A meaty challenge: What would a just transition for Europe’s livestock sector look like?

Leading up to IEEP's Think 2030 conference, experts express their views on Europe's most pressing sustainability issues in the Think 2030 blog series, Pathways to 2030. 

The seventh edition of Pathways to 2030 features IEEP Head of Agriculture and Land Managment, Ben Allen, and Executive Director, Céline Charveriat, who discuss issues around a just transition in the livestock sector. 

Livestock’s estimated carbon footprint is incompatible with keeping global warming well below 2 degrees and addressing a range of other environmental challenges, including biodiversity, land degradation, but also air and water pollution and health issues including antimicrobial resistance and the spread of zoonoses.[1] Significant over-consumption of livestock products compared to recommended diets is damaging health in a growing number of countries around the world. In Europe, animal protein consumption is on average 70% higher than advised in dietary guidelines[2], which is both grossly wasteful, and in some cases, dangerous to health.

However, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Livestock play a positive role in providing high quality nutrients and can help maintain important pastoral ecosystems. Due to their ingenious digestion system, ruminant livestock can utilise land otherwise unsuitable for food production and support the management of highly biodiverse grasslands. Moreover, livestock play a crucial economic role for around 60 percent of rural households in developing countries – including smallholder farmers, agro-pastoralists and pastoralists.

Unfortunately, global trends are not progressing towards greater sustainability. There is a growing concentration of intensive livestock production in certain regions of the world, particularly within the pig and poultry sectors, but also increasingly in the beef and dairy sectors. This is illustrated by the rapid growth of trade in meat products over the last decade and a half (excluding dairy and live animals), which are now valued at 113bn USD representing 10% of agricultural products traded globally. [3] This trend is expected to continue due to increasing demand in many developing countries. 

For these reasons, policy attention must increasingly focus on this sector to address some of the pressing societal challenges of our time. A major transformation is needed for the livestock sector in its entirety, in terms of the production and consumption of livestock products, in Europe and worldwide.  This is a strategic food, health and environmental issue which demands high level political attention.

According to a recent report by the RISE foundation, if Europe is to achieve an 80% cut to its Green House Gas Emissions by 2050, livestock activity would have to contract by up to 74%.[4] Transformation on such a scale will undoubtedly produce winners and losers.

The principles for a Just Transition[5], designed within the context of employment impacts linked with decarbonising the energy industry, could usefully be deployed to assist this process for the livestock industry in Europe. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), these include “the anticipation of impacts on employment, adequate and sustainable social protection for job losses and displacement, skills development and social dialogue, including the effective exercise of the right to organize and bargain collectively”.[6]

To be effective, the transition must take into account the specificities of the sector:

  • It is key to understand the different interests at stake, both on farm as well as upstream and downstream of production, including their roles, constraints and margins of manoeuvers within a transition context.

  • The difference between species (cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry) and between farming systems has to be determined, both from carbon, ecosystems but also economic and social points of view.

  • The geography of the transition is important, some regions will have to be helped to reduce livestock density, while others might require help to maintain livestock for environmental, social and cultural reasons.

  • The environmental footprint of substitution products should also be considered to ensure that the final objectives of the transition are being met.

  • There are likely to be stranded assets both on farm and up and downstream with impacts on debt, employment and investment. The role of private finance and the food industry, versus public finance also needs careful consideration.

  • Dilemmas around the use of technology, in contrast with the precautionary principle and societal concerns around animal welfare also need to be discussed.

  • The transition must include credible policy measures on the consumption side.  The precedent of the Tobacco Control Convention comes to mind, as it is clear that labelling and awareness raising are unlikely to be successful on their own. Tools used in this Convention included for instance an excise tax hindering consumption by increasing the price of cigarettes, prevention programs helping smokers, and smoking bans directly restricting tobacco use. Bringing to bear the experience of the WHO in addressing consumption would be useful, especially with their expertise in terms of nutrition and Anti-Microbial Resistance (AMR).

Given its major role in the global dairy and meat markets, Europe also bears a major responsibility in supporting a just transition worldwide.  In 2016, China, the EU-28, the United States and Brazil collectively were responsible for 62.3 % of the total world meat production. Average production per inhabitant in the EU-28 is approximately double the world average for meat and treble the world average for milk. [7] Global cooperation is also paramount to avoid carbon displacement between products or countries, with potentially net negative impacts. This is why Europe must bring this issue to the table of the G20 and initiate a debate which recognises different levels of responsibilities for livestock-related direct and indirect emissions per capita (taking into account the impact of feedstocks), the uneven financial and technological capacities of countries to adjust its production and consumption patterns as well as diverging nutritional status and demographic trends.

A lesson from the globalization era is that ignoring the valid concerns of those adversely affected in any policy change has major economic and political costs. Conversely, postponing difficult conversations is untenable and produces major costs for the society as a whole and its youngest members first and foremost.

It is therefore essential that these issues are addressed in discussions about the future of European policy including for instance the MFF and the CAP, the role of the EU in setting a more prevention-based public health agenda or the role of agriculture and forestry in the EU’s long-term climate strategy.

Join #Think2030 to discuss how the next European Commission and the next European Parliament should address this and the other key environmental challenges of our time.


[1] Leip et al (2015) Impacts of European livestock production: nitrogen, sulphur, phosphorus and greenhouse gas emissions, land-use, water eutrophication and biodiversity, https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/publication/impacts-european-livestock-production-nitrogen-sulphur-phosphorus-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions-land

[2] PBL (2011) The protein puzzle: the consumption and production of meat, dairy and fish in the European Union, http://www.pbl.nl/en/publications/2011/meat-dairy-and-fish-options-for-changes-in-production-and-consumption

[3] https://resourcetrade.earth/data?year=2000&category=12&units=value

[4] RISE Foundation (2018) What is the Safe Operating Space for EU’s livestock?

[5] https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_emp/---emp_ent/documents/publication/wcms_432859.pdf