By Graham Salinger
Following Slow Food International’s launch of a new guide to sustainable meat consumption, Slow Food International President Carlo Petrini makes the case for eating less meat. Instead of consuming the more abundant and cheaper animal-products from livestock raised in industrial systems, Petrini argues it is better to consume less meat, but more from indigenous breeds in small-scale production systems. Currently, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns that around 1,710 breeds of livestock—21 percent—are at risk of extinction worldwide. As the number of indigenous breeds shrinks, the unique value of indigenous livestock and their products increases. One strong example of such value is the specialty cheeses produced by a select number of breeds. While the predominant Holstein breed of dairy cattle can produce twice as much milk as their rarer cousins, due to unique milk composition, it is only certain indigenous breeds that can produce many of our favorite cheeses.
Livestock production is the fastest growing agricultural sector worldwide and remains an important means of livelihood for many small-scale farmers. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
While unique and specialty food products are just one important example of the need to protect indigenous livestock breeds, it is crucial to recognize the role of livestock in supporting livelihoods around the world. It is estimated that 600 million people in the developing world rely on small-scale livestock production. As the world’s population continues to grow and standards of living continue to improve, the demand for animal-products will increase. Thus, it is not surprising that livestock production is the fastest growing agricultural sector worldwide and remains an important way to improve diets and raise incomes in the developing world. With the demand for animal foods projected to double in developing countries in the next 20 years, indigenous livestock breeds contain valuable resources that could be vital for food security and improving local economies.
Making the case for indigenous breeds as important facets to local economies, Petrini further argues that relying on indigenous meats for consumption is ultimately a more sustainable practice than relying on industrial producers. To underscore this argument, he describes indigenous livestock as “sustainable farming systems, healthy meat and dairy processing and consumption dictated by the rhythms of nature…” rather than modernized industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture, particularly livestock production, is associated with high environmental costs and fossil-fuel dependency. While industrial livestock production has led to lower milk prices, for example, these prices often don’t cover the cost of production, and as a result, drive down the price of indigenous dairy products, negatively impacting local producers and communities. Instead of just producing cheaper meat and feeding more people, Petrini argues that industrial livestock production leads to the extinction of indigenous breeds and the disruption of local economies.
Finishing the article with a discussion of our overall meat consumption, Petrini nicely ties together the relationship between our food choices and the health of the planet. In the end, it is not so much a matter of where your meat comes from as it is also how much meat you eat. Decreasing meat consumption would lower demand for environmentally harmful industrial systems, while enabling small-scale producers to succeed by restoring accurate market prices that reflect true environmental costs. Supporting indigenous breeds and small-scale production is one great way of reducing our impact on the planet and supporting communities around the world, but it would simply be better for our bodies and our planet if we consumed less meat.
Graham Salinger is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.