The environmental impact of meat and animal products is not only attributable to consumers, as a research team led by the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU) argues in a recently published study. The fact that production and consumption in western countries like Austria are so high is the result of political and economic decisions that influence all stages of the supply chain of feed, meat and animal products.
Farm animals provide important services to people, but in many countries there is too much and too intensive livestock farming, which has dramatic consequences for ecosystems and leads to loss of biodiversity, deforestation and soil or water pollution.
Not only consumers
"I often hear that the excessive growth of livestock farming in recent decades is due to consumers becoming more affluent, which has boosted their appetite for meat and animal products such as milk and eggs. But this is an oversimplification of the processes that drive the growth and intensification of livestock farming," says Nicolas Roux of the Institute for Social Ecology (SEC) at BOKU, who led the study.
Since World War 2, policies in industrialised countries have aimed to increase the production and industrialisation of livestock. For example, the first objective of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy is to increase agricultural productivity, including livestock production. In addition, OECD countries pay a total of $52 billion annually in subsidies to support the production of feed and livestock products. Since the 1980s, deregulation and the large-scale adoption of genetic engineering by large agribusinesses boosted the production and export of soybeans in South America.
Trade liberalisation also became an important driver of dietary changes by increasing the availability of feed and livestock products and making them more affordable. Finally, marketing campaigns by the livestock industry and governments helped to make this increased production attractive to consumers. For example, a study led by Greenpeace found that the EU spent €252.4 million between 2016 and 2020 to promote sales of European meat and dairy products. The increase in livestock farming and the associated environmental impacts can therefore not only be attributed to the choices of end consumers, but rather to a decades-long paradigm of increasing the sales volume of animal products, along all stages of the livestock supply chain such as feed production, livestock farming, trade and retail.
Pressure on ecosystems
In their study, Roux and his colleagues propose a framework that enables empirical analysis by quantifying the pressure on ecosystems along different steps of the global feed and livestock supply chains. One result of the study is that around two thirds of the global pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity caused by agriculture is due to livestock farming. Especially in many western countries like Austria, the production and consumption of meat and animal products exceeds sustainability and health recommendations. In Austria, 60% of the pressure on ecosystems associated with consumption of meat, dairy products and eggs is domestic. The rest is attributable to imports of feed and animal products, especially soybeans from South America fed to Austrian pigs - as well as beef, dairy products and pork from neighbouring countries such as Germany and Hungary. Conversely, half of the livestock-related pressure on ecosystems exerted in Austria serves exports of feed and animal products.
Animal products, even produced with the best possible processes, still generate higher ecological impacts than plant-based foods for the same nutritional values. Meeting ambitious climate and biodiversity targets therefore requires reducing livestock numbers and sales volumes in overproducing and overconsuming countries.
All levels of the supply chain needed
"Local and more efficient supply chains alone are not enough. We need frugality, so less animal products. It is often argued that producers need to be more efficient and consumers should consume less. This argument does not make sense! Consumers also influence efficiency, for example by buying organic products, and producers also have a big influence on the amount of animal products, especially if they are pushed by political and economic drivers. Ultimately, it should be clear to everyone that sales are determined by both demand and supply; or rather, by decisions that affect all levels of the supply chain," explains Roux.
Consumers' dietary habits are also important, but it is questionable whether voluntary or initiated consumer-driven changes can act quickly enough to address the climate and biodiversity crises. Nevertheless, the consumer-driven narrative is often preferred because it does not target specific economic actors. However, it implicitly assumes that changes in consumer demand trickle down to the producer, reducing the production of animal products through tougher competition and therefore causing the displacement of less competitive, potentially smaller or less industrialised farmers, which raises the issue of equity. The issue of equitable reduction is particularly important for Austria in order not to harm farmers with limited alternatives, for example in mountainous regions where livestock production is sometimes hardly replaceable by other income.
Less meat consumption nevertheless important
"This should in no way discourage consumers from reducing their consumption of meat and animal products. It should just not put the full responsibility on the shoulders of the consumer. Farmers, slaughterhouses, food companies or supermarkets also need regulation, incentives and support to switch to plant-based products," Roux stresses.
This idea has also been shy in political proposals. After Dutch activist movements sued their government for not meeting its climate targets, the Netherlands was, to our knowledge, the first country to put forward a policy proposal to reduce the environmental impact of the livestock sector by cutting livestock production by 30%. Lessons could be learnt from these forerunner examples. For example, it would be important for the government to support those farmers who want to switch to plant-based agriculture but are locked into intensive systems with many animals and debts.
"We can make the shift to plant-based diets fair: let's stop masking the goal of reducing production behind a consumer narrative; let's recognise that the transition will be difficult for farmers! This will start discussions on how to democratically support farmers in the transition, before the market alone determines who survives and who does not," Roux said.
Link to the study
Roux, Nicolas, Lisa Kaufmann, Manan Bhan, Julia Le Noe, Sarah Matej, Perrine Laroche, Thomas Kastner, Alberte Bondeau, Helmut Haberl, and Karlheinz Erb.
Embodied HANPP of Feed and Animal Products: Tracing Pressure on Ecosystems along Trilateral Livestock Supply Chains 1986-2013'. Science of The Total Environment, 24 August 2022, 158198.
Nicolas Roux, MSc.
Institute for Social Ecology (SEC)
University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences Vienna
Tel.: 01 47654 - 73735