July 6, 2017

Guest Commentary – Why a Practical Consensus on Animal Welfare Is Essential to Combating Climate Change

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to present the 2017 Next Generation Delegates blog series. This year’s Delegation was comprised of 20 outstanding students from universities across the United States and around the world studying agriculture, food, and related disciplines. We were thrilled to feature these emerging leaders at the Global Food Security Symposium 2017, and look forward to sharing the exciting work of this extraordinary group.

By Rasesh Mohan, MPA and MBA candidate, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, and 2017 Next Generation Delegate

As incomes rise in the developing world, meat consumption is projected to rapidly increase. To mitigate its impact on climate change, it is critical to increase the productivity of animal agriculture. Can that be achieved while maintaining standards for animal welfare? 

The recent Paris Agreement and Kigali Agreement on curbing fossil fuel and hydrofluorocarbon emissions demonstrate real progress by the global community on climate change. However, one important contributing factor to climate change has been notable in its absence from the public conversation—that of animal agriculture.

The FAO estimates that animal agriculture currently contributes almost 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—more than all emissions coming from the transport sector. These emissions come from two sources. The first is deforestation caused by expansion of pasture land used to grow feed crops—responsible for nine percent of human-caused CO2 emissions. The second is the production of methane from ruminant animals—causing 37 percent of human-caused methane emissions.

The emissions emanating from animal agriculture are projected to increase, given current trends in global population growth and ability to afford meat in developing countries. People in the developing world currently eat 32 kilograms of meat a year on average, compared with 80 kilograms in the developed world. There is significant room for growth. Current trends indicate an increase by more than 75 percent in global meat consumption by 2050. Between 2000 and 2050, demand for livestock will double in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Recent studies have shown that emission from the agriculture sector alone would consume the world’s carbon budget for 2050. This implies that to reach our carbon target, sectors like transport or electricity generation would have to be zero carbon—an unrealistic scenario.

The increasing role of animal agriculture in creating climate change is therefore inarguable. What is arguable is how we address this issue. Some suggest promoting a vegetarian diet. Although of noble intent, this approach is unlikely to have a large impact. Most of the increase in meat consumption will come from the developing world—a dietary transition that has been observed in the development of countries over the last 200 years. As incomes increase, people switch to a more high-protein diet involving more meat. Curbing this transition, and preventing populations in the developing world from upgrading their diets to that which the developed world has enjoyed for decades is ethically problematic.

A more practical approach to limit emissions is to make production more efficient. Increased productivity leads to the need for less animals, reducing emissions. A prime example demonstrating the benefits of productivity is that of dairy cows. A dairy cow in California produces 20,000 pounds of milk a year, compared with 4,000 pounds in Mexico and 1,000 pounds in India. Animal scientist Frank Mitloehner attributes this difference to “better feed, better veterinary care, and better genetics.” Such productivity gains are the reason why the United States has been able to increase milk production by a third while reducing dairy cow population by half since the 1940s. Similarly, although the United States has quintupled its meat consumption in the last four decades, total livestock inventory has stayed flat.

A major reason for this is the rise of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the United States. Supporters of CAFOs term them ‘models of efficiency’. CAFOs protect livestock from predators and disease through physical protections and temperature controls. They ensure timely and appropriate veterinary care, and an efficient process for feeding, all the while keeping costs low and making meat affordable. As demand for meat products rises in the developing world and the threat of climate change rises, it is essential that productivity-enhancing aspects of the CAFO models are adopted in these regions.

Despite their efficiency, CAFOs have come under increasing criticism by animal welfare advocates. Practices such as tail docking, beak clipping, and gestation crates are quite rightly thought to increase the suffering of animals during their short lives. If indeed, as seems to be the case, adopting aspects of the CAFO model is critical to combatting climate change while meeting rising demand, it is essential that we acknowledge the importance of animal welfare, and reflect on the status quo. On the other hand, animal welfare advocates need to recognize that moves toward vegetarianism or pastured farming are not realistic or economical on a large-scale. They should focus their efforts on improving animal welfare while acknowledging the need for increased productivity and affordability. There are several steps that can be taken in this vein. For example, letting egg-laying hens walk at full height and providing them with pieces of plastic to hang down to create private egg laying spots would have a significant impact on the hen’s welfare, while having limited adverse impact on its productivity.

Arriving at such reforms in CAFO-like animal agriculture requires good faith collaboration between big agriculture and animal welfare advocates. This is critical to our future. It will enable a productivity increase in animal agriculture around the globe and a reduction in the threat of climate change. All the while enabling the millions of people rising out of poverty to live out their aspirations in the way they deserve.

Read previous blogs by the 2017 Next Generation Delegates:

Working Together in Times of Food Insecurity

To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate: The Dilemma for Chicken Farmers in Tanzania

Unifying the Next Generation through Open Data 

Food Security: Agriculture, Society, and Ecology 

Canada's Challenge: Ending Chronic Food Insecurity in the Far North

Nutrition Security in the 21st Century


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

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International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

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