The New Yorker recently ran an article on Impossible Burgers, one of several major corporate-backed initiatives that are touting their animal-food alternatives as reasonably good-tasting, culinary substitutes for beef, chicken, milk and so on, but produced without the problematic harms associated with livestock. The article made a number of questionable statistical claims that a variety of scholars have taken issue with via social media and in subsequent correspondence with the magazine; more importantly, the article failed to adequately consider the importance of livestock in the developing world. ILRI director general Jimmy Smith was moved to write a Letter to the Editor pointing out the article’s deficiencies, which the New Yorker declined without comment to publish. It follows here:
Tad Friend’s largely laudatory profile of Pat Brown’s Impossible Burger enterprise (‘Can a Burger Help Solve Climate Change?’ September 30, 2019) raises important points about the environmental footprint of animal farming while passing along some questionable statistics. My concern is with its failure to recognize the essential contributions of sustainable livestock to development.
A robust discussion has already emerged on social media anatomizing the article’s statistical claims. More importantly, Friend’s treatment of livestock in the developing world does an injustice to over half a billion people whose daily lives depend on animal agriculture. He correctly notes that much of the growth in livestock will occur in low- and middle- income countries but does not convey the central importance of animals in the nutritional, economic and even cultural life of farmers the world over. If Brown’s vision of a world without livestock were to come to pass anytime soon, millions of children in the developing world would grow up malnourished; millions of parents would be unable to afford to send their children to school; and hundreds of millions of the marginally poor would descend into absolute material poverty and chronic hunger.
There is a temptation to find in each new technological development some silver bullet to the world’s grand problems. The many emerging alternatives to meat may well become part of a balanced response to climate change, particularly in the West. But in our zeal to celebrate the latest innovations—or in Brown’s pungent phrase, to ‘to wipe out livestock everywhere’—we must be careful not to harm the people who contributed least to global warming, and who are almost certainly going to be among those who suffer the most from it. Rather, let’s help make sure they are part of the solution.
Jimmy Smith is the director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), headquartered in east Africa and a member of CGIAR, a global, public and non-profit partnership working for a food-secure future. ILRI undertakes livestock research to reduce poverty, enhance food and nutrition security, and improve natural resources and ecosystem services through livestock in developing countries.