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Meat eating and its connection to climate change has suddenly come to dominate the media, with the likes of celebrities Paul McCartney, Kevin Spacey and Chris Martin (Coldplay) urging people to have one meat free day a week (Reuters, Bloomberg). As mentioned in a previous post, animal protein production (particularly large-scale) is a bigger contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally than the transport sector – it is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases (this includes both gases emitted from livestock and land use change). Greenpeace estimates every kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef eaten represents about the same greenhouse-gas emissions as flying 100 kilometers (62 miles).

meat free mondays

Unfortunately the types of gases livestock release (Methane, Nitrous Oxide) have far more powerful global warming power and potential than the typically demonised CO2 (nitrous oxide, for example, has 296 the global warming potential of CO2). This direct impact on climate change is exacerbated by the loss of forests to accommodate this growing industry, particularly in tropical zones such as Brazil and South America, that have significant potential to store carbon and help slow the current alarming rate of climate change. To add to the severity of the situation, production of meat is estimated to double from 2006 to 2050 (FAO, 2006), driven by growing demand in low and middle income countries as incomes rise.

Whilst climate change is evidently a serious issue, its consequences for society, particularly in the developing world, is of particular concern. Research suggests that the developing world is most vulnerable to climate change and its effects will be most strongly felt in the developing world. For example, whilst changes in the climate may be positive for agriculture in the developed world, the developing world is likely to see significant reductions in yields, due to decreases in rainfall and increases in temperature: ‘Results from a case study in Mali ..indicate that climate change could reduce forage yields by as much as 16 to 25% by 2050 and crop yields with a reduction from 9% to 17% for sorghum. In contrast pastures in cold areas are expected to benefit from rising temperatures’ (FAO, 2006).

I previously asked how the recession might impact demand for meat – suggesting that the recession could both reduce the amount of meat being bought (as a relatively expensive protein source and consumption being strongly correlated with income) and reduce the quality and types of meat being purchased. Some anecdotal trends suggest that this has been happening, particularly in the US. One industry expert argues that people are eating less beef, pork and poultry and that per capita consumption in the US is the lowest its been since 1982. In addition, people have been buying cheaper cuts of meat. This fall in consumption may give sustainable development a temporary reprieve from the negative impacts of animal protein production, but there are equity issues to bear in mind.

There are important differences in regards to global patterns of meat consumption. Whilst 100 million people go hungry and could benefit vastly (both in regards to physical and mental capacity, particularly children) from an introduction of more meat and dairy products into their diets, 1 billion people are either overweight or clinically obese and are far more prone to suffering from cardio-vascular disease, diabetes mellitus and some cancers because of excessive meat consumption. In India people consume 5kg per year of meat on average whilst in the US people consume 123 kg of meat, on average, per year.

The recession is likely to undo some of the economic growth and associated income gains in the developing world, potentially reducing any increases in animal protein consumption that are much needed. Meanwhile, for a vast majority in the developed world, the recession and any reductions in consumption may bring much needed health advantages and be benefical for the environment and society. Let’s hope the recession instills deep-seated changes in regard to how much animal protein consumption is necessary and ethical in the developed world. Maybe, just maybe, the recession has added fuel to Paul McCartney’s fire.


One thing that can be said for the recession is its ability to be thought-provoking. Having read an article about rising demand for meat and leather and its damaging impact on the Amazon and on its significant contribution to greenhouse gases (GHG) and climate change, I pondered how the recession might either exacerbate or alleviate deforestation through its impact on meat demand.


There are several things that could happen:

  • Total demand for meat decreases as it’s a relatively expensive form of protein. This trend is supported by other changes in consumption, for example the increase in sales of eggs, which offer a cheaper protein source.
  • Demand for more expensive or ‘niche’ meat decreases (for example organic, or free-range meat, which may have less negative impacts on the environment, because it is less intensively farmed), whilst overall demand for meat remains static (picture meat on this graph).
  • Demand from the developed world drops for beef from international origins decreases, as ‘local’ produce becomes more important. These farming systems may have less direct impact on the rainforest, but their environmental impacts remains unknown and they will still contribute to GHG emissions.

