Stop Blaming the Cow, Please!

Mar 24 2010

By Stefano Colombo

IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

ROME (IDN) – When top managers of giant oil and industrial companies or major car-makers eat a good steak, they probably rejoice twice – thanks to the meal of course but also because cows are now blamed for being the major single source of greenhouse gases.

They would have ample arguments: international organisations, including the United Nations, estimate that cows and livestock in general are responsible for around 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, more than the transport industry, which is said to be responsible for 13 percent.

But this is only 18 percent contribution to global warming; power generation, oil, industries, including weapons producers, as well as air, sea and road transportation and car-makers, among others, are accountable for 82 percent.

Another big difference is that around one billion poor people depend on livestock production, while high technologies, aircrafts, ships and cars, just to mention some, are mostly destined for the middle, high income classes, not the poor who represent a majority of the world population.

Moreover, livestock contributes 40 percent of the global value of agricultural production, according to the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Rather than blaming cows and livestock in general, urgent investments, major agricultural research efforts and robust governance are required to ensure that the world’s livestock sector responds to a growing demand for animal products and at the same time contributes to poverty reduction, food security, environmental sustainability and human health, says the world organisation.

In a new edition of its flagship publication, the State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA), FAO stresses that livestock is essential to the livelihoods of about one billion poor people. It provides “income, high-quality food, fuel, draught power, building material and fertilizer, thus contributing to food security and nutrition.”

The report also underlines that for many small-scale farmers, “livestock also provides an important safety net in times of need.”


It is true that the world will have to double meat production by 2050 to meet growing demand, which would make pressure on natural resources unsustainable. In fact, FAO says that livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80 percent of all agricultural land.

The solution is not to sit down and blame livestock for causing climate change, while oil-based industries are issuing 82 per cent of global warming gases.

There is a need to enhance the efficiency of natural-resource use in the sector and to reduce the environmental footprint of livestock production, the report says.

According to the UN specialised agency, the goal is to ensure that continued growth in livestock production does not create undue pressure on ecosystems, biodiversity, land and forest resources and water quality and does not contribute to global warming.

“Livestock can play an important role in both adapting to climate change and mitigating its effects on human welfare,” FAO says. “To realize the sector’s potential to contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation based on enhanced capacities to monitor, report and verify emissions from the livestock production new technologies will need to be developed.”


“The rapid transition of the livestock sector has been taking place in an institutional void,” says FAO director general Jacques Diouf in the foreword to the report. “Efforts are needed to ensure that this rapidly growing sector contributes fully to food security and poverty reduction, moving towards a ‘more responsible livestock sector.”

Indeed, the livestock sector is one of the fastest growing parts of the agricultural economy. Globally, it contributes 15 percent of total food energy and 25 percent of dietary protein.

In addition, products from livestock provide essential micronutrients that are not easily obtained from other plant food products.

Rising incomes, population growth and urbanization are the driving forces behind a growing demand for meat products in developing countries – and they will continue to be important, FAO says.

To meet rising demand, global annual meat production is expected to expand from 228 million tonnes currently to 463 million tonnes by 2050 with the cattle population estimated to grow from 1.5 billion to 2.6 billion and that of goats and sheep from 1.7 billion to 2.7 billion, the UN agency estimates.


Strong demand for animal food products offers significant opportunities for livestock to contribute to economic growth and poverty reduction.

But many smallholders are facing several challenges in remaining competitive with larger, more intensive production systems.

The report warns that “a widening gulf is emerging between those who can take advantage of growing demand for livestock products and those who cannot.”

FAO recommends that smallholders should be supported in taking advantage of the opportunities provided by an expanding livestock sector and in managing the risks associated with increasing competition.

Broader rural development strategies creating off-farm jobs should help those that may be unable to adapt and compete in a rapidly modernizing sector. “Policy makers also need to recognize and protect livestock’s safety-net function for the very poor,” the report concludes. (IDN-InDepthNews/23.03.2010)

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