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A couple of ‘missings’ for the Paris climate talks


In the days leading up to the start of the climate change talks in Paris (COP21) this week (30 Nov–11 Dec 2015), we at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) have been busy responding to recent articles in the press advocating that ‘the world’ eat less meat to reduce greenhouse gases and other livestock ‘bads’.

We’re all for sensible and responsible actions here at ILRI, of course, and not over-consuming meat (or any other particular food group, for that matter) would seem to be one of those sensible actions people should consider taking, and recommending, for their own good and that of the planet.

We have a problem, however, when recommendations made for one group of people, in this case the relatively rich over-consuming meat eaters from the North (such as myself), slop over to negatively impact other groups of people, such as poor and undernourished people from the South.

As Shirley Tarawali, ILRI’s assistant director general, says:

Eliminating the world’s farm animals would deprive some one billion poor people in developing countries of food, nutrition, income, livelihoods, jobs, health, savings accounts and insurance against climate, crop and other disasters—and would in the process eliminate only about 17% of the greenhouse gas emissions coming from meat production (the rest come from developed countries)

If, on the other hand, we help the world’s one billion poor livestock keepers to raise their animals more sustainably and efficiently and to market their products more safely and profitably, the greenhouse gas emissions from this sector could easily be halved.

We offer below a sample of ILRI’s other responses to the recent ‘anti-meat’-focused proposals. Basically, we think that when making recommendations, we should try to remember to be explicit about which groups of people we’re talking to, and about, and which we aren’t.

We’d love to hear your views, which you can let us know in the Comment box below this article.

We’ll be posting a more substantive article on this topic soon, so watch this space.

In the meantime, leaders and scientists from across CGIAR centres and research programs and partner organizations are gathering in Paris for the big climate change jamboree (officially and obscurely known as the ’21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’, or UNFCCC COP21). CGIAR is working to persuade decision-makers to include agriculture in these global climate change discussions and outcomes. Our over-riding objectives are to help developing-world farmers and herders better adapt to climate change while also reducing their levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Giving all members of our CGIAR team in Paris a big thumbs up!

ILRI blog writer/editor Susan MacMillan

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To Adam Briggs:

Thanks for your article on Eating less meat isn’t just good for you, it could save the planet [by Adam Briggs, The Guardian, 27 Nov 2015].

I hope it also goes without saying that enabling some 1–2 billion people to eat a bit more meat could help save and enhance billions of lives.

As important as reducing overconsumption of meat (and other foods), which would appear to be almost certainly a good thing for many, is increasing meat (and milk and egg) consumption by the hundreds of millions of undernourished people in the world today, for whom very, very modest intakes of animal protein would significantly improve their nutrition and health and help children reach their full cognitive and bodily potential.

I would love to see Northern proposals and arguments (many now verging on polemics) to lower meat consumption start to scrupulously differentiate which parts of the world (rich countries and middle-class communities, in this case) and which circumstances (industrial livestock production and over-consumption of meat) they are arguing from.

If we fail to do this, we could hurt many whose circumstances are very different.

As Jimmy Smith, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute, puts it:

Rarely in this discussion is a clear distinction drawn between the relatively rich people who make poor food choices (including over-consuming red meat and other rich foods) and the many poor people who basically have no food choices at all. And certainly not a choice of meat, which often is unaffordable, even though it could make a tremendous difference to their nutritional wellbeing.’

Read Smith’s whole opinion piece here: The meat we eat, the lives we lift–Opinion by ILRI director general Jimmy Smith, The Economist Insights, 23 Feb 2015.

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And here is a similar comment ILRI Director General Jimmy Smith made in a letter to the editor of  The Economist, published on 8 Feb 2015:

We need to stop treating farm animals as equivalent the world over.

After all, a cow in east Texas that provides another steak dinner for a rich, overfed family and a cow in east Africa that provides just enough milk to meet the minimum nutritional needs of a poor family are very different things.

There simply is no moral equivalent between those making poor food choices and those with no food choices at all.

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Below are some of the messages we posted in ‘small poster format’ on our social media channels. If you agree with any, please help us spread the word via your own channels. And if you don’t agree with some of this, please consider telling us and our readers why, using the Comment box below.

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For these and other opinion pieces by ILRI and partners, visit this ILRI Pinterest Board.

2 thoughts on “A couple of ‘missings’ for the Paris climate talks

  1. Well done to ILRI and Jimmy Smith for taking a clear position on this important topic. There isn’t just one system of agriculture or livestock farming for the world but many adapted to both local and global needs.

  2. Green house gas, methane emission in ruminant production can be significantly reduced by the inclusion of a variety of naturally-occurring and harmless substances of plant origin such as anthraquinone. These are scientific findings which prove that methane production is reduced and more energy becomes available for efficient utilization by these animals. My view is that we should explore these options instead of de-emphasizing livestock production. In northern Ghana, livestock rearing provides most rural farmers with the cash to pay school fees. A lot of the current crop of bread-winners from the north owe their improved condition of life to this livestock system. For more information on reducing methane production see.Kung, L., Smith, K.A., Smagala, A.M., Endres, K.M., Bessett, C.A., Ranjit, N.K. and Yaissle, J. (2003). Effects of 9,10 anthraquinone on ruminal fermentation, total-tract digestion, and blood metabolite concentrations in sheep. Journal of Animal Science 81, 323-328.

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