Are Meat & Dairy Really Bad for Sustainability & the Planet? UN Scientist Says Not

“As a Livestock Policy Officer working for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, I have been asked many times by the press to report on the negative environmental impacts of livestock.” Anne Mottet, PhD.

“Doing so, I came to realize that people are continually exposed to incorrect information that is repeated without being challenged, in particular about livestock feed. This study [will] better inform policy makers and the public.”

Anne Mottet’s study concludes that farming livestock is “a much smaller challenge to global food security than often reported.” I remain unconvinced.
Dr Mottet is an enthusiast for livestock farming Here are her reasons:
  • Meat makes up 18% of global calories and 25% of global protein consumption and provides essential micro-nutrients, such as vitamin B12, iron, and calcium
  • Livestock use large areas of pastures where nothing else could be produced
  • Animals add to agricultural production through manure production and draught power
  • Tending livestock provides income for people in rural areas
  • Because cattle graze and forage, they only need 0.6kg of protein from human food to produce 1kg of protein in milk and meat
  • Milk and meat are of “higher nutritional quality”. Livestock “turn edible crops into highly nutritious, protein-rich food.”
Dr Mottet’s points suggest livestock farming is an efficient use of resources

But is it? Critics of livestock farming say, because the animals consume food that could be eaten directly by humans, and need a lot of it to turn it into comparatively small quantities of meat or dairy, it’s a hugely inefficient food system. For example, it takes 7 kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef.

Not true, says Dr Mottet. Her study appears to show that only 3kg of cereals are needed to produce 1 kg of meat. To me that still sounds wasteful, just not quite so wasteful. In any case the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) does not agree with her figure:

“The production of meat, milk and eggs leads to an enormous loss of calories grown in fields, since cereals and oil seeds have to be cultivated to feed to animals. According to calculations of the UNEP, the calories that are lost by feeding cereals to animals, instead of using them directly as human food, could theoretically feed an extra 3.5 billion people. Feed conversion rates from plant-based calories into animal-based calories vary; in the ideal case it takes two kilograms of grain to produce one kilo of chicken, four kilos for one kilogram of pork and seven kilos for one kilogram of beef.”

And according to the Union of Concerned Scientists Nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production, yet beef accounts for less than 2% of the calories that are consumed throughout the world.”

If we are left in any doubt about livestock farming’s wastefulness, how about this? Thousands upon thousands of indoor cows – not outdoors grazing and foraging –   dutifully turning food humans could eat themselves like grain, into human food of “higher nutritional quality” (we’re talking the cows’ milk Nature intended for their own cow babies, so ‘human food’?) – Only then for niagaras of the stuff to be tipped straight out into fields or dumped in manure lagoons. Because that’s where 43 million gallons of US milk got jettisoned in the first 8 months of 2016. 43 million gallons surplus to requirements – not needed as ‘higher nutritional quality’ food for humans, but simply wasted. Efficient? Not so much.

Grazing and Foraging – The CAFO

The trouble with Dr Mottet’s ‘grazing and foraging’ point is, the vast majority of farmed cattle in the world never get the chance to graze and forage. Modern day cattle and dairy farming have given us the prison that is the CAFO.

“In the United States and other parts of the world, livestock production is becoming increasingly dominated by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In a CAFO, animals are crammed by the thousands or tens of thousands, often unable to breathe fresh air, see the light of day, walk outside, peck at plants or insects, scratch the earth, or eat a blade of grass.”

“With the rise of factory farming, milk is now a most unnatural operation. The modern dairy farm can have hundreds, even thousands of cows. The animals spend their lives being fed in an indoor stall or a crowded feedlot. One of the largest dairy farms in the world is under construction in Vietnam and is slated to hold 32,000 cows.”

 Healthy food?

As for the “higher nutritional quality”, you certainly get plenty of extras in your milk: the hormones and growth factors produced in the cow’s own body, and with them synthetic hormones such as recombinant bovine growth hormone, used to increase milk productivity. Perfect to knock your own delicately balanced hormone systems out of whack. Then there are the antibiotics. And the poisons: pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, melamine, and carcinogenic aflatoxins. So the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine tells us, based on a multitude of reliable research studies.

What about the cattle’s flesh. How many warnings have there been in the last few years about the risks of meat consumption, especially red meat? For trustworthy mortality risk statistics, check out Harvard Health Publications from Harvard Medical School, Cutting red meat for a longer life.