In the first scenario – where total demand for meat drops, this may be a positive for the environment. In the second scenario, the impacts on the environment are likely to be negative. In the third scenario, the impact on the environment is uncertain.

To complicate matters further is the impact changing demand will have on the livelihoods of those who rely on meat production and for those who already have limited incomes to afford meat, the recession may shift consumption to wildmeat or bushmeat (much of which is illegally hunted and can contain endangered species) as a cheaper alternative.

What the recession has certainly shown us is just how interconnected income, consumption and sustainable development really is.

I recently posted a piece, admittedly riddled mainly with questions, about how the recession would impact wildlife trade, land use, conservation and the balance between legal and illegal trade. Although a relatively small case-study in the global scheme of things, Argyll in Scotland, has demonstrated just what could happen as the economic going gets tough:

One unexpected consequence of the recession is that the needs for cheap meat and money-making are combining to bring DIY wildlife crime gangs to Scotland to poach Roe, Red, Fallow and Sika deer. There is already a lively black market for cuts of meat from these animals (Strathclyde Police).

Other anecdotal trends do suggests that this rise in poaching is not necessarily confined to Argyll and may be having more serious effects in terms of undermining sustainability, elsewhere. The Born Free Foundation has argued that ‘rising food prices, another rash of crop failures, wide-ranging impacts of the global recession, will lead to a rise in the ‘bushmeat’ trade in Kenya’. This is thought to be detrimental to conservation because a portion of the bush meat contains endangered species. A survey in 2004 revealed that 40% of meat being sold as beef or goat in certain Nairobi butcheries was either wholly or partially bushmeat – it would be useful to update this research and understand the extent to which the recession is impacting illegal wildlife trade.


Source: Wildlife Works Ltd

Whilst on the surface it may seem that trade in illegal bushmeat is only damaging to the wildlife it affects, Born Free’s Senior Wildlife Consultant argues that “this is not just about saving individual animals, important as that is.  It is about preserving functioning eco-systems that bring benefits to every person on the planet.  The ecosystem services provided by Africa’s forests and savannahs include rainfall, carbon storage and stabilizing the global climate, so we all have an interest in preventing a few profiteers from destroying these globally important ecosystems for personal gain.”

Illegal hunting and trade of wildlife, removes the economic connection between habitat (or land) and wildlife, undermining economic incentives to conserve habitats and, as a result, environmental sustainability – not just in the specific country concerned, but globally.

Africa’s deforestation rate is four times faster than the world average and is of particular concern for climate change because of its important role as a carbon sink.

Though the relationship between the economic crisis and deforestation isn’t on the surface an obvious one, the drivers of deforestation in Africa are only likely to become more pressing as the recession sends global shockwaves – affecting the cost of living for those who can least afford to spend more of their income on feeding themselves and their families. This is likely to exacerbate deforestation and the use of other natural resources as people seek to increase their income.


Land tenure is thought to be a massive hurdle for conservation and particularly in the prevention of deforestation, with less than 2% of Africa’s forests under community control. The Guardian argues that in order for the currently negotiated Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) credits to be effective  secure property rights are essential (REDD put simply is where you get paid for not destroying an ecosystem, providing financial incentives for conservation):

“Land tenure and forest governance are also key factors that will determine the success or failure of any REDD initiative, and the mechanisms by which payments and benefits are shared will be critical” (IIED).

The Economist argues that ‘The obvious economic explanation is that the over-exploitation of animals and plants is an example of the “tragedy of the commons”. If no one owns the wildlife or the land on which it lives, the behaviour that is individually rational—poaching, clearing land and so forth—may be collective folly. Trade ban or no trade ban, without enforceable property rights, the underlying tragedy remains’.

The logic is that, if communities have direct ownership of the land that are taking timber (or, indeed, any wildlife from) there is greater financial incentive for conservation: “Africa’s forest communities already generate millions of jobs and dollars in domestic and regional trade, and in indigenous livelihoods, but current laws keep some of these activities illegal and also undermine opportunities to improve forest management” (Rights and Resources Initiative). Resolving property rights, because of its direct link to resource use and deforestation is argued to be a first key step to addressing the causes of climate change.

