The SADC region is experiencing a devastating drought episode associated with the 2015/2016 El Niño event which is negatively impacting on livelihoods and quality of lives. The region experienced a delayed onset of the 2015/2016, rainfall season, followed by erratic rains. Analysis of rainfall performance shows that the October to December 2015 period, which represents the first half of the cropping season, was the driest in more than 35 years in several southern parts of the region. During the same period, higher than average temperatures were consistently experienced across the region. These dry conditions mostly affected Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Following the dry conditions from the beginning of the season in October 2015, heavy rains set in across most parts of the region for close to 30 days, between 21 FebruarySADC Regional Situation Update 15 May 2016
while in northern Botswana, parts of southern Angola, northern South Africa, southern Zambia and western Zimbabwe, rainfall was close to twice the normal amount. Despite this improvement in rainfall, water availability for hydro-power generation for Zambia and Zimbabwe is still below normal. Most areas received above-normal rainfall during this period. The rains received helped to increase the amount of water available for human and livestock use, as well as improving pasture conditions. These rains were, however, too late for crops which had already wilted and died or were not even planted due to earlier dry conditions.
Although national, regional and international forecasts had by September 2015 predicted poor rainfall performance and high temperatures for the 2015/16 season, the severity of the drought conditions has been such that it has overwhelmed the disaster preparedness capacity in most of the affected Member States.
The 2015/16 El Niño follows closely on a previous poor
Rainfall: 21 Feb – 20 Mar 2016 expressed as a percent rainfall season. The effect of the previous drier-than-normal of average rainfall for the same period.
season for most SADC countries resulted in reduced crop production, increased use of stored food reserves and savings used to buy food and non-food (such as seed and other agricultural inputs) commodities, reduced water levels, reduced pasture availability and increased strain on the revenue of most governments that were in the process of recovering from the earlier effects of global financial crises. The situation was further compounded by the fall in prices of commodities on the global market, an aspect that has reduced the revenue base of most governments, thereby increasing the strain on the revenue of most governments and their capacity to support socio protection programmes for the people affected by the drought. Cereal supply and demand analysis for the 2015/16 marketing year showed that the region recorded an overall cereal deficit of about 7.8 million tonnes. The 2015 regional food security and vulnerability assessments showed that the number of food insecure people during the 2015/16 marketing year was more than 27 million people, which is about 9% of SADC’s total population.
The already serious problem of acute and chronic malnutrition in the region is expected to worsen, increasing risks of mortality of young children and the elderly. Steep food price hikes are expected in the 2016/17 marketing year due to poor grain production and the depreciation of the regional currencies against the US dollars. This El Niño event has seriously crippled agricultural production including crops and livestock; and dried up many water sources and reservoirs, with serious impacts not only on agricultural but energy supplies. Increased incidences of diseases are likely due to water shortages, lack of safe drinking water, and inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene practices; all which contribute to higher risk of preventable waterborne diseases. Additionally, the drought heightens financial constraints caused by food price increases that have recently been recorded. Furthermore, the production and supply of seeds, fertilizers and other inputs have also been adversely affected. These factors will constrain recovery in the medium term for the affected communities and thereby negatively impacting on agricultural plans for the next cropping season. The welfare of millions of households is in serious jeopardy due to the current crippling food shortages and future recovery input shortages.
The number of people at risk of food insecurity during the 2015/16 marketing year is estimated at 1.25 million, which represents a 65.8 per cent increase compared to the previous marketing year. The most affected provinces are Cunene, Huila, Benguela, Kwanza Sul, Namibe and Cuando Cubango. The figures are expected to continue rising as we move through 2016. Crop losses are expected to be as high as 75 per cent in parts of the south.
The country is battling an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which is adding to livestock deaths. A yellow fever outbreak is also proving difficult to contain. Since the yellow fever outbreak began in December 2015, 1,975 suspected cases of yellow fever (618 laboratory confirmed) and 258 deaths have been reported, the majority of them in the capital, Luanda, and in 2 other provinces, Huambo and Huila. Amid concerns that the virus will spread to other urban areas and to neighboring countries, a large-scale vaccination campaign was launched in February 2016 and has so far reached almost 7 million people.
