Society

100% Vegan: A Tempting But Misguided Recipe To Save The Planet

It is necessary to drastically reduce our beef consumption for both sanitary reasons and to fight against climate change, yet livestock will remain indispensable for their contributions to the environment.

Can we imagine a planet without meat?
Frank Niedercorn

PARIS — By now, we have heard over and over again that we need to lower meat consumption. But by how much? According to an academic study by France's Nutrinet, one is advised to consume at most 500 grams of red meat per week, while according to the "Eat" study published earlier this year by Lancet magazine, the advise is to eat no more than 200 grams per week. The consumption of meat is the center of concern for nutrition specialists and environmentalists.

Fundamentally, a diet rich in animal products, such as red meat, makes one more prone to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In France, as of recently, 21% of overweight people consume red meat, while only 12% are vegetarian. Similar trends are recorded abroad. "We associate a more plant-based diet with the reduction of risk for certain cancers," says Benjamin Allès, a researcher at the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team located in Paris, France.

Others point to livestock, which alone produces 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, two-thirds of which derive from milk and meat production. In addition, 75% of the world's agricultural land, which includes 30% of grassland, is devoted to livestock, which also consumes more than a third of overall cereal production.

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Livestock consumes more than a third of overall cereal production – Josh Withers/Unsplash

However, how can we imagine a planet without meat? Humans can do without it, as they can find substitutes in animal-derived products. Those that follow a strict vegan or vegetarian diet must use dietary supplements to replace certain nutrients and vitamins such as B12 that is necessary for our metabolism. These nutrients are commonly found in meat, eggs or milk. Medical supervision is often advised when one is first converting to a vegan or vegetarian diet. The results of a study on the health consequences of a vegan diet, conducted by the NutriNet-Santé platform, are due by the end of the year.

While the methane released from animals is more powerful, it dissipates over time, whereas the CO2 in cultured meat accumulates.

It is more difficult to imagine a planet where livestock breeding has disappeared because of the lack of meat consumption. "A generalized vegan dietary pattern would lead us to an environmental stalemate," says Thomas Nesme, a professor of agronomy at Bordeaux Sciences Agro. Livestock animals provide different services, such as the development of the grasslands which occupy half of the cultivated areas in the world. For example, environments that are in the mid-mountain range provide difficult environments to cultivate. "What would one do with the grasslands, since man cannot digest grass? In addition to food production, livestock provide a vital role for fauna and flora biodiversity and in the fight against climate change by storing carbon. They are important for both the regulation of water flows as well as their aesthetic role," says Thomas Nesme.

Humans are not the only ones that consume the agro-food industry, animals do as well. Animals consume co-products such as oil cakes from soybean. They then produce fertilizer from their droppings. In the global south, livestock feeds about 800 million people in poverty.

Animals can play a role in the transformation to come. "There is interdependence between the food systems and production and processing systems," says François Léger, a research director at AgroParisTech. Animals have played a major role in revolutionizing organic farming through a combination of polyculture and breeding. "If organic farming is to be developed, animals play a fundamental role in order to produce fertilizers," says Nesme. His laboratory is due to publish a study on that subject.

Researchers have estimated the impact of food on the consumption of farmland. The more our diets are rich in animal protein, the more land we consume. However, a study conducted in the Netherlands came to the surprising conclusion that the lowest point on the curve was not reached by a strictly plant-based diet, but rather by a diet composed of 12% of animal proteins, with some coming from milk.

"A world without animals would not be optimal, and the generalization of a completely vegan diet would require more land to feed the population than a diet with a moderate meat consumption," says Bertrand Dumont, a researcher at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) at the University of Clermont Auvergne.

Animals have a role to play – Annie Spratt/Unsplash

And this is not only about herbivores. Pigs can be fed with food waste and other byproducts of the industry. "According to some studies, it would be possible to eliminate one-fifth of European farmland. This would be important because on average 30% of the food produced is wasted. Nevertheless, it is important to change the current European legislation, which does not allow (to feed pigs with waste)," says Dumont.

Criticism often converges on industrial breeding. "This method is densely practiced in Brittany, northern Germany and Denmark, and this model poses a major problem to the environment," says Léger. "Diversifying livestock would only have agronomical benefits, the diversification of crops and landscapes would allow us to use fewer pesticides."

A generalized vegan dietary pattern would lead us to an environmental stalemate.

This would imply another approach to breeding. "There is an ontological difference between producing animals and raising them. We must return to breeding that ensures the diversity of animal breed, feeds and territories," says Jocelyn Porcher, a former sheep farmer and current researcher at INRA.

"A change in diet that contains fewer animal products opens the door for new prospects for a transition to less productive agroecology," concludes a study conducted by the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). The report assures that a "generalization of agroecology, the abandonment of plant protein imports and the adoption of healthier diets," would be able to feed 350 million Europeans by 2050, despite a 35% drop in production.

By 2040, natural meat — whose sales are decreasing by 3% every year — will represent 40% of the public market according to a study recently conducted by AT Kearney. Lab-grown meat, or "cultured meat," will account for 35% of sales in comparison to plant products that will account for 25% of sales.

One must also look at the future and how lab-grown meat will affect the environment. Two researchers from the University of Oxford compared the greenhouse gas emissions of lab-grown meat with that of cultured meat over 1,000 years. While the methane released from animals is more powerful, it dissipates over time, whereas the CO2 in cultured meat accumulates. The researchers concluded that "lab-grown meat is not the most superior when it comes to emissions. Its relative impact will depend on the availability of low carbon production and other specific production systems."

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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