However, some argue that deforestation is less an issue of property rights and more about the lack of governments’ control of access to wildlife and the land it occupies, through both social structures and formal rules. Land reforms alone are unlikely to be a panacea for deforestation – governments need to support local management and enterprises so that people have direct control over the resource and more financial incentive to ensure the sustainability of it.

The recession has only served to bring the debate over conservation, deforestation and effective government solutions into even sharper focus.

A small town in Belgium, called Ghent, has become part-time vegetarian, after its inhabitants decided to abstain from eating meat one day a week, says the Guardian.

The FAO claimed, in 2006, that the livestock industry accounts for 18% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. A pretty compelling stat considering meat eating is conventionally regarded as a benign practice, one that is seen as important for our health and a core part of the developed world’s mealtime habits. Since 1950, however, meat consumption is thought to have increased by 500%. Is our meat eating spiraling out of control?

Mini Burgers

The production of meat is a relatively inefficient energy-wise – not only is there energy loss in the consumption of food products by livestock, that we then eat (when we could eat the food product or an equivalent food product such as wheat, directly) but livestock are also thought to use up to 200 times more water per kilogram produced of meat, than it does for wheat. In addition,  livestock production has come to be associated with deforestation, particularly in areas like Brazil, which has led to the loss of an important carbon sink not to mention its biological and ecological value. With rising and volatile food prices, it seems illogical to be diverting food – particularly cereals – to feed livestock, to then feed us with a luxury food product that in many cases is eaten excessively. Meat consumption has been scientifically linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers in the West, where meat consumption is particularly high.

Relatively speaking meat is expensive and although an important source of protein I doubt very much our diets need to consist of a daily dose of meat. It would be interesting to see if the recession has cut down on overall sales of meat as people tighten their purse strings, or if consumers have moved away from higher quality or speciality meats, such as Organic or Free Range and downgraded for cheaper options (which unfortunately are likely to have more negative externalities for the environment).

It is important to bear in mind that there is significant variation between meat sources and that production practices vary hugely in their environmental impact. Compare, for example, meat produced in the U.S and Kenya – in the U.S,  for each calorie of meat or dairy consumed, livestock consumes on average more than 5 calories in its production. In Kenya, livestock yield more calories than they consume because they are fattened on grass and agricultural by-products that are inedible to humans. Similarly, the developed world, not only in its production practices, but also in its consumption, contributes far more to livestock-related emissions than the developing world. Compare Uganda and the U.S and Europe – in Uganda 45 kg of meat and dairy products were consumed in 2003, whilst in Europe and the U.S. this figure soared to 400kg.

Whilst vegetarianism is a goal that is perhaps unrealistic, cutting down on meat intake could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions.  A one day a week ‘vegetarian’ goal is argued to be achievable and one that is gaining popular traction – let’s hope the small town in Belgium is only the beginning…..

An article by the Guardian recently revealed plans for increased numbers of armed guards and miles of electric fencing to be erected around its key national parks in order to ‘protect water sources and stop impoverished people felling trees’. Kenya’s five national parks are thought to provide almost 80% of the country’s drinking water and hyrdroelectric power, but in one park in particular – Mau, 15,000 people now live ‘illegally’ and are believed to have cut down 104,00o hectares of trees in the past 15 years. Other parks – including the Mara, mentioned in an earlier post – have suffered from excessive livestock grazing and from deforestation for charcoal.


The increased use of natural resources in national parks is believed to be a result of drought triggered by changing weather patterns associated with climate change and is being futher exacerbated by population growth.

The head of the government run Kenya Wildlife Service states that “the long rains have failed for the first time. The implications for food security and water scarcity and energy are profound. Kenya will face these three crises in the next 10 years without a doubt. If we carry on the way we are going, in 20 years the consequences will be horrific”.

The recession is undoubtedly a double blow to the communities involved in conservation and tourism in areas surrounding national parks, as they begin to suffer from falling tourist revenues and as food prices and inflation rises.

Whilst the article highlights a very serious and significant issue, its stance is very much one of a concerned conservationist or environmentalist with local populations regarded as the core problem. What it fails to consider is the wide responsibility we all have in facing and dealing with the global impacts of climate change and above all, worsening poverty, on people.