Coordination and Response
An inter-ministerial Drought Emergency Commission has been established, led by the Ministry of Planning, to support emergency efforts. To strengthen the international cooperating partners’ humanitarian coordination, the United Nations has established an Emergency Country Team to complement Government’s coordination efforts
The Ministry of Agriculture is planning to conduct a quick assessment of the situation that will provide additional details of the progress of the season so far
Botswana: Most parts of the country received below average rainfall since the season started in October 2015. Normal to above normal rainfall amounts received in central and western parts of Botswana in December helped to reduce water deficits and to improve vegetation conditions in some areas. However, many of the eastern areas, which include the primary crop growing areas of the country, received below normal rainfall. Some of the areas have not been planted due to lack of rains.
This has negatively impacted on crop production prospects with permanent wilting reported in some parts of the country. A few exceptions are in the northern and north-western parts of the country where slightly above average rainfall was received during the last two months. The poor rainfall conditions have also affected the availability of drinking water and pasture for livestock. This has resulted in poor livestock condition with reports of livestock deaths in some areas. In response to the drought impacts on livestock, the Ministry of Agriculture has increased subsidies on certain livestock feeds to 50 per cent.
The number of vulnerable people is estimated at over 30,000 or about 4 per cent higher than last season, according to the Botswana Vulnerability Assessment Committee. A national drought assessment is currently underway, earlier than usual this year, due to the severity of the current drought. This is expected to provide more details about the performance of the season across the country.
Lesotho: one of the worst affected countries in the region, with reports showing that the 2015/16 agricultural season has failed. For the May/June harvest period, 80 per cent of farmers are not expecting to harvest anything significant. Rain was received during the early months of 2016, which helped improve the water crisis that had been crippling the country. The Government of Lesotho on 22 December 2015 declared a state of drought emergency. The Government’s declaration was accompanied by a jointly developed response plan (ICPs and Government) as well as an appeal for international support. The response plan is asking for a total of US$40.3million.
The results of a multi-stakeholder Rapid Drought Assessment conducted in January 2016 show that about 534,502 (more than 1 in 4) people are at risk of food insecurity until June 2016, with the situation expected to worsen in the second half of the year and the beginning of 2017 due to poor 2016 harvest. Poor and very poor households are experiencing a 44per cent decline in their food and cash income compared to normal conditions. The current food and cash income is 31% below the survival threshold. This is exacerbated by the decrease in the number of people receiving remittances from South Africa mainly due to recent retrenchments, thereby affecting their ability to buy enough food. Despite recent rains, increasing difficulties are being experienced with regards to accessing water with rationing, increased waiting times and water purchasing widely reported. The elderly, people living with HIV and AIDS and/or TB, the disabled and the sick were indicated as the most affected by water shortages. Protection concerns were also highlighted in the report, including use of negative coping mechanisms and sexual and genderbased violence.
Coordination and Response
The UN and NGOs are working jointly with the Government of Lesotho to complete further assessments. A market assessment is being conducted to complement the rapid assessment. This exercise will further inform the programming of emergency response activities and targeting. An Inter-Ministerial Task Force has been established to support the coordination efforts by the Disaster Management Authority. To further strengthen the humanitarian coordination, the United Nations, together with NGOs has established a Humanitarian Country Team (HCT).
Madagascar: The south-western parts of the country are experiencing El Niño -induced drought conditions. Low rainfall and high temperatures in January intensified dryness in the southern half of Madagascar, especially over Androy, Anosy and Atsimo Andrefana regions. The drought, which has affected these regions since October 2015, ha negatively impacted on crops and livestock, water availability, food prices, livelihoods and nutritional wellbeing. Households food and nutrition situation has significantly deteriorated.
More than one million people in these regions are food insecure, of which 665,000 are severely affected. This represents 80 per cent of the population in the seven most affected districts of Amboasary, Ambovombe, Tsihombe, Bekily, Beloha, Betioky and Ampanihy. The communities’ coping strategies are weakened by successive years of shocks. They are adopting negative coping strategies such as the sale of assets (including livestock), increasing wood collection activities; reducing the number of meals per day; withdrawing children from schools; and migrating to other areas of the country. The deterioration of households’ food security affects the nutritional status of children under five. In February 2016, global acute malnutrition (GAM) levels reached an average of 8 per cent within this group. GAM rates were higher than the critical threshold of 10 percent in some areas. The district of Tsihombe is the most affected, with an average of 14 percent of children under five presenting signs of acute malnutrition.
