Can Eating Meat and Dairy Products Be Sustainable?

By Fairlie, Simon; McWilliams, James | New Internationalist, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Can Eating Meat and Dairy Products Be Sustainable?


Fairlie, Simon, McWilliams, James, New Internationalist


Simon

Eating too much meat is unsustainable: industrial livestock farming is an inefficient way to produce food and has a heav y impact upon the environment.

But a proportion of the meat and dairy products we eat is a by-product of agricultural systems designed to produce grains and other vegetable staples - what I call 'default meat'. This includes: livestock fed on crop residues, food-processing waste and consumer food waste; ruminants foraging land unsuitable for cultivation, whose role, in an organic system, is to harvest nutrients and deposit them on arable land; ruminants grazing on leguminous grassland which is the fertility-enhancing part of an organic rotation; livestock fed on the surplus of grains which it is necessary to produce in most years to guarantee sufficient food for all in the worst year.

My estimate is that nearly half the meat and dairy currently produced in the world is default meat. The Canadian professor Vaclav Smil reckons it is considerably more than half.

In the community where I live, we feed about 25 people a day. Our two cows, grazing mostly on land unsuitable for cultivation, provide a large amount of our protein, fat and calories, plus manure for vegetables and potatoes. Though we are a vegetarian community, we keep pigs to eat the whey and food waste, and so keep rats away. The pigs produce about 250 kilos of meat per year, or 10 kilos per person, which we sell locally. That fat and protein comes not from soy and palm oil imported from the tropics, but mostly from the grass that grows around us. That's what I call sustainable.

James

The non-industrial micro-food system that Simon describes is an impressively sustainable way to produce dairy and meat - for 25 people. How to scale that system to feed billions of humans in a rapidly globalizing market economy strikes me as the more relevant challenge.

Sustainably meeting that challenge - with humans consuming as few natural resources as possible to produce a healthy supply of food - will require ending all forms of animal domestication to clear space and recover the resources to sustain edible plants.

Livestock currently makes this hard to do. Animal agriculture uses 40 per cent of the earth's arable land; accounts for 40 per cent of the world's methane output (which is a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon) and 66 per cent of the world's nitrous oxide output (300 times more powerful); uses excessive amounts of water (75 per cent in the American West); and requires humans to view 10 billion sentient animals a year as inanimate objects.

A mass transition to the more humane system that Simon describes would come with intractable problems. Grass-fed cattle generate more (to the tune of 50 per cent) greenhouse gas than their industrially confined, soy/cornfed counterparts; droughts - look at California - require the importation of silage that's more water intensive than either corn or soy (alfalfa is California's most water-intensive crop!); and the land required per pastured animal is often unsustainable - hundreds of acres per cow in parts of the US.

As long as we're dreaming big, it makes more sense to replace livestock with a carefully managed agricultural model that produces plants for people to eat.

Simon

I'm not proposing scaling up from two cows, but scaling down from the system that already exists - reducing meat consumption by perhaps 50 per cent globally - so there is clearly ecological space to do that. I agree it will be a challenge to persuade people to eat less meat, but not as much of a challenge as persuading them to eat none at all, as you advocate.

Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon, but it disappears from the atmosphere quicker: carbon remains stable for much longer. This means that a relatively small reduction in methane emissions (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says 'less than 30 per cent', other sources estimate around 10 per cent) would stabilize the amount of methane in the atmosphere at current levels. …

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