The EAT- Lancet Report, pastoralism and artificial meat

The livestock world is up in arms about the EAT-Lancet Report  that was launched on 18th January in Oslo and recommends drastic reductions in the consumption of meat, especially red meat. It is the outcome of a committee of “more than 30 world-leading scientists from across the globe to reach a scientific consensus that defines a healthy and sustainable diet” and recommends a plant based diet and almost complete elimination of red meat from our menues. The initiative goes back to a Norwegian billionaire with engagement in the animal rights movement, and one of its collaborators is FRESH, a consortium of global food giants. This includes even those who currently build their riches on the meat economy, such as Cargill and Tyson.

The report is being savaged and ridiculed on social media, with the pack being led by Frédéric Leroy, a Belgian professor who has untangled the special interests involved behind the initiative in an article published by the European Food Agency: A powerful action against meat?   Many livestock people have been in a frenzy, enumerating the significant nutritional benefits of red meat and pointing out errors in the report. And the EAT-Lancet report definitely has major weaknesses. It is prescriptive and top down, western centric, and promotes a diet that is not feasible for most citizens in the world.

But on the other hand,  the fact that the EAT-Lancet Report draws attention to the planetary boundaries of our food system is most welcome, the more so as these are being pretty much ignored in on-going UN processes and not tackled anywhere else, although GASL, the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock , is making an attempt.

What I miss on the part of the “livestock lobby” is a more nuanced consideration of how meat is produced, instead of its blanket endorsement.  Some introspection and  analysis of how we got to the current vegan assault would be very much in order.  Because it MATTERS how animals are kept – whether confined and pumped full with concentrate, or moving, foraging on their own, in a herd! It matters to the animals, to the consumer, to animal and human health, and to the planet!

For too long, the large majority of animal scientists – with a few notable exceptions – have subscribed to what I term the “efficiency paradigm”, the belief in “sustainable intensification” that reduces animals to input-output models and basically leaves no room for animal welfare, besides ignoring the need for a circular livestock economy. The FAO has had a big part in this, on one hand raising awareness about livestock’s long shadow (good), but on the other hand uncritically promoting the stance that “we need to double livestock production by 2050,” and spreading the mantra that this has to be achieved through higher natural resource use efficiency.

While the ILRI white paper for the World Economic Forum in Davos makes many good points by emphasizing the crucial role of livestock for the poor, it talks about industrial systems as option. In the long term, these systems will be phased out and be replaced with artificial meat/clean meat – or at least this is the future that the food companies are preparing for, and maybe one of the reasons for them supporting “plant-based” diets.  There are of course  still many question marks about “clean meat”, as summarized in another paper about alternative protein sources prepared for the World Economic Forum in Davos.

In all this clamour, some seminal new research is not getting the attention it deserves.   A team of reputed researchers led by a scientist from Wageningen University in a paper entitled “Defining a land boundary for sustainable livestock consumption” points at a solution  that challenges the beliefs of both vegans and FAO:  They propose that if we stop industrial livestock farming and feed cultivation, replacing it with “low-cost livestock” that is fed with either waste food or with biomass from non-arable land, while at the same time reducing consumption in western countries, there would still be scope for raising protein consumption in Africa and Asia. Their conclusion is that trying to sustain the human population on plant food alone would actually require MORE land, as without livestock  crop by-products would not be utilized for food.

This conclusion is a clear endorsement of pastoralism and damning to the “efficiency paradigm”. The direction for the future of livestock is clear: Support pastoralists with their humane livestock production systems to continue managing non-arable zones for food production, biodiversity conservation and as carbon sinks. In arable areas, limit livestock to what can be sustained with local crop waste. Eliminate industrial systems and replace them with artificial or clean meat – if it works. Perfect!

3 Replies to “The EAT- Lancet Report, pastoralism and artificial meat”

  1. I can’t invision our part of the world not eating red meat and other livestock products. Does all these scientist predict what health hazards such artificial meat would bring and how to tackle such problems.

    And I agree with your article what happens to marginal lands that is been used for livestock production.

    The western produced artificial meet will create more dependency for African and Asian communities who produce their food on their rangelands and have the privilege of Agro-pastoral production (having both animal and crop production) with an organic balanced food nutrition. All we need is to advance the sustainability and management of natural resources and traditional production systems of these communities. Recording indeginous knowledge of local communities and induction of human centred development will be more practical than all these deminazation of animal products.

  2. Ilsa I agree that the feedlot industrial agriculture system is the one that needs to change. But, much for eg of the UKs livestock farming is also pasture based. There are 12 million sheep for eg in Wales many free ranging. Co -existing with woodland and forest; but also only 6% of Wales is suitable for crops. And, where changes were made in the early 2000s, those are the areas bio diversity suffered. On hill farms and upland areas any trees etc that do manage to grow are valued as giving livestock shelter. But, as well as the blanket criticism, there is also little consideration in the valuation of carbon footprint, the ‘science’ never considers the other products for example from sheep wool and sheepskin for eg. Nor other economic activities on the land eg equestrianism/racing which share it with sheep on the same farms . The vast majority of Wales is rural and average herd size is 100 so this is NOT big industrial agriculture. Any indiscriminate meat tax will affect these struggling farmers average £24k per family and hill farms just £16.5k. The countryside as it is attracts tourism, the centre of rural life is sheep and horses and so there’s a cultural factor in this too; which is important re ‘wellbeing’, as well as the £500 million contributing to the Welsh economy directly. Rural businesses are inseperable from sheep and horses massively interdependent. In a nation where crops can’t for the most part be grown, all on pasture (sequestrator of carbon). THESE are the farmers who would be most hard hit by tax and regulation re meat; not the big ag doing the damage. So its no all ‘western’ bad practice this is our whole nation. Farming suicides are really bad one a week in the UK, every two days in France, and 270 000 in India since 1995. These are not big industrial agriculture. So please consider these in your rightful defence of pastoral practices elsewhere.

  3. The article is really convincing and helps the reader/s to think in balance. Livestock is not the only source of food but playing a very dimensional role in the life of the human being. Replacing livestock-based food items with the plant origin is a zero-sum effort. The communities have evolved and domesticated livestock in tune with the consumer demand and climate change in the course of thousands of years. Nobody has the right to reverse human development in the field of livestock evolution. Yes, we can argue to increase the share of the plants’ origin food compared to the livestock origin. How silly to think to fulfill the energy requirement of the people in Mongolia at _30 C? A wider and representative forum needs to discuss this issue in a wider framework.

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