Malawi: On 12 April 2016, the President of Malawi declared a State of National Disaster due to prolonged dry spells during the 2015/16 season, with an estimated 2.8 million people being food insecure. Second round crop estimates show an expected 1.07 million tonnes national maize deficit, nearly five times the registered deficit last year. This implies that the number of people in need of relief food assistance will significantly increase over the next 18 months.
A pre-harvest MVAC assessment (released in March) found that the country’s three regions experienced dry spells due to effects of the El Niño, with the central and southern regions hit harder than the north. At the same time, heavy rains continue in the northern region, and could last until June, exacerbating the current flooding situation. At least seven displacement camps have been established with more than 35,000 flood-affected people.
Food insecurity continues to aggravate Malawi’s fragile nutrition situation, with vulnerable groups and people on ART/TB treatment feeling the heavy consequences of drought. Admissions to health clinics for moderate acute malnutrition have risen four-fold since January. A nutrition survey planned for April/June will further inform the nutrition response. The annual MVAC (a rural vulnerability and food security assessment) will be conducted from early May.
The country is also experiencing a cholera outbreak that started in December 2015. According to the Ministry of Health, as of 31 March 2016, a cumulative total of 1,073 cholera cases were registered in 10 out of Malawi’s 28 districts. Twenty-one deaths have been recorded, representing a case fatality rate of 1.96%, which is above the acceptable rate of 1%, as per WHO standards.
Coordination and Response
The Government of Malawi is leading the response, through the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA), with support from humanitarian partners, including NGOs, the UN System and donors. The cluster system has been activated, and inter-cluster meetings are taking place to ensure proper cross-sector coordination. The Office of the Vice President, through DoDMA, convenes meetings of the Humanitarian Response Committee to monitor the implementation progress of the food insecurity response. In addition, DoDMA is facilitating the finalization of the 2015/16 National Contingency Plan as well as district level contingency plan reviews and coordination capacity strengthening.
Mozambique: Throughout much of the season, Mozambique has experienced well below average rainfall in the southern and central parts of the country, while above average rainfall has been received over the northern parts. Most parts of the country received good rains briefly in late January, as well as in late February through April. These late rains, while providing some moisture that contributed to pasture re-growth were insufficient to eliminate the prevailing rainfall deficits. Vegetation conditions remain well below average in most of the south.
On 1 April 2016, the Technical Secretariat for Food Security and Nutrition (SETSAN) released the results of the latest food and nutrition security assessment which indicated that 1.5 million people are acutely food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance in the Central (Zambezia, Manica, Sofala and Tete provinces) and Southern regions (Gaza, Inhambane and Maputo provinces). An estimated 191,000 children are expected to be severely acutely malnourished in the next 12 months and GAM rates for children under 5 are 15.3% and 15.5 % in Sofala and Tete provinces respectively. Very few households have any cereal reserves for consumption and as a result, there has been a sharp reduction in the quality of diet between November 2015 and March 2016. Prices of the staple food, maize, have increased by almost 100 per cent in markets when compared to this time last year. The nutritional status of children is worrisome, particularly in Sofala, Tete and Manica provinces; there are very high GAM rates (over 15 per cent in two provinces) with additional aggravating factors (weak health systems and water and sanitation challenges). Increasingly, children, particularly girls, are dropping out of school to help fetch water and food or because families are moving to areas with better conditions. In view of this alarming situation, the Government of Mozambique declared on 12 April a 90-day institutional red alert, the highest level of national emergency preparedness, for the central and southern areas of the country. This measure aims to intensify and expand response actions, disburse additional Government funds planned for emergency situations and mobilize resources through cooperating partners.
Coordination and Response
The response actions to the current drought in the country are in Maputo, Gaza, Inhambane, Sofala and Tete provinces. The response activities include food assistance, drilling/rehabilitation of water boreholes and in some cases water trucking to affected communities.
The Government of Mozambique through the National Institute for Disaster Management (INGC) is leading the coordination of drought response in the affected provinces. The coordination meetings of the Technical Council for Disaster Management (CTGC) are being held at least once a week to continue monitoring the drought situation, response and gaps. The ICPs’ Humanitarian Country Team continues to ensure coordination among the partners responding to the situation in support of the Government.
