheep, goat, pig and chicken provide nutrition, income and major pathways out of poverty, just as they did, until this century, in rich countries. In poor countries today, more than 600 million rural poor people depend on livestock directly for their livelihoods and farm animals account for some 30 percent of agricultural gross domestic product, a figure FAO expects to rise to 40 percent in the next 20 years. Virtually every industrialized country at one stage built its economy significantly through livestock production and there is no indication that developing countries will be different. Do we want to deny one-third of humanity—the 2 billion people living on less than 2 dollars a day—what has been such a critical and ubiquitous element in the development of industrialized countries?
The animal rights groups argue that humanity could help stem global warming by switching to a plant-based diet because mass-production of animals can lead to environmental as well as health problems. But the livestock that eat grain in the United States eat grass in Africa. The beef that causes heart disease in Europe saves lives in Asia. And the manure that pollutes water in Utah restores soils in Africa. The world is big and full of difference between the have’s and have not’s. In one city, too much cholesterol is a daily fear; in another, too little. But for much of humanity, livestock farming, most of it involving one or two cows or a few goats and sheep or pigs and chickens raised on tiny plots of land or in urban backyards, reduces absolute poverty, malnutrition and disease and often actually helps to conserve natural resources.
Demand for livestock products is in any case skyrocketing in developing countries, making an increase in animal production in those countries inevitable and this argument academic. FAO and other groups are predicting that the impacts of this on-going ‘livestock revolution’ will change global agriculture, health, livelihoods, and the environment. We should be looking for ways not to stop this livestock revolution (which, being demand-led, is impossible) but rather to harness it for human as well as environmental welfare. And before setting ourselves the task of ridding the world of animal flesh, we might try ridding it instead of unspeakable poverty, hunger and disease. 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.