Science - February 21, 2008

Livestock, climate and the truth

The report Livestock’s Long Shadow states that livestock keeping is responsible for eighteen percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced indirectly by humans, the cause of global warming. ‘Everyone jumped on this,’ says Cees De Haan, co-author of the report and Wageningen alumnus. ‘But there’s much more to the report: it’s about biodiversity, water and soil use.’

Cattle in Senegal.
A Wageningen alumnus, Cees de Haan held a key position at the World Bank for many years. He was closely involved in setting up LEAD, an initiative of various European donors, the World Bank and the FAO, focusing on livestock, environment and development. In recent years De Haan has authored a number of reports on the impact of livestock husbandry on environment, climate and health, including Livestock’s Long Shadow. This most recent LEAD report attracted a lot of media attention in the Netherlands because the Party for the Animals used it to back up its campaign against meat eating. ‘But their reasoning takes parts of the report out of context,’ says De Haan.

The report is the outcome of a trend that started at the end of the 1980s. As a result of the growing world population and rise in living standards, the demand for milk and meat grew. At the same time, in the industrialised world a current arose against livestock farming. Activists outside the World Bank and vegetarians within the organisation made it increasingly difficult for De Haan to get approval for the livestock projects he wanted to set up in developing countries. His opponents in those days focused mainly on animal welfare and health. ‘Now the Party for the Animals is using the environmental argument in their film Meat the Truth, and the message is: eat less meat. If you don’t do it for the environment, then do it for the welfare of the animals.’

But the arguments used by Marianne Thieme, the leader of the Party for the Animals, are not sound, says De Haan. ‘She uses the facts to promote her own message, and sometimes she twists the truth. For example, she says you need eight kilos of grain to produce one kilo of meat. But this is only true for fattening beef cattle in America, and only part of their feed consists of grain or oil seeds that could be used for direct human consumption. If you look at the whole life of an animal and at the amount of grain involved, the ratio is much smaller: about three kilos of grain for one kilo of meat. And when it comes to water use, Thieme uses a statistic from the literature that assumes that all feed for beef production comes from irrigated land, which of course is not the case.’

When it comes to Thieme’s conclusion – meat consumption has to go down – De Haan only partly agrees. ‘For people in the industrialised West, I agree with her. But you can’t expect people in China or India to stop eating meat because we in the West eat too much meat. Marianne Thieme doesn’t say that we need to make livestock husbandry more sustainable, but that is our message.’

According to De Haan, the public debate on livestock farming in the Netherlands focuses too much on the climate problem. Of course livestock produces greenhouse gases, but you can also reason that the emissions from intensive livestock farming are less per animal than where animals are reared less intensively. ‘Less greenhouse gas is produced per kilo of factory-farmed meat than by a small livestock farmer in India. That’s because there is less raw cellulose in the feed of factory farmed animals. And you can’t tell a small farmer that he should stop keeping animals because of greenhouse gas emissions. There are 800 million people worldwide who are dependent on livestock keeping. My motto is: make it more intensive, but not more concentrated,’ says De Haan. Livestock farming should be more efficient and intensive, but should be better spread over the agricultural land that’s available.

De Haan notes with satisfaction that the idea of sustainable livestock husbandry has taken root in Wageningen. ‘Our message doesn’t make us popular, certainly not with livestock farmers. The American Cattle Association vigorously disputed our report, but they could not disprove one fact or figure. And now I meet representatives of the European Association of Animal Producers in Wageningen who invite me to come and tell my story.’ / Jan Braakman

This is a shortened translation of the article 'Het vee, het klimaat en de waarheid'