Namibia: Poor rainfall in the first half of the rainfall season resulted in delays in planting and a lack of pasture and drinking water for both animals and humans. Namibia experienced an extended delay in the effective onset of rains, with little to no rainfall being received in October and November. In many areas, the onset was delayed by between 20 to 40 days. This extended dryness, combined with very high temperatures, and a poor 2014/2015 rainfall season, resulted in significant negative impact on grazing lands and water resources for both humans and livestock. Veld fires were also report and these contributed to a reduction in the availability of grazing. The situation improved in December as good rains were received throughout much of Namibia, while January was much drier, especially in the northern-central and north-western areas. The northeastern and central parts of the country received normal to above-normal rainfall. As a result of the mixed rainfall pattern, the vegetation is at mixed growth stages with the eastern half of the country showing above-normal vegetation conditions, and below-average conditions in the western half.
The number of people at risk of food insecurity is estimated at 370,316. The cabinet approved about N$350 million (US$22.5m) to support various kinds of interventions
South Africa: Rainfall improved in many parts of the country in January and continued through February to mid-March, after several months of very poor rainfall had prevented many farmers from planting. The protracted delays in the rains resulted in large reductions in the planted area. The rains were insufficient to eliminate rainfall deficits since October, and seasonal rainfall totals are still well below average in most parts of the country. Commercial maize production in 2016 is estimated at 7.44 million MT, 25 per cent down from 9.96 million MT in 2015, and about 40% below the 5-year average, while sorghum production remained almost the same as last year at about 0.12 million MT.
Demand and supply analysis for the 2016/17 marketing year shows that the country will face cereal deficits in maize and wheat of 1.61 million tonnes and 1.55 million tonnes respectively. Sorghum is expected to record a small surplus of 23.7 thousand tons. These deficits will be more than offset by net imports.
The Government declared seven out of the country’s nine provinces as drought-related disaster areas in November 2015, and set aside ZAR 236 million (approximately US$14.5 million) to alleviate the impacts of the drought.
Commercial beef slaughters have increased significantly due to culling influenced in part by the drought. Droughtrelated cattle deaths have also been reported. The country’s dams were reportedly at 55 per cent of full supply capacity by end of January, 27 per cent lower than what was observed at the same time last year.
South Africa continues to export maize to neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia, which is projected to amount to about 820,000 tonnes in the 2015/16 marketing year.
Swaziland: The El Niño-induced drought has seriously affected food and nutrition security and water availability across Swaziland. The Swaziland Drought Rapid Assessment Report estimates maize production of 33,000 tonnes, a 64 per cent reduction compared with last year’s season, which itself was below average. Results confirm that 320,000 people, about 30 per cent of the total population, are in need of immediate food assistance. The hardest-hit regions are Lubombo and Shiselweni. An estimated 64,000 cattle have already perished in the drought, threatening lives and livelihoods. Swaziland has a very high prevalence of HIV/AIDS: 26 per cent among the adult population (15-49 years). A comprehensive joint health and nutrition rapid assessment was conducted in late March and results show that lack of access to food is reducing adherence to anti-retroviral treatment (ART).
The next main harvest season is not until April 2017, meaning food and nutrition indicators can only be expected to deteriorate over the coming months, which is of great concern given the already high rates of chronic malnutrition (according to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) 2014 data, about 25.5 per cent of the children under age 5 are stunted in growth).
To address the impacts of the drought, the Government of Swaziland declared a National Drought Emergency on 18 February 2016. Following the declaration, Government published the National Emergency Response Mitigation and Adaptation Plan (NERMAP), which is requesting a total of US$80.5m. The comprehensive multi-sectoral response plan was developed by Government, with support from partners. US$16.5m was pledged by Government for both immediate and longer term interventions. The Government has requested the international community to assist though the provision of financial and technical support.
Coordination and Response
The Government of Swaziland has committed approximately US$7 million to meet the immediate needs of the most affected, which will cover around 25 per cent of health and nutrition needs and 20 per cent of rural WASH needs. The United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) approved US$3.14 million to commence immediate, life-saving humanitarian interventions. This funding will enable the World Food Programme and UNICEF to provide food and emergency water and sanitation services to 95,000 of the most vulnerable people.
