This week the Minister of Consumption, Alberto Garzón, has carried out a brave public reflection on the impact that food has on our health, the environment and ecosystems. It is very important that people with decision-making power at the highest levels are aware of the social and environmental problems that we face as a society, including great challenges such as climate change or the loss of biodiversity. The same line of thought drives the action of our Platform for Extensive Livestock and Pastoralism, And that is why we want to pick up the gauntlet that the minister throws at civil society to contribute to this much-needed debate. For this we want to clarify some issues that we consider crucial in a debate of these characteristics:
The main thing, and more important, is to differentiate between productions, as the minister himself points out during the statement. Even recognizing that a large part of livestock production in Spain, especially ruminants, occurs by integrating a very extensive phase, linked to the territory, and another very intensive. We want to analyze some arguments since, unfortunately, they are also used as a battle horse for those enemies of sustainable livestock, precisely the one that the minister supports.
The common use of the water footprint in the media is extremely unfortunate. This footprint is divided into three categories: green footprint, or rain footprint; blue footprint, or pipes; and gray footprint, or wastewater. The usual attribution of 15,000 l / Kg (actually 13,452 for beef) corresponds mainly to extensive productions, not intensive ones. If this water footprint is broken down, it is seen that the vast majority of it (85%) corresponds to the green footprint (rain that falls on grasslands). A much more useful criterion is to discard the green footprint and focus on the blue and gray ones. In lamb and goat productions, for example, which on average are more extensive than beef, 93.5% of the total aggregate water footprint (8,557 l / kg) corresponds to rainwater. The aggregate water footprint does not distinguish the place of production and does not allow us to understand whether there is competition with human consumption. It is not the same to produce a kg of food, be it meat or crops, in an oceanic climate with constant rainfall than to do it in an arid area. These data underscore the need to distinguish, both in official statistics and in political discourses, industrial from extensive livestock production. Right now it is not being done, and hence the minister’s statement is misleading: extensive livestock farming has a particularly high aggregate water footprint, but it has no impact because most of it consists of rainwater.
FAO attributed 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions to livestock. It is true that it is, perhaps, the most accepted estimate by the scientific community. However, this methodology mainly blames livestock in areas such as Africa, South America or South Asia and has elements that could be to update, how to take into account the short life of methane in the atmosphere and its impact on additional warming, low generation of nitrous oxide in more extensive and grazing practices, or the large natural flows of methane, of which the extensive is part. Furthermore, the role of the grasslands when it comes to mitigating climate change. All this leads to consider that the contribution of extensive livestock is really considerably more positive of what is attributed to it. Furthermore, FAO’s attribution includes not only direct emissions (burped methane, nitrous, and methane from manure and slurry), but also indirect ones, such as energy consumption by transport, among other sources. That is why it is absurd to establish a comparison with the total emissions of the transport sector, since trucks that transport animals are also part of that 14.5%.
Regarding deforestation and its relationship with livestock, approximately 20% of soybean imports and at least 17% of beef exports from Brazil to the EU could be linked to the illegal deforestation. That is why it could be reduced by supporting extensive local pasture-based livestock systems, consuming their products and reducing the need for imports. But in any case, the great problem of deforestation is caused by soybeans, which are mainly used not to fatten cows, but pigs that are mainly exported to China (a bubble exploding).
About him consumption per capita of meat in Spain (inside and outside the home), today it is already less than one kilogram per person per week, specifically 970 grams, mainly of industrially produced chicken and pork. In this sense, from 2012 to 2019 its total consumption has been reduced in Spain by 14.3%, although there has been a slight increase in 2020, surely influenced by the very special conditions of the pandemic. It seems a clear trend of reducing meat consumption, not only in Spain, but even in the world. Thus, global meat production has reduced for the first time in a row in the last two years, due to animal diseases and the COVID-19 pandemic, but also, probably, due to the reduction in consumption.
The health impacts of red meat consumption are a tricky issue, as it is not possible to experiment with humans as with laboratory animals to control other factors that affect the results of epidemiological studies, such as more generalized healthy lifestyles. among vegetarian population. Yes there are consensus in which plant-based diets appear along with certain beneficial results, for example, lower body weight and lower prevalence of diabetes, compared to omnivorous diets. Very high intakes of saturated fat or iron from animal products can have adverse health effects for certain predisposed people. Effects of more moderate intakes remain controversial, requiring more research. In no case can it be said, based on the evidence, that the excessive consumption of meat is equal to or more harmful than the consumption of tobacco, alcohol or drugs. That is why we want to point out that the extension and generalization of consumption of ultra-processed foods, whether of animal or vegetable origin, with serious environmental impacts in its value chain (packaging, logistics distribution, etc.) and proven negative effects on health.
The extension and generalization of consumption of ultra-processed foods, whether of animal or vegetable origin, is much more worrying.
In any case, we would like to point out that the real cause for concern, apart from the consumption of meat itself, are the causes that lead to a disastrous pattern of production and consumption. The role that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) plays in it is very important. The way in which the CAP is designed means that the aid is concentrated in the largest farms, and thus the small ones cannot compete with them, being expelled from the market. Even without aid, small productions are at a disadvantage compared to large ones. But aid concentrated on the largest farms and those that need less help end up being the main factor that drives prices down and closes the small ones. Thus, between 2007 and 2014 they have closed more than 11,000 agricultural holdings per year in Spain, mostly small and medium-sized, increasing only the largest and landless. However, the Spanish Government has supported a regulation for the new CAP that continues to promote agricultural intensification and favor the concentration of aid on those who need it least, leading small producers to closure.
For this reason, we appreciate the opening of this debate and we ask Mr. Alberto Garzón, as well as the rest of the Executive and the group of public representatives to:
First, in terms of regulation, do your best to differentiate between production systems. In this sense, it is crucial that official statistics include the existence of extensive livestock farming. Several of us participated in the development of proposals for the characterization of extensive livestock in two works carried out in 2017. Y 2020, which can be used for this.
Second, it is to be expected that Spanish political representatives will do a job similar to that already done around measuring the impacts of water with ISO 14046 standard and advocates for a fair accounting of the environmental impacts of livestock in international forums such as the IPCC or the IPBES.
Finally, it is very important to take advantage of the margin that EU member states are allowed when implementing the CAP, so that it supports and encourages more sustainable agricultural productions, and not the most intensive and unsustainable ones, such as up to now. In addition, citizens will appreciate that their tax money goes to the most socially and environmentally sustainable productions.