Dr Mottet’s cattle feed piechart

livestockpro

Unusable for human food?

Dr Mottet’s pie chart suggests that only 14% of crops fed to cattle would be suitable as human food. But statistics from her own employer, the FAO would appear to tell another story altogether: “Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with pasture and land dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80% of the total agricultural land.”

Of the 330 million acres of agricultural land in the U.S., 260 million acres are used to grow fodder crops. That is 78.78% of all land in the States available to grow food, that is at present growing food to be fed to animals so they can be turned into food for humans. Are all of those crops unsuitable for humans? And is all of that land unsuitable for growing food for humans?

Globally, 33% of the Earth’s arable land is growing fodder crops for livestock. 40% of the world cereal production goes into their stomachs. Fodder crops are commonly alfalfa, barley, soy, kale, canola, swede, turnip, maize and millet – all of which can be eaten directly by humans. Dr Mottet’s figure of 14% doesn’t seem to tally with the statistics from her own organization of crops taken to feed farmed animals which could go straight to our kitchens instead.

Livestock farming’s environmental impact

Dr Mottet’s focus is on the sustainability of farming livestock, but apart from the briefest reference in her opening sentence, she does not mention the damage livestock farming wreaks on the environment. Yet environmental degradation inevitably impacts the very global food security she says farming livestock provides, because it impacts the health and viability of the planet itself. Are any of these aspects addressed in this study?

Fertilizer Growing crops to feed livestock in itself causes a massive amount of pollution. Take for example this year’s ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico spreading over an area bigger than the size of Wales – de-oxygenated sea, death to all the marine life in it. “The environmental campaign group Mighty Earth has blamed the meat industry for the dead zone, claiming much of the nitrate and phosphorous pollution came from fertilizer used in producing vast quantities of corn and soy to feed meat animals.” And incidentally naming as the main culprit Tyson, America’s biggest meat producer.

Manure Is the animals’ manure a valuable commodity boosting agricultural productivity? Its disposal is in reality often problematic: “Algae blooms, salmonella and E. Coli, groundwater contamination, and bad smells are just a few of the problems animal manure can cause. In small doses, it’s the stuff of life—the fertilizer plants need to grow. Mishandled, it’s an environmental disaster in waiting. Each year, farm animals in the United States produce over 335 million tons of manure. That’s roughly the weight of 1000 Empire State Buildings.” Modern Farmer

Meat processing plants There is no question that industrial agriculture is polluting the nation’s waterways, but huge factory farms are not the only culprits: processing plants also dump millions of pounds of toxic waste into rivers, lakes, and streams” Read more – USA: Meat is Murdering American Rivers

Water “The production of one kilogram of beef requires 15,414 litres of water on average. The water footprint of meat from sheep and goat (8,763 litres) is larger than that of pork (5,988 litres) or chicken (4,325 litres). The production of one kilogram of vegetables, on the contrary, requires 322 litres of water.” (A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products)

Extinctions Think Amazonian rainforest.Diets rich in beef and other red meat can be bad for a person’s health. And the practice is equally bad for Earth’s biodiversity, according to a team of scientists who have fingered human carnivory—and its impact on land use—as the single biggest threat to much of the world’s flora and fauna. Already a major cause of extinction, our meat habit will take a growing toll as people clear more land for livestock and crops to feed these animals, a study in the current issue of Science of the Total Environment predicts.” Science Magazine. Read more

Greenhouse gases Total emissions from global livestock: 7.1 Gigatonnes of Co2-equiv per year, representing 14.5 percent of all GHG emissions” produced by human activity.

And this from ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ 2006: “A 2,000 kcal high meat diet produces 2.5 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as a vegan diet, and twice as many as a vegetarian diet. Moving from a high meat to a low meat diet would reduce a person’s carbon footprint by 920kg CO2e every year – equivalent to a return flight from London to New York. Moving from a high meat diet to a vegetarian diet would save 1,230kg CO2e per year.”

Both reports from the UN Food & Agriculture Organization – interestingly, Dr Mottet’s own organization.

“According to a recent analysis, just a single dietary change — substituting beans for beef — could nearly satisfy the United States’ emissions reduction goals under the Paris Agreement.”