Following the development of NERMAP, Government with partners is finalizing the development of a humanitarian needs overview (HNO), based on NERMAP, prioritizing critical humanitarian needs. A multi-sectoral drought rapid assessment was completed in February 2016 and results are being incorporated into the response. In addition, the UN is supporting the Ministry of Health to conduct a more comprehensive assessment on the health and nutrition situation, including the capacity of health facilities to respond to the drought emergency.
Government convenes an inter-sectoral coordination forum to deliberate on critical issues and provide strategic direction for the response. There are various sector coordination meetings, led by the Government, co-chaired by the UN. The forums provide technical support for the coordination mechanism. A UN Technical Working Group for Drought has been established and is actively coordinating UN agencies involved in the response, arranged by sectors (Food Security and Agriculture, Health and Nutrition, WASH, Education, and Protection).
Tanzania: Tanzania has been receiving good rainfall in most areas since the onset of the season. Crops and pasture were generally reported to be in good condition. High rainfall resulted in flooding in some eastern and central districts, causing damage to crops such as rice and maize. Pastures and grazing lands were reported to be in good condition, and water supply for livestock is sufficient. Livestock were also reported to be in good condition.
The country is experiencing a cholera outbreak that started in August 2015. As of 14
April, 20,810 cases have been reported countrywide, with 327 deaths, a case fatality rate of 1.6 per cent. The Ministry of health is leading the response, supported by ICPs.
Zambia: Following delayed onset of rains, most areas in the southern half of the country received below average rains and experienced delays in planting. This continued until the 3rd dekad of January when the situation improved. In several areas, the rains arrived in time to allow resuscitation of crops that had been affected by the preceding dryness. The rains continued consistently into late March (mid-April in some areas), resulting in average to good crop conditions in many areas. Recent crop estimates released in May put the expected 2015/16 maize production at 2.87 million MT, up 9.5% from last year’s production, and representing a surplus of 634,000 MT. The country has, however, currently banned export of maize.
A multi-sectoral impact and needs assessment is expected to be published by the Zambia Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZVAC) by the end of May.
The country is currently experiencing a cholera outbreak. As of 1 April, 5 districts were affected with 567 cumulative cases and 6 deaths reported. An analysis of the cases shows that the spread of the outbreak is mainly due to unsafe drinking water and fecal contamination. The affected areas are high densely populated residential areas served by unimproved pit latrines and mostly shallow wells. The Ministry of Health (MoH) is leading the cholera response using existing coordination structures for emergency preparedness and response. The frequency of coordination meetings is weekly at the national level and daily at the provincial and district levels. The National Coordination Committee is chaired by the Minister or Deputy Minister of Health. UNICEF and WHO are represented in all the subcommittees with high level representation from all relevant ministries, departments and other partners (Red Cross, Centre for Disease Control and University of Zambia).
The combination of a poor 2015 harvest, an extremely dry early-mid season (October to mid-February) and hotter-than-average conditions has led to a scenario of extensive crop failure and food insecurity in Zimbabwe. With some 2.8 million people, more than a quarter of the rural population, already estimated to be food insecure, the number is projected to rise significantly over the next year, with the main harvest period in May expected to bring minimal relief. The provinces with the highest prevalence of food insecurity are Matabeleland North (43%), Midlands (33%), Masvingo (32%), Mashonaland West (30%) and Matabeleland South (28%). Several interventions are underway to assist the affected households.
These projections prompted the Government to declare a state of national drought disaster on 4 February 2016, and subsequently issued an international appeal of $1.5 billion.
Zimbabwe: The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) Rapid Assessment revealed a global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate of 5.7%, a level not reached in the country in 15 years. Nationally, 7,058 children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM) have been admitted to therapeutic treatment programmes between December 2015 and May 2016. Almost 17 per cent (1,162) of these admissions took place in emergency response districts where active nutrition screening is taking place. In these same districts the number of children admitted for SAM treatment has more than doubled compared to the same period last year.
An estimated 62,000 drought affected children, women and men were provided with access to safe water to prevent water and sanitation related diseases through the rehabilitation of piped water schemes and boreholes. There has been a significant decline in new typhoid cases comparing weekly epidemiological data. To date, 1, 206 typhoid cases have been reported, out of these 75 have been laboratory confirmed, with 5 typhoid related deaths reported.
