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Meat production in France under scrutiny amid climate change

Since meat consumption remains the largest contributor to food-related greenhouse gas emissions, adopting ecologically responsible habits requires changes in our diets. For livestock farmers, this means finding new ways of producing.

The following Neg (Snow), ideal (perfect) and imminentThe new ambassador for the International Agricultural Show, which opens in Paris on February 25th, isOval, a 5-year-old cow of the Salers breed. As usual, the star will be pictured on posters for the annual event, and her official public appearance will be one of the high points of the show. This tradition highlights the importance of livestock in French agriculture. But with climate activists routinely condemning the environmental impact of meat production, the show also offers an opportunity to rethink our production methods and the steaks that end up on our plates.

Globally, meat consumption continues to grow: Over the past 60 years, meat consumption has nearly quintupled, from 71 million tons in 1961 to 2021, according to statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) of 339 million tonnes. This production has a huge impact on climate change: livestock farming is responsible for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities and half of global emissions from the agricultural sector.

The biggest culprits of greenhouse gas emissions on our plates

“In France we eat an average of 100 to 110 grams per person per day, equivalent to 85 kilograms per year. Twice the global average”, researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the International Center for Environment and Development Research (CIRED) , agricultural economist Carine Barbier pointed out. Only a quarter described themselves as flexitarians, eating meat only occasionally, while 2.2 percent described themselves as vegetarians.

“This is the main cause of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions,” adds Barbier. “In the end, the entire food industry already accounts for 25% of French emissions, and this includes the entire process, from production to our plates as well as imports. Livestock alone accounts for 9% of total emissions.”

Livestock farming takes a heavy toll on the planet as three types of greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide and methane – are emitted into the atmosphere. “CO2 emissions come from the use of fossil fuels in transport, i.e. imports, (and) the use of machinery in agriculture as well as in the food processing industry and large retail outlets,” the expert explained. Nitrous oxide (N2O), on the other hand, “comes from the use of mineral nitrogen fertilizers in the field,” while methane is produced by the digestive system of cattle. Although less well-known than carbon dioxide, the latter two gases are no less harmful: N2O reflects 300 times as much heat as CO2, while methane reflects 28 times as much heat.

“So we have to differentiate between ruminants, pigs and poultry,” says Barbier. “Due to their special digestive system, ruminants have a greater impact on the climate.” According to the French Agency for Ecological Transition (ADEME), one kilogram of beef is equivalent to about 14 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), which includes carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, which is 10 times that of poultry.

In addition to its impact on the climate, livestock farming also has an adverse impact on the environment. According to a 2015 report by the Institute of Physics, livestock production is responsible for 78 percent of terrestrial biodiversity loss, 80 percent of soil acidification and air pollution, and 73 percent of water pollution.

“This is a wake-up call for the industry”

Faced with this situation, farmers imagined several solutions to reduce their environmental impact. In a press release issued at the opening ceremony of the International Agricultural Exhibition, the national association of the cattle and meat industry (Interbev) said it aims to reduce the carbon footprint of the beef industry by 15% by 2025 compared to 2015.

“This is a wake-up call for the entire industry about the urgency of climate change,” said Emmanuel Bernard, president of Interbev’s beef division. “As livestock farmers, we are the first to be affected by global warming and its consequences.”

Barbier advises farmers to “turn to wider farming, consuming more grass and thus limiting the production of grain in feed. This in turn reduces the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.”

“We also have to reduce imports of animal feed. I’m thinking, for example, of soybean meal imported from Brazil, which is heavily dependent on transportation. Currently, transportation accounts for more than a fifth of the food industry’s carbon footprint,” she continued. “Why not go back to the crop-livestock system where farmers grow most of their animals themselves?”

As a farmer, Bernard was tired of following this advice. Thirty years ago, he took over the family ranch in Nievres.Today he is in charge of 110 Charolais cows a vêler (to calve), meaning they were destined to give birth to calves, which were fattened before being sent to the slaughterhouse. Over the years, he also began adding facilities to make his farm more environmentally friendly.

“I do not import any soy products. My cows and calves mainly feed on grass, fodder and grains that I grow on my own land. Of the 220 hectares, 125 hectares are grassland and 25 hectares are used for Grow grain.”

Three years ago, Bernard went a step further, submitting his practice for evaluation to CAP2ER, which provides gas emissions diagnostics. It’s a five-year process that should have him exploring new ways to reduce his carbon footprint. “For example, instead of corn, I envision growing meslin, which is a mixture of grains and protein crops.”