To be fair, Dr Mottet does say, certain [livestock] production systems contribute directly to global food security”, and her points do make some sense if she’s talking about rural economies in less developed countries. Then the animals may be ‘useful’ to pull carts and carry loads and their manure may be beneficial to the land. And the animals may graze pasture unsuitable to grow food for humans. But in those places livestock numbers are minuscule in comparison with the numbers in the biggest livestock farming nations such as India, Brazil, China and the USA, where none of these things is true. Quite the opposite:

“The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unprecedented level of risk to the public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise as food.” Robert Martin, Director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. And the same is just as true of all other major meat and dairy producing countries too.

130617-pulse-interview-2016-international-year-of-pulses-charlie-higgins-320x202Only last year the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (Dr Mottet’s own employer) promoted the vision of plant food, not livestock as the future for global food security, and designated 2016 ‘The International Year of the Pulse’

Pulses  are economically accessible and contribute to food security at all levels [They] are an inexpensive source of protein – a crucial component of any healthy diet, but especially in poorer areas where meat, dairy and fish are economically inaccessible. Pulses can also serve as a source of income, as smallholder farmers who grow pulses can sell them at markets,” and turn them into added value products for additional income.

“FAO also added that as an affordable alternative to more expensive animal-based protein, pulses are ideal for improving diets in poorer parts of the world, where protein sources from milk if often five time more expensive than protein sourced from pulses.” UN News Centre

The FAO specifically recommends the farming of peas, beans and lentils, not cattle, in those rural economies where Dr Mottet wishes us to believe farming livestock makes such an important contribution.

But still, Dr Mottet’s conclusion is:

“Animal production, in its many forms, plays an integral role in the food system.”

She ends her report with the FAO’s estimate that given the ever-increasing global demand, 70% more animal products will be needed to feed the world by 2050 – and that will of course require still more land. Yet already, with 50 billion food animals being raised and slaughtered each year, the Earth is being overwhelmed by food animals that consume massive quantities of energy and resources, whose wastes foul waterways and farmlands, and when eaten excessively, degrade our health.” CAFO the book

But Dr Mottet places her faith in science to provide ever-improving FCRs – feed conversion ratios. “FCR is a ratio measuring the efficiency with which the bodies of livestock convert animal feed into the desired output.” Or, as I prefer to put it, it’s the science of bleeding ever more out of the farmed animals (genetically engineered to maximize their ‘productivity’) while feeding ever less in (in terms of resources).

It doesn’t add up

As we have seen, Dr Mottet study appears to directly contradict other United Nations’ reports, some emanating from different branches of the UN, and some from her own, the FAO.

A report from United Nations Environment Programme’s International panel of sustainable resource management 2010 reported in The Guardian “A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change, a UN report said today.” 

Another report, this time from the UN’s International Research Panel (IRP) August 2016. Technocracy News’ headline ran: “The United Nations would like to remove every meat animal from the face of the planet if it could, and especially cattle.”

And then of course, there is the United Nations’ “International Year of the Pulse”, for which they produced an altogether wonderful book (pdf here) – so much more fascinating, appealing, and colourful than the humble bean and lentil might lead you to imagine. I would urge everyone to take a look.

“Thanks to their high levels of protein, fiber, and other nutrients; low requirements for water and other agricultural inputs; long shelf life; and cultural and culinary relevance around the globe, [pulses are] an uncompromising enemy of hunger and malnutrition worldwide and a genuine superfood for the future.”

The future is beans, Dr Mottet. Not beef. Even the FAO says so.

Help yourself, help the planet  Go vegan

Update

28th September 2017 – Even the President of Unilever agrees! Read her piece: Plant-Based Diets: A Game-Changer For Our Food System, Our People And Our Planet

Also Global methane emissions from agriculture larger than reported, according to new estimates 11% more, in fact.

Dr. Julie Wolf, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), senior author of the study said: “In many regions of the world, livestock numbers are changing, and breeding has resulted in larger animals with higher intakes of food. This, along with changes in livestock management, can lead to higher

 

Dr Mottet is wrong on at least 4 counts:

3rd Oct 2017 Firstly, the fact that some cattle graze on grass does not make farming them less problematic in terms of sustainability.