Coordination and Response
Government established a Cabinet Committee on Emergency Response to the El Niño -induced Drought Disaster chaired by Vice President. This Cabinet Committee has been mandated to coordinate responses to meet immediate and medium-term needs of the current drought. The current response has been coordinated by coordination platforms, led by Government Ministries, supported by the United Nations. In order to provide strategic guidance, a Humanitarian Country Team was established in 2015 and an inter-sectoral coordination group established in April 2016 to coordinate between sectors and to provide a platform for inter-sectoral discussion. Sectoral meetings are ongoing among the 5 sectors identified as critical to this response i.e Food Security and Agriculture, Health, WASH, Education and Protection. An Early recovery Sectoral Working Groups has been established.
Regional Coordination and Response
• The SADC Council of Ministers meeting of 15 – 16 March 2016 approved:
that the Region should declare a Regional Drought Disaster and prepare an Appeal of Assistance from International Cooperating Partners; and
the establishment of a Regional Response Team at the SADC Secretariat to coordinate a regional response in close collaboration with Member States.
• The SADC Secretariat has since established a Regional Response Team with the main objective of effectively and efficiently coordinating the responses to the negative effects of the 2015/16 El Niño phenomenon in the region.
• The Regional Response Team is composed of staff from SADC Secretariat, Regional based United Nations’ Agencies and other International Cooperating Partners.
• While the Regional Drought Disaster Declaration is yet to be made, the Regional Response Team has already started compiling data and statistics for a possible Regional Appeal document. Meanwhile, the Team will continue to publish El-Nino Drought Situation Reports like the current one on a monthly basis.
• Member States are currently conducting their national vulnerability assessments for the 2016/17 marketing year which are expected to be completed by early June 2016. Information from these assessments will form the basis for a possible Regional Appeal.
Should we eat meat? That’s the big question, which — for this series — I’m asking three different ways: in terms of environmental sustainability, morality, and practicality.
Today, to begin: Can meat be sustainable?
In any comparison of the environmental impact of meat eaters and plant eaters, we have to start by noting that plant eaters have a powerful ally on their side: physics. Every time energy moves from one state to another, a little is lost along the way. Flip on an incandescent bulb and only 8 percent of the electric energy turns into visible light — the majority of energy is lost as infrared light and heat. Convert the calories in corn into meat by feeding a chicken, and you’ve got the same problem.
In even the most efficient, high-tech farms, it takes a pound and a half of grain to grow a pound of chicken — because that chicken is constantly radiating heat and burning energy to move around. The picture gets worse if you just look at the parts of the chicken that people like to eat. The scientist Vaclav Smil, who has a reputation for objective number-crunching, considered this basic issue of thermodynamics in his book, Should We Eat Meat? Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory, and came up with this table:
LW = live weight, EW = edible weight, MJ = mega joules of energyVaclav Smil
According to Smil’s calculations, you need 3.3 pounds of feed to get a pound of chicken meat, 9.4 pounds of feed for a pound of pork, and 25 pounds of feed for a pound of beef. It’s simply more efficient to eat plants than to feed those plants to animals and eat meat.
This efficiency problem puts meat eaters way behind from the beginning, and it extends from energy to every other resource. Look at water use, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, land-use footprints, and just about anything else, and it’s always going to make more sense to grow grains for people to eat rather than for animals to eat. To take just one example, scientists looked at the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that flows into rivers and creates dead zones in oceans: They calculated that a kilogram of red meat put an average of 150 grams of nitrogen equivalent (in various fertilizers) into waterways, versus 50 grams per kilogram of chicken and less than 3 grams per kilogram of grain.
This idea, that meat is environmentally unfriendly, has been the conventional wisdom since 2006, when the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization published a report called Livestock’s Long Shadow. Which is why I was surprised when Frank Mitloehner, a UC-Davis animal science professor who is leading an update of the FAO’s livestock assessment, told me that the idea of eliminating animals from our food system was ridiculous and, actually, unsustainable.
“Agriculture cannot be sustainable without animal agriculture,” he said. “That is something I’m sure of.”
There are two key points to consider, Mitloehner said. First, most of the feed that livestock eat is not edible by humans. Globally, just 18 percent of animal feed is made up of grains or other crops that people might otherwise eat. The rest is crop residues, grass, and waste from milling grain and other food processing. And so, despite the inefficiency of converting calories to meat, animals are able to give humans access to energy that they wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.
