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Livestock consumption and climate change

29/09/09
Tom MacMillan and Rachael Durrant
A new report from the Food Ethics Council, commissioned by WWF, provides a framework to help producers, policy-makers and environmental groups break out of a stalemate over the role that changing meat and dairy consumption should play in mitigating climate change.
Livestock consumption and climate change

It is in the public interest to engage producers in a dialogue with government over this controversial issue because it will result in better policy. It is in the interests of producers too, because they would otherwise be left on the margins of this increasingly prominent agenda.

This report takes a series of steps to identify basic assumptions that are shared by government, producers and environmental groups, and then to work out mutually agreed conditions under which policy can move forward.

The report:

  • Explains the consensus that, in general, it is appropriate for the UK government to seek to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relating to what we consume, as well as seeking to meet our legally binding targets to reduce emissions from production
  • Describes how emissions relating to livestock production and consumption have become a focus for attention and controversy
  • Outlines the full range of ways in which emissions relating to the consumption of livestock products could be reduced, including technical abatement to reduce the GHG-intensity of products and changes in consumption behaviour
  • Highlights important efforts already under way to reduce the GHG-intensity of livestock products, and explains the relevance of the more controversial question of changing consumption behaviour
  • Identifies a wide array of measures by which government might change consumption behaviour, from ways to influence public preferences to fiscal measures that would change the relative prices of different food products. Many of the interventions would affect all foods to varying degrees, rather than being specific to livestock products
  • Considers the obstacles to rationally implementing each measure. These include knowledge gaps; the risk of ‘offshoring’ economic activity to other countries, along with its associated emissions; and potential unintended consequences for the environment, animals, producers and consumers
  • Specifies generic ways of addressing each type of obstacle. For example, knowledge gaps can be addressed by undertaking further research.
  • Offers a framework for multi-stakeholder dialogue based on these steps, and recommendations to government

This report focuses specifically on climate change and GHG emissions. We do not consider these to be the only policy, sustainability or ethical issues relating to livestock production and consumption. Others include environmental concerns relating to water use, pollution and biodiversity loss; social issues, such as working conditions, producer livelihoods, consumer health, freedom of choice and global equity; and questions relating to the animals themselves, such as their physical welfare, behavioural freedom and intrinsic worth. The Food Ethics Council has considered many of these issues in previous publications. We focus here on climate change because it is a major area of controversy that we want to help resolve. Our approach in this report is to consider systematically how measures to reduce GHG emissions from livestock could affect this array of wider concerns.

Download report.