Vegetarianism/veganism not an option for people living in non-arable areas!

Pastoralists rarely eat meat – usually only on special occssions – but dairy products are an essential part of their diets.

An article entitled Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers just published in Science magazine and widely broadcasted by The Guardian  and The Independent newspapers is making some  startling claims. For this monumental meta-study, the authors J. Poore and T. Nemecek compiled data from 38,700 farms in 119 countries and analysed the environmental footprint of  40 major food categories with regards to Greenhouse Gas emissions, land use, freshwater withdrawals, eutrophication and acidification. Their conclusion is that even the most benignly produced meat and dairy products have a far worse environmental impact than plant foods: ..” meat, aquaculture, eggs,and dairy use ~83% of the world’s farmland and contribute 56 to 58% of food’s different emissions, despite providing only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories” and recommend that “avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth”.

While the attention to the environmental impact of agriculture and food production is welcome, the conclusions are over-simplified, misleading in some aspects and very Western-centric.

This starts with the data that overwhelmingly derive  from North America, Brazil, Europe, China and Australia. As the map provided in the supplementary materials illustrates hardly any studies from the African and Asian drylands  have been included, reflecting the absence of Life Cycle Assessments from these countries. We can not blame this uneven data scenario on the authors, but it indicates that pastoralist systems were not included in the study.

Emphasizing that livestock provides just 18% of calories is totally misleading, since livestock is not kept to provide calories but to convert low quality feed into high quality proteins with essential amino acids that can not be sourced from plants.  Its akin to saying  there are 50 times more cars than trucks in the world but they only transport less than 2% of the goods.

Then there is the statement that livestock takes up  83% of farmland. The term “takes up” conjures up a situation where this land is exclusively used by livestock and not used for anything else. In reality, crops and livestock are largely integrated, as they should be. In addition,  large parts of the world are non-arable – they are too dry, too step, too cold, too hot to be able to be cultivated – but they can still used for food production by means of herding livestock.  Statistically these areas are classified as “permanent pastures” and are more than double the size than arable land. So its only logical that livestock can be found over a much larger part of the world than crops.

Most remarkably, the authors come to the conclusion that “without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world.”

To achieve a reduction of such magnitude, we would have to stop raising livestock in the non-arable areas mentioned. Neither the authors of the study nor the journalists seem to be aware that if you remove livestock from these regions, which include the vast drylands of Africa and Asia, as well as mountainous areas in Asia and parts of Latin America, the local populations will lose their livelihoods. In these so-called marginal areas  people have co-existed with and depended on livestock for millennia: reindeer herders in the tundra; yak herders in Asia’s high altitude zones; keepers of Bactrian camels and dromedaries in the deserts; nomads relying on cattle, sheep, and goats in the semi-arid steppes and savannahs.

If they are to stop livestock production, they will either starve or have to vacate the area. Thus such a blanket advisory to stop eating meat and dairy is an irresponsible recipe for disaster in already impoverished parts of the world and for people for whom livestock represents a much better survival option during the frequent  droughts than growing of crops.

Yes, the world as a whole needs to drastically reduce its consumption of livestock products, and every vegan or vegetarian in the Global North, Brazil and China is welcome. But nobody can extend that recommendation to the people whose livelihoods depend on livestock in the semi-arid and arid parts of the world! For this reason, I would really recommend that the authors of the study and the journalists formally retract that particular statement and reword their conclusions to include this particular caveat.

Even in Europe and North America we need to retain some livestock in the system, as it is crucial for the provision of organic manure and – through grazing – for the conservation of biodiversity.  Grazing is the most common nature conservation measure in Germany and its shepherds obtain the major income from such ‘environmental services’ rather than from the sale of products. As a new friend on Twitter, Ariel Greenwood who grazes cattle for conservation in California expressed it: We should limit consumption of animal products to those raised in an ecologically restorative way.

There is one statement by Joseph Poore that I totally agree with:  The large variability in environmental impact from different farms does present an opportunity for reducing the harm, without needing the global population to become vegan. If the most harmful half (my emphasis) of meat and dairy production was replaced by plant-based food, this still delivers about two-thirds of the benefits of getting rid of all meat and dairy production.

