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The roads not taken: Should 1bn overfed people eat less meat? Or 1bn hungry farmers become more efficient?

The Butcher, by Marc Chagall, 1910 (via Wikipaintings).

Should you become vegetarian to help mitigate against global warming? Well, you could, or you might try just eating less meat, if you’re one of some 1 billion people chronically eating too much food. On the other hand, you might try helping some 1 billion small-scale livestock farmers in poor countries become more efficient.

What follows is how North America’s NPR program ‘The Salt’ recently set out the alternatives.

‘We Americans are heavy consumers of meat, and we’re increasingly reminded that eating less of it will shrink our carbon footprint. Growing the crops to feed all those animals releases lots of greenhouse gases.

‘But a new study argues that eating less meat isn’t a very practical climate-protection recipe for developing countries, where demand for meat is rising most quickly. The study’s authors say there’s a better path: Help farmers produce livestock more efficiently, and reduce the incentive to snap up new land to graze their animals.

‘The analysis, which appeared Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, starts with the stark reality of rising demand for animal products: It’s projected to double by 2050. And given that the livestock industry is already responsible for 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (from feeding, raising and transporting animals), that means it’s poised to generate a whole lot more.

‘Can that big increase be avoided? According to the researchers, many of whom hail from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, and other agricultural and ecological research institutions around the world, it can. And the key, paradoxically, is to get animals to eat more grain. . . .

‘”If we’re able to develop policies to become more efficient producers of these products, we can continue to meet demand while reducing emissions,” Rich Conant, an ecosystem ecologist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University [and at the International Livestock Research Institute, ILRI] and a co-author of the study, tells The Salt.

We already know there are lots of things producers can do on the farm, and there’s a lot of research going on how they can more effectively manage the herd, to how they can get more meat from the animals, to how they manage the waste.” . . .

Mario Herrero, the chief research scientist at Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, and another of the study’s authors, says . . .

I think there should be tax breaks or incentives (payments for ecosystems services) for farmers to use their land in ways that produce food sustainably,” . . . .’

Read the whole article by Eliza Barclay on the ‘Salt’ program of National Public Radio (USA):
Why farmers can prevent global warming just as well as vegetarians, 25 Feb 2014.

Read the full science paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS):
Climate change mitigation through livestock system transitions, by Petr Havlík (ILRI and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis [IIASA], Hugo Valin (IIASA), Mario Herrero (ILRI, now at CSIRO), Michael Obersteiner (IIASA), Erwin Schmid(Institute for Sustainable Economic Development, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Austria), Mariana Rufino (ILRI), Aline Mosnier (IIASA), Philip Thornton (ILRI and CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security), Hannes Böttcher (IIASA), Richard Conant (ILRI and Colorado State University at Fort Collins), Stefan Frank (IIASA), Steffen Fritz (IIASA), Sabine Fuss (IIASA), Florian Kraxner (IIASA), and An Notenbaert (ILRI), Feb 2014.

Read other articles about this and related papers on the ILRI Clippings Blog:
Yet more evidence that agriculture–particularly livestock agriculture–needs to be part of climate discussions, 13 Apr 2014
Research shows vast differences in livestock systems, diets and emissions–FCRN on PNAS paper, 12 Apr 2014
What livestock eat (and don’t eat) determines how productive, and efficient, they are–PNAS study, 15 Mar 2014
Future of (sustainable) livestock production: Efficient, but measured–Time Magazine on major new ILRI study, 17 Dec 2013


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