“Rising animal production and consumption, whatever the farming system and animal type, is causing damaging greenhouse gas release and contributing to changes in land use. Ultimately, if high consuming individuals and countries want to do something positive for the climate, maintaining their current consumption levels but simply switching to grass-fed beef is not a solution. Eating less meat, of all types, is.”

That is the conclusion of a recnt study by Dr Tara Garnett of the University of Oxford, Cecile Godde from CSIRO and a team of international experts. Phys.Org

5th Oct 2017 Secondly, the Extinction & Livestock Conference hosted by CIWF and WWF in London. WWF’s report Appetite for Destruction with staggering statistics about how the production and consumption of meat and dairy is devastating the planet. Their particular focus was Dr Mottet’s own area – crops grown for animal feed. In 2010 an area the size of Yorkshire was needed to grow soy for cattle feed just in the UK. Now in 2017 the amount of land needed to produce crops for animal feed worldwide is equivalent to the size of the EU. The threat to food security is near its tipping point. WWF, like the FAO before them and many national governments around the world, urgently advises us to eat more plants, and cut back on meat and dairy. Meat and dairy are destroying the planet and driving 60% of Earth’s species into extinction.

And thirdly, meat and dairy are not of “higher nutritional quality” as Dr Mottet claims. Apart from the health risks I referred to above, feeding animals energy- and protein-rich crops produces animal products containing less of the healthy omega-3 and more saturated fat. You would need to eat 6 chickens today to obtain the same amount of omega-3 you would have got from one chicken in 1970. “There are serious concerns that our current food system will not be able to meet the future fatty acid needs of our growing global population.”

Fourthly, soil degradation and depletion. 80% of Earth’s land used for agriculture is given over to livestock grazing or growing feed. Philip Lymbery of CIWF quoted at the conference a 2015 FAO report that agriculture as a whole has degraded the soil to such an extent that there are only 60 harvests left in it. “The techniques that were supposed to feed the world threaten us with starvation.” George Monbiot in the Guardian Sorry Dr Mottet, your improved FCRs are simply not going to  cut it.


Disclaimer
I am no match for Dr Mottet either in terms of qualifications or access to the data. However, it seemed important to draw attention to other statistics and expert opinions, with which her arguments and conclusions appear to be in conflict.

PS There are 58 varieties of pulses around the world. I counted them!



Sources

Livestock production, a much smaller challenge to global food security than often reported

Agriculture at a Crossroads – Global Agriculture Org.

Welcome to the World of CAFO Farms become factories. Rivers of waste. Communities under siege. Declining health.

America’s mega dairy farms

The Wall Street Journal

Scientists find polluted sea ‘dead zone’ that is bigger than Wales – The Independent

What to do with all the poo? – Modern Farmer

Sustainability heavyweights take aim at environmental impacts of soy, beef, palm oil – Conservation International

 UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet – The Guardian

Tax Meat Until It’s Too Expensive To Eat, New UN Report Suggests – Technocracy News

FCR – Wiki

Related posts

When Everyone is Telling You Meat is the Bad Guy Revisited

Don’t Care About Animals? Meat & Dairy Are Poisoning Your Land Air & Water

Another Nation Trims Meat From Diet Advice

If everyone on Earth ate a Western diet, we would need two Planet Earths to feed us. We’ve only got one and she’s dying

The Living Planet Report: Our Dinner Plates are Destroying Life on Earth

Which is Your Burger of Choice for the Future of Food?

Favourite Food for Cows?

 

 

5 thoughts on “Are Meat & Dairy Really Bad for Sustainability & the Planet? UN Scientist Says Not

  1. This is a really interesting post, but I hope the study involved is wrong. It seems to go against so much of the research already done.

    Since it does disagree with past investigations on climate change, factory farming, and comparisons between diets, I would like to know more about this new work.

    For example, what funding sources paid for the research? How valid were the experimental designs and models? Were there any missed flaws? Were the metrics and analytics accurate in all conditions? Were there possible alternative methods that could have yielded different results? I have no expertise to judge, but I hope scientists who do will carefully examine this study.