Can we agree which is the most harmful half of meat and dairy production?

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11 Responses to Vegetarianism/veganism not an option for people living in non-arable areas!

  1. Vera Matlova says:

    Very clearly and precisely said, Ilse. Just hope that it will be read by people who are not aware of all the context you are reminding (uneven geographical representation of the data used for the meta-analysis) when reading such studies.
    The irreplaceble role of pastoralism and animal husbandry in some parts of the world must be constantly reminded.

  2. Polly Ericksen says:

    Hi, are you planning to share this excellent piece with Science Magazine? I work at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and we were planning to submit a response.

  3. Sumant Vyas says:

    Livestock is very important part of the life in the area where agriculture is only rainfed and drought is integral part of social life.

  4. Suppose some serious people compose a comprehensive, researched and measured response and submit as a rebuttal to Science instead of cacophonous response from dozens? I am happy to contribute…

  5. Peta Jones says:

    Couldn’t agree more ! I am vegan, but live on the very edge of arable, where even cattle don’t do well and game and goats have to do a lot of providing. We should bear in mind, also, that rural people are increasingly being pushed out of arable areas, what with urbanization and industrial farming, so the non-arable areas will have to sustain ever more. On the other hand, it is the factory farming of meat and dairy that is responsible for most of the damage, and the sooner that urban people become vegan, the better for sustainable farming generally.

  6. Stefhan Gordon says:

    In the “supplementary materials,” they describe how they derived their metrics, The researchers used FAOSTATS which are based on “grams” of protein treating all protein as if it is equal. All grams of protein are not equal. Animal proteins are more dense with essential amino acids. So their numbers for protiens don’t reflect percentages of essential amino acids. You get most of many of your essential amino acids from animal proteins…in the range of 65 to 85% of these amino acids plus all of your extra carnitine. The 18 percent calorie number is a bit contrived too since so many of those calories in their analysis are coming from vegetable oils..

    That percent calorie number is going to have a lot of variability per region, so what they’re claiming is a global average. But that average is based upon FAOSTATS with a specific breakdown of foods. Again the primary sources for fats is industrial vegetable oils.A fat calorie is 9 times a calorie for carbs or protein.

    So where the fat comes from is going to really skew the outcome of the overall percentage. If most of your fats are coming from animal fats, the percentages of calories from animal foods is going to be WAY WAY higher than 18%. One needs to note too that this shift to vegetable fats is a relatively recent phenomena, within the past 80 to 90 years

    Now they did make some effort to attribute various products and co-products to land uses, and with animal feeds, livestock took up approximately 38% of arable area. Though there was no separate accounting to see if any of this area was integrated for both plants and animals….which is the case in many developing countries.

    So needless to say there are many ways to spin the numbers to fit a food ideology. And to a large degree, that’s what this pair at Oxford did. So to really understand their numbers, you have to deconstruct them., rather than accept any of them at face value.

  7. Pingback: The vegan craze: what does it mean for pastoralists? – Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience

  8. Josef Garvi says:

    Hi Ilse,

    You make a number of good points. But it’s also easy to stare oneself blind at the traditions of “marginal” lands. In the Sahel for instance, pastoralism is often considered a better alternative to millet cropping for environmental reasons, although millet cropping is gradually taking over more and more space from the latter. However, annual crops and cattle raising are not the only options available in those areas. Insect farming is something that could most certainly be developed (locusts especially), and tree foods is something that certainly can provide both nutrition (including all the essential amino acids) and income to small-holders and nomads, whilst helping reforest the marginal lands at the same time. Look in the pastoral areas of Niger today, and you will notice that overgrazing is an environmental issue there today: trees and shrubs that remain very stunted and whose foliage form small thickets in response to heavy grazing pressure. Well-grown trees cleared of leaves and twigs because the nomads have harvested the foliage as cattle feed… This can be done better, and it means that we need to switch livelihoods from cattle raising to new, more sustainable approaches – which aren’t more annual crops or imported foods. We don’t need to switch for 100%, but we most probably need to reduce our dependence on meat for food and income by quite some steps.

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