The second, issue, Mitloehner said, is that what I’d been thinking of as the “waste products” of animal agriculture are actually valuable resources. The manure animals produce is vital for agriculture (especially organic agriculture). “If we were to reduce the fertilizer animals produce by 100 percent, we would have to double or triple the amount of chemical fertilizer we apply, and we just don’t have that,” Mitloehner said.
In addition, every part of the animal that we don’t eat as meat — the skin, bones, sinew, organs, and fat — is used in some way. The artist Christien Meindertsma demonstrated this beautifully with her book Pig 05049, in which she followed every part of a slaughtered pig to its final use. Extract from pig hairs are used in baking bread, bone ash is a key part in train brakes, gelatin is used to filter your beer, elements from blood are used as edible food glue — Meindertsma found 185 products in total. If we were to eliminate animal agriculture, we’d have to find new supply chains for these things, and each would come with its own environmental footprint.
Livestock is especially important to poor farmers. Animals are often a key part of the agro-ecological system and provide high-quality nutrients to the people most likely to go hungry — more frequently in the form of dairy than meat. In some of the poorest areas of the world, people need cattle because manure is their only source of fuel. In his book One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?, Gordon Conway lays out the benefits of livestock animals, which can be easy to forget when you’re rich and comfortable:
-Contribute 40 percent of global value of agricultural output
-Support livelihoods and food security of almost 1 billion people
-Provide food and incomes and consume non-human-edible food
-Contribute 15 percent of total food energy and 25 percent of dietary protein
-Provide essential micronutrients (e.g. iron, calcium) that are more readily available in meat, milk, and eggs than in plant-based foods
-Are a valuable asset, serving as a store of wealth, collateral for credit, and an essential safety net during times of crisis.
-Are central to mixed farming systems, consume agricultural waste products, help control insects and weeds, produce manure and waste for cooking, and provide draft power for transport
-Provide employment, in some cases especially for women
-Have a cultural significance, as the basis for religious ceremonies
But anyone reading this probably is relatively rich and comfortable — at least rich enough that it may be a bit mindboggling to think you might need a cow so you could burn its dung for energy. For those of us living with easy access to energy and cheap calories, would it make ecological sense to reduce our meat consumption? Probably.
I called up Rattan Lal, one of the world’s leading soil scientists, to ask him what he thought about meat eating. I wanted to talk to him because there’s been a lot of excitement about the idea that cattle grazing on grassland could actually be carbon negative — that is, we might need more animals, not less, to combat climate change.
Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, had told Washington Post journalist Tamar Haspel that we shouldn’t expect cows to save the world. Haspel wrote:
He says one metric ton per hectare is a reasonable estimate of the maximum [carbon] that grazing can sequester in a place like Ohio, where growing conditions generally are favorable, and a half-ton would be more realistic in drier areas. He supports grass-fed beef but says carbon sequestration “can’t completely compensate for the greenhouse gases in beef production.”
I wanted to double check — was there anything else? Some way that animals are crucial for soil health? When I spoke to Lal, he said it just came down to basic logistics. “In the next 40 years, there are 2.3 billion people coming to dinner. We have invited them — they haven’t made the choice to come. It is our moral duty to insure that they are well fed. The luxury of having so much meat as we do in the U.S. will become less and less feasible as population grows.”
Animals are a key part of the agricultural system, but the people who eat the most meat — the rich of the world — almost certainly need to eat less to make the global food system sustainable, especially as billions rise out of poverty and begin demanding their share.
Smil came to the same conclusion. He says that we should aim for an average of 33-66 pounds of meat per year. The French eat 35 pounds a year, while Americans eat 270 pounds of meat. If we got down to the French level, Smil’s calculations suggest that everyone around the world could have their share of meat, and we could still reduce the farmland used to grow feed from 33 percent of all cropland to 10 percent — with huge environmental benefits.
So can meat be sustainable? The answer, based on the evidence I was able to assemble, seems to be: Yes, but only in moderation. And because we are currently eating so much meat, those who give it up altogether are probably making the most environmentally friendly choice of all.
Next, I’ll tackle the morality of meat eating. And then I’ll turn to what’s probably the most important question of all: It’s fun to debate what we should do, but it’s more important to figure out what we can do, realistically. So after looking at morality, I’ll look at the most pragmatic ways to improve meat production.