Many have argued that ‘conservation’ has long been a powerful political tool to justify the control and subordination of marginalised people, and whilst this fence may not be a direct means of subordinating the local population it does not deal with the root cause of the issue – that of profound poverty and the exacerbation of this poverty caused by anthropogenic climate change and the financial crisis.

Fences, after all, can be climbed and when your family’s life depends  on it, no wall is insurmountable.

Does Kenya, therefore, provide a small glimpse of the future for many communities in the developing world as the recession and climate change take their hefty toll? Surely a more long-term, meaningful solution than an electric fence is needed? Now, more than ever, can we ill-afford to solve only one, very small part of the problem.

Prices of cocaine at wholesale level are reportedly skyrocketing owing to successful enforcement by drug agencies around the world. More interestingly, the price elasticity at sale is so high, that consumers perceive they are paying the same price per volume, whereas they are actually buying insecticide and other cuttable agents.

The BBC report on this today, but neglect to mention the impact that this enforcement is having on the farmgate price or export price from the developing country producers. Agencies regularly recommend using the lure of alternative legal livelihoods for the producers of illicit drugs to reduce total production. See here for the UNODC. This often fails owing to the relative farmgate value of the legal and illegal crops. No to mention the different supply chains involved and other, less savoury aspects of growing illegal crops in developing countries.

Is now the right time for leveraging the goal excellently stated by the UNODC: “The success of quality alternative development interventions is undeniable; however, many challenges still lie ahead. The gains made in reducing illicit cultivation in key countries over the past decade could come undone if poverty does not abate. Poverty alleviation and sustainable development should continue to be the main goals of alternative development.”

So, is the recession combined with more successful enforcement of trade at the consumption level providing a renewed impetus for legal sustainable development? It is not often convergence of global economics unveils an opportunity – the question is can this convergence be determined, and can donors and national governments act quickly enough to seize this opportunity? Missing opportunities has grave consequences, as the explosion in opium planting in Laos proves – loss in tourism coupled with a weakened economy, has seen farmers lured back to illegal crop production.

An article recently written by the BBC, referencing research carried out by the International Livestock Research Institute has found that wildlife numbers have been falling in the Masai Mara between 1989 and 2003. This is thought to be a result of growing human settlements in land bordering the reserve:

“Our study offers the best evidence to date that wildlife losses in the reserve are widespread and substantial. These trends are clearly linked to the increase in human settlements on lands adjacent to the reserve.”

In particular numbers of giraffe, impala and warthog have been falling and this has a negative knock-on effect for the predators who depend on grazing animals for their own food source.


It is believed that the loss of animal numbers is down to increased grazing of cattle in the reserve – an illegal activity, and a switch of some of the Maasai from conservation and tourism to agriculture. Wildlife also move from the reserve to bordering ranchland and as such are increasingly competing for habitat with Maasai livestock. However, some Mara experts doubt the findings of the research – based on direct personal experience and the validity of the methodology itself. The blog argues that in 2003 the situation in the Mara was very different to today – poaching was a real problem and one that has been brought under greater control through increased poaching patrols and protection. It argues that despite the recession there is sufficient funds to carry out anti-poaching and de-snaring on a daily basis.

‘Safe havens’?

Scientists also argue that the traditional nomadic-pastoralist way of life of the maasai has also played an important role in helping to conserve wild animals. Traditionally, the Maasai livestock is moved seasonally is search of water and pasture and by doing this on a well-patterned basis the land is able to re-generate. According to Kibwana and Masandika this pattern rhymes well with the migratory system of wildlife. As a result of ‘growing communities of pastoralists and their exclusion from the development of land policies has made their traditional way of life difficult to maintain’ and many have moved to permament settlements bordering reserves.

Robin Reid, a co-author of the ILRI paper who is now director of the Center for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University in the United States argues that ‘there appears to a be a ‘tipping point’ of human populations above which former co-existence between Masaai and wildlife begins to break down. In the villages on the border of the Mara, this point has been passed, but larged areas of the Mara still have populations low enough that compatibility is still possible’.