    I also wonder about the statement that livestock use pastures where nothing else could be produced. I don’t know specifically what pastures she speaks of or where they are. However, with global warming and droughts spreading, some pasture lands will not provide forage. In this country many cattle are on open range, but it doesn’t mean that land is unused. Unfortunately, some of it is used by other animals, whose lives are lost when the ranchers move in. This is true of the big carnivores—wolves, bear, and cougars—who harm cattle when those cattle are placed near wilderness areas. The killing also involves the animals deemed “pests” and “nuisances who may also be trapped, poisoned and shot, including prairie dogs, coyotes, and bobcats. Some lands are supposed to provide sanctuary to wild horses and burros, but those horses and burros are rounded up by the thousands and sent to a limbo of “holding pens” or even sent to slaughter so the cattle can have more room. Being out on such land certainly does not benefit the cattle, many of whom perish in harsh weather and floods or die untended from illness, injuries, or birth problems.

    I don’t know what the whole study looks like in terms of any animal welfare, but the information in the post and on the Internet sound totally anthropocentric. The animals themselves are commodified as units of production to be studied and manipulated for human benefit.

    Just the example of the milk given in this post encapsulates Big Ag’s lack of concern for farm animals. So 43 million gallons of surplus milk were simply disposed of in the first 8 months of 2016. That milk represented the forced insemination of many cows and their subsequent pregnancies and births. It involved many male calves who were torn away from their mothers and slaughtered as babies. It included many female calves who were destined for the same tortured lives of their mothers. It caused many cows to be worn out early and sent to slaughter, all to produce milk that human beings want but do not need. And if a miscalculation or change in market conditions results in 43 million gallons of that ill-gotten milk going to waste, I guess that’s just business as usual. After all, it’s “just” the animals who pay the price.

    There are no studies that can absolve humanity from the abuses of industrial agriculture. There are no methods of methane reduction, waste disposal, or increased production that can make up for the lives of suffering and exploitation the animals endure from birth to death.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve finally tracked down the actual study – this section is interesting: “Despite its crucial importance in animal systems and food security, there is no census-based global database on feed. All global analyses thus rely, at least partially, on modelling. Our estimates draw on an improved version of GLEAM’s feed module (Gerber et al., 2013). Results were compared against literature and existing global statistics and appear in line with both the results of an extensive examination of 121 peer-reviewed papers, which are presented in the Supplementary Information section, as well as with FAOSTAT (2016) food balance sheets. They were also compared and found in line with other model-based assessments in terms of feed rations composition and feed use efficiencies for different species (Bouwman et al., 2005; Steinfeld et al., 2006; Wirsenius et al., 2010; Herrero et al., 2013; Dijkstra et al., 2013) and impact of improvements in feed conversion ratios on land-use (Wirsenius et al., 2010). Although simplifications and generalizations were necessary given the paucity of data, our assessment includes more categories and rations than past work, including the distinction of cattle feedlots and a particular focus on human-edible feed materials and soybean cakes, and protein feed intake per kg of protein produced. This provides a more realistic estimate of FCR, as argued by Wilkinson (2011). The analysis of land-use implications also revealed that factoring in the quality of land (grassland convertibility to cropland) led to findings that defied simple conclusions of resource use by livestock, as also demonstrated by Peters et al. (20

    “Although simplifications and generalizations were necessary given the paucity of data” Doesn’t it all seem like juggling data – and lack of – to come up with conclusions deemed desirable? This is the link http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211912416300013?via%3Dihub#bib31

    I didn’t even touch on the animal welfare aspect. Dr Mottet’s primary concern is FCRs with animals nothing more than production units. Your last paragraph sums it up perfectly.

    Like

    1. The link you sent, I believe has some statements that make me think skepticism is warranted:

      1. Methods used to estimate the area of grassland convertible to crop lands relies on the ratio between actual and potential yield. A threshold of 25% is considered but rather optimistic.
      2. Changing consumption patterns due to health or environmental concerns a aren not included in this projection. . . . Trends in demand will significantly influence the way feed/food competition plays out.
      3. Some authors have indeed argued that sustainable intensification and efficiency gain will not be sufficient to achieve food security.
      4. By opting for a mid-term horizon, the paper avoided the complexity and uncertainty related to long-term modeling of consumer preference or other trends such as climate change.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you for doing that hard work! Dr Mottet may be attempting to extract more accurate statistics for the viability of livestock farming, but the focus seems very narrow, blinkered even. I’d like to ask someone at the FAO to pass her a copy of their beautiful book, “Pulses – Nutritious Food for a Sustainable Future”!

        Liked by 1 person

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