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Is veganism the key to sustainable development?

In the article I’ve converted to veganism to reduce my impact on the living world published on 9 August 2016 in The Guardian newspaper, the journalist George Monbiot argues that the world can cope with 7 or even 10 billion people but only if people stop eating meat. He considers that an animal-based diet is one of the reasons that humans are so destructive of the natural environment and that rainforests, savannahs, wetlands, and wildlife can only co-exist with the human population if it makes a change to a vegan diet. He argues that most consumers thank that that they can solve the ethical problems caused by eating animals by switching from indoor production to free-range meat and eggs but he argues that although free-range farming is kinder to livestock, it has an even greater environmental impact. 

In a response to this article, Dr Jimmy Smith, Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), contends in Veganism is not the key to sustainable development – natural resources are vital, published a week later, that veganism is not the simple solution to sustainability.

Although Dr Smith commends people taking steps to change their diets to reduce their environmental footprint, he argues that a vegan world – where no one consumes animal-derived meat, milk and eggs – is not the root to sustainable global development. Instead, he argues that diets incorporating some animal-source foods (especially milk and eggs) use less land than their vegan alternative because inclusive diets make optimal use of all existing land to feed people, including croplands and rangelands where grain and hay can be grown to feed livestock. In particualar, Dr Smith considers that a considerable amount of meat and milk is produced on marginal rangelands that would remain unproductive in a vegan context. For example, 60% of sub-Saharan Africa is covered by drylands where raising livestock is the main, and often the only, land use option available. He argues that decades of research have shown that medium levels of livestock grazing, rather than none at all, are better for the health, productivity and biodiversity of these rangelands. When managed well, such areas also sequester large amounts of carbon in their soils.

Above all, Dr Smith considers that livestock are essential to many of the world’s poorest people and can’t simply be cast aside. In low- and middle-income economies, where livestock account for 40-60% of agricultural GDP, farm animals provide livelihoods for almost 1 billion people, many of whom are women. Cows, goats, sheep, pigs and poultry are scarce assets for these people, bringing in regular household income, and can be sold in emergencies to pay for school or medical fees. For those who would otherwise have to subsist largely on cheap grains and tubers – risking malnutrition and stunted children – livestock can provide energy-dense, micronutrient-rich food. Animal-source foods are especially important for pregnant women, babies in their first 1,000 days of life, and young children. Many people in wealthy countries who advocate veganism, or indeed any other single kind of diet, do so in a context of food excess. It would be a tragedy if good intentions were to end up hurting some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Finally, Dr Smith argues that it is important to avoid the temptation to find simple answers to the world’s complex and context-specific sustainability challenges. Demonising livestock is one such misguided simple response. In conclusion, he argues that sustainable development requires good use of all natural resource assets, inclusing livestock. 

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Sarah Cummings
24 August 2016

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