Adjust Herd Size

But to make further progress in converting large-scale farming practices, “it is absolutely necessary to start reducing herd sizes”, insists Barbier. These practical changes will start a virtuous cycle. “For example, by reducing meat in the diet and reducing the amount of cereals used for animal feed, as well as oilseeds and protein crops, we will increase the area of ​​arable land available to grow crops for human consumption,” she added.

France has announced its aim to reduce herd size through a national low-carbon strategy for agriculture published in June 2021, which aims to reduce herd size by 13% by 2030. The target is lower than the scientific community recommends. Nevertheless, this trend is already growing in animal farms, as the total number of lactating and dairy cows fell by 8% between 2000 and 2019, according to the Institut de l’élevage (IDELE). The same is true for sheep, which fell by 8.3% from 2011 to 2020, while the number of sows in the swine industry has fallen by 19% in 10 years.

“Today, it is essential to initiate a transition to more sustainable agricultural practices in order to make agricultural systems more resilient to climate change all the while re-assuring our food sovereignty,” stressing Barbier, noting that the livestock sector is already in crisis Among. “But to do that we need stronger support from the EU. We have to make sure there is a steady stream of revenue during this transition period.”

“Right now, we’re doing a lot of diagnosis and observation of issues surrounding livestock, but we’re having a hard time implanting real change methods,” adds farmer Bernard. “And the main reason behind that has to do with finances. If we get real political support, we’ll be ready to change.”

“If we don’t do this, we risk becoming less competitive than other countries, which will drive imports,” he stressed. “It’s not good for us and bad for the climate.”

A revolution on our plate

At the same time, according to Barbier, real changes in production cannot happen without consumers. Barbier authored a study, published in October, that establishes multiple scenarios for carbon-neutral diets in 2050. “Above all, we need to reduce meat consumption. This will prompt farmers to transform.”

In addition to purely ecological ideas, she makes several nutritional arguments. “In any case, we consume too much protein, about 80 percent more than we need,” the expert continued, pointing to the cardiovascular risks associated with overconsumption of meat. In 2019, a committee set up by the medical journal The Lancet estimated that Europeans should reduce their consumption of red meat by 77%, while doubling their consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, to respect the planet’s finite resources And keep yourself healthy. “Reducing our consumption to reflect our actual needs would significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our diets.”

“If we stick to the most modest scenario, then we need to cut meat consumption by two-thirds and milk product consumption by half,” she explained. “In no way are we seeking to completely remove meat from everyone’s plates. It’s a matter of evolving our dietary and livestock practices to be carbon neutral.

Supporting Plant-Based Choices

Many plant-based alternatives exist to help implement these changes to our eating habits and gradually reduce the amount of meat on our plates. The first and most obvious one is to eat more grains and protein-rich legumes like lentils and chickpeas.

Over the past few years, supermarkets have started rolling out more and more plant-based meat alternatives. These include “plant-based steaks,” “fake bacon slices,” and “plant-based strips” made with peas, tofu, or soy that mimic the taste and texture of beef or chicken. “Right now, all of these options mimic meat very well and can be a useful way to change a person’s habits,” says Tom Blais-Chevalier, an expert on alternative meat and a doctoral student at the University of Lorraine.

“It’s better because we now know that these options have less climate impact than meat,” he said. According to a recent study, these plant-based alternatives emit 10 times less greenhouse gases than beef and 25 times less than tofu.

A report released in July by the Boston Consulting Group estimated that “investing in plant-based meat alternatives” is “more effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than other green investments.” Every euro invested in these products has three times the impact of investing in the renovation of buildings and 11 times that of investing in the production of electric vehicles.”

Bry-Chevalier continued: “Another option might be to develop lab-grown meat, produced directly from animal cells.” Despite the rapid development of dozens of start-ups around the world, the project is still in the laboratory stage.

“This option also has its limitations. First, lab-grown meat can still have high emissions if the energy used for production is not carbon-neutral,” Bry-Chevalier said. “But the bottom line is that, with the climate crisis looming, we’re nowhere near large-scale commercialization. We can’t wait for lab-grown meat to change our habits.”

According to Barbier, plant-based steaks and lab-grown meat — if they develop — must be considered transitional resources. “Thanks to vegetables, we already have all the necessary ingredients to meet our daily protein needs,” she says. “Let’s have great vegetarian food in communal cafeterias where people can choose meat…it’s really going to make a difference.”

This article is a translation of the original French text.

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