However, there is a potential solution as suggested by the ILRI. They are helping to promote schemes where Maasai living next to game reserves receive rent payments from private game lodges in return for allowing wildlife to continue to roam on their property and tourism companies are working with Maasai landowners to establish conservancies where they can manage the number of settlements and livestock to try and acheive an equilibrium. The community also receives a share of the profits from tourism on their land, creating an incentive to maintain wildlife numbers.


And the recession…..?

Although this article does not deal directly with the potential impacts of the recession, tourism, sustainable development and conservation are inevitably impacted by the recession but the form this impact will take remains unclear. A fall in tourist numbers could decrease revenues for parks and reserves and thus the amount of money spent on conservation methods, such as anti-poaching measures and the amount of revenue received by the Maasai to aid in conservation. As their income decreases, will deforestati0n and poaching actually increase as a means to obtain an alternative income source or will there be less incentive to monitor livestock?

However, it could also lead to a decline in ‘lower-end’ trips to the Mara and the congestion, overcrowding and negative knock-on effects that brings for wildlife numbers and disturbance. Tourists have a role to play if, and when, they do decide to visit the Mara – they can help support lodges that support local communities and have sound conservation practices and choose not to visit those that don’t. Perhaps the recession will make us more thoughtful about the ways we do decide to spend our money?

I recently came across this interesting article which explores 10 ways in which the recession might help the environment. Although perhaps a little one-sided it shows how the recession might impact positively on sustainable development in ways we hadn’t necessarily considered or aren’t glaringly obvious. It emphasised to me just how interconnected economic growth and consumption are with sustainable development. I’ve taken a few of the most interesting from the article:

Reduction in land fill

Decreased consumption means less waste, particularly packaging. The US is thought to be one of the countries most severely hit by the recession and considering the US alone produces 25% of the world’s waste (despite having only 5% of the world’s population) the recession could lead to a significant decrease in overall landfill volumes.


A reduction in the number of mobile phones bought

Which also means a reduction in the number thrown away as fashion trends change and free upgrades make us part with a perfectly functioning, but ‘older’ models. This means less dangerous toxins are leaked into landfill and into the water table. The author of the article also argues that ‘mobile phones contain elements which are mined in majority from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sale of which funds a civil war which has killed up to 4 million people and wiped out half the world’s gorillas.’


Reduced sales of SUVs (sports utility vehicles)

With reduced incomes,  gas guzzling cars like SUVS are being increasingly shunned for hybrid or fuel efficient cars.


Consumption of inefficient foods reduced

The article argues that the majority of food grown is fed to livestock who are reared for meat and that 70% of all farming land is used for rearing livestock – and is responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Growing populations and subsequent demand for meat in countries like China is exacerbating this trend, but rising costs of food and falling disposable incomes means that meat will be increasingly partially replaced by more ‘efficient’ foods like rice.


There are many more examples in which falling consumption might benefit the environment. My only concern is that these changes are fleeting and once the economy recovers previous trends in consumption and waste will continue unabated.

The recession is thought to be impacting sustainable tourism, an important source of revenue for developing countries and a powerful incentive for conservation of endangered species and biodiversity. An article by the Worldwatch Institute argues that people are now far less likely to pay for luxury nature-based tourism that benefits conservation and local people.

This is particularly worrying for previously war-torn countries like Rwanda, where visitors pay $500 for one hour near its famous apes, and where adventurous travellers account for nearly half of Rwanda’s visitors.


International tourism is thought to have started slowing in June last year and in its latest assessment in January, the World Tourism Organization predicted that cross-border visits could decline by 2%.

Despite the potential for negative knock-on effects of the recession on sustainable tourism and conservation, it may bring about some positives. The World Land Trust argues that the recession is giving an opportunity for land conservationists to claw back valuable land from developers, as building, development and natural resource exploitation slows and ceases. Usually land rich in natural resources and biodiversity, such as the rainforest in Borneo, are prohibitively expensive for organisations such as the World Land Trust to purchase. With the subsequent drop in land prices, precious tracts of the rainforest have been bought for their implicit value as habitats for wildlife and endangered species like the orangutan. Before the financial crisis, this type of land would have been snatched up by companies wanting to extract palm oil.

With so many interconnected factors and unknown patterns and trends who is to say how the ape might fare in today’s trying economic times?