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Is Meat Sustainable? Depends Where You Are

Is Meat Sustainable? Depends Where You Are

Written by Margaret Badore

In North America, we regularly read about the problems associated with factory farms and the benefits of returning to small-scale agricultural production. However, small farms may not always be better for the environment, depending on geography and other factors.

New research published yesterday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences aims to give a more nuanced understanding of how livestock impacts the environment from region to region. The researchers looked at the efficiency of biomass to protein conversion, production of greenhouse gases, according to animal and farm type. The authors hope this dataset can provide the basis for further other analysis.

The research finds that it’s hard to make sweeping conclusions about the impact animals have on the ecosystem:

“The sector has many dualities, and the roles played by livestock change depending on location and circumstances.”

For example, eating large quantities of animal products in the developed world can tax our natural resources and lead to poor health. “But in the developing world, you still have a lot of people who are undernourished,” said lead author Mario Herrero, a scientist at the Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. “We think you can’t just throw out a blanket recommendation suggesting to decrease livestock product consumption.”

Animal waste contributes to greenhouse gases, but the quality of feed can impact how much. The data show a correlation between better feed in developed nations and lower emissions, regardless of the type of farm. “Although no obvious trend by production system is discernible, all systems in the developed world have lower emission intensities than those in the developing regions,” the authors write.

Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia have the highest total emissions from livestock. These are places were the most livestock is raised on small farms. Emissions could be reduced by improving the quality of feed, which would also lead to more efficient conversion to meat. Globally, cattle contribute the highest percentage of greenhouse gasses from livestock, accounting for 77 percent.

However, Herrero points out that the right market conditions need to exists for farmers to be motivated to improve their feed. “A key part of the sustainability education is really that we need to invest in market development and improved value chains,” he said.

For people in developed countries, reducing consumption is the more sustainable choice. Herrero doesn’t want to prescribe how much people living in developed countries should reduce their consumption of animal products. But he does encourage people who have the choice to eat less meat, dairy and eggs to do so. “We have options,” he said. “Why not reduce consumption? We need to exercise that choice a little bit more actively.”

This post was originally published in TreeHugger

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Photo Credit: Carl Wycoff

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79 comments

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12:53PM PST on Jan 20, 2014

Hate factory farms, they are killing the planet! Besides the animal abuse is horrendous!

4:55PM PST on Dec 26, 2013

After reading through the article I see two major points. Animals are not bad for the environment. What we do with and to animals is the problem. If our diets are comprised of a high percentage of animal protein, then yes, we will have emission and environmental problems. If we allow CAFO production, we have a septic, infected and highly toxic nightmare on our hands with unbelievable cruelty and illness for us as well as the animals! Comments in the article pertaining to types of feed given to the animals bring up a crucially important factor. If the animals graze natural grass without chemical fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides, sensible multi-crop and critter farming can be environmentally freindly. However, feeding grains to grazing animals, particularly GMOs, is at the root of the problem. These cause major digestive illness (for us as well as the animal) and the resulting problems with elimination! Our entire relationship and production of food is overdue for a radical shift if we hope to be able to create and maintain sustainable and healthy food for the us and our planet once again.

12:48PM PST on Dec 25, 2013

Makes no difference where I am. Vegetarians don't eat meat.

4:14AM PST on Dec 25, 2013

I do eat meat in small amounts approx. 3 x per wk. Usually eat veggies and grains, water, coffee, juice and milk & cheese. Yes...dairy. so I guess I'm bad....but it works for me.

9:51AM PST on Dec 24, 2013

The Cow greenhouse gas issue is more state media propaganda to push a global warming agenda. Methane is a product of micro-organisms that decay every leaf and blade of grass on the planet, hundreds of millions of square miles of jungle, forest and farmland release methane continuously. It’s not nearly as fast as when digested by a cow but the end result is the same, both give off the same methane. It’s more obvious in the continuous bubbles found in any stagnate water. The percentage of vegetation consumed by all livestock when calculated against the planets production of vegetation would be so tiny there are no calculators with enough decimal points.

4:27AM PST on Dec 24, 2013

Dear Cindy Y: So, the veg life is fine for you and the animals, eh? Uh-huh. Like all ignorant vegetarians, you forgot the scientific fact that plants and fruits have feelings and emotions too. And, probably also resent being eaten too. Plants have consciousness and intelligence too. Plants feel and in a certain sense can "see" and recognize those who kill them. Lab experiments have proven this over and over. They don´t have eyes like cows and sheep but they see you alright...and they kill so they are also conscious of being killed. But as you can provide nourishment for lions, tigers, and even domestic cats and dogs in extremis, so plants, willing or not, give up their lives to vegans and vegetarians who wrongly believe it´s morally more correct to eat them rather than animals. Well, ducky, that´s just speciousness, not truth. ALL THINGS ON THE PLANET HAVE CONSCIOUSNESS, DUCKY! It´s no more moral or healthy to eat plants or fruits than it is to eat meat. And humans evolved from apes because they began eating meat a million odd years ago, which made humans get up off four feet and walk with two, which evolved their intelligence, caused their vocal chords to drop and thus facilitated speech, and morphed them from apes to human beings who can read and write, invent marvels and travel to outer space.
Keep eating only fruits and veggies and your descendents may one day return to walking on all fours.

3:07AM PST on Dec 24, 2013

I guess the reason why Third World cattle produce more gases is that they take longer to grow to a size where people want to eat them, and this slow maturity could be a characteristic of the breeds involved. However these breeds could be better suited to their environments. It's hard to be sure about this when you live 1000s of miles away.

However the manure can be used for fertilising fields where crops are grown. Also, in Nepal I've seen local women collect cowpats to dry them for fuel. Since the alternative is to cut firewood, this helps to prevent deforestation.

1:12AM PST on Dec 24, 2013

Finger pointing was a nightly thing when my sister's dog joined the family in the living room and I've long since concluded that humans have their share of flatulence. Consider other animals in the wild as well. That entire collection doesn't begin to compete with industrial smokestacks.
Also published by Treehugger is this interview with Joel Salatin:
http://www.treehugger.com/green-food/joel-salatin-americas-most-influential-farmer-talks-big-organic-and-the-future-of-food/page2.html and there's also his website:
http://www.polyfacefarms.com/speaking-protocol/joels-bio/
His observations and practices are much easier to swallow than the Big Ag business model. One won't find (or smell) a holding pond on a sustainable family farm or see the contents liquified and being pumped onto a corn crop that will feed the livestock.

4:27PM PST on Dec 23, 2013

Thanks for sharing Ms, Badore's interesting article.

3:18PM PST on Dec 23, 2013

The CSIRO works very closely with Australian farmers..introducing most of the programs for sustainable farming...the bulk of our beef is free-range be it from small acres (40-200) in the coastal areas (flood plains) to large cattle stations (1000's sq kilometers each) in the outback (arid zones). The same applies to sheep, etc. Land management, pasture improvement, dung beetle introduction, livestock breeding. We don't add antibiotics or hormones into the food chain because of this...

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