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Industrialized Livestock Production to Increase, Despite Social Implications

A new study looking at how to feed the world's growing population says artificial meat may replace livestock consumption in the coming years.  A British scientist has published a study Monday that says the 12,000 year-old relationship between humans and livestock is changing rapidly - but in developing countries livestock remains a vital part of life.

The study by Professor Philip Thornton from the University of Edinburgh says demand for livestock will nearly double in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by 2050.  That's because populations are on the rise, incomes are increasing, and cities are growing.

He says people in developing countries who depend on livestock for their livelihood may benefit by the increased demand for meat. Thornton says, though, that the industrialization of livestock production also could be problematic for those same people.

"One of the dangers is that these poor livestock keepers would be marginalized and if they're not able to participate in markets, then clearly they wouldn't be in a position to benefit from the increase in demand," said Thornton.

Total meat production tripled in the developing world between 1980 and 2002, from 45 to 134 million tons.  In developed countries, on the other hand, the production and consumption of livestock has leveled out.

That's not the only difference, he says: livestock plays an important role in many developing countries that is not matched elsewhere.  "It's not just a means of production or income for the people who keep cattle but there are many socio-cultural things associated with livestock production," said Thornton.

He says in many parts of Africa, social relationships especially are partly defined in relation to livestock. For example, Thornton says, livestock can be used to measure social importance or can be given as a gift to form relationships.

There's a lot at stake then, he says, as the production and consumption of livestock changes. But change it must, he adds. Around nine billion people are expected to be alive by 2050 and will need to be fed - despite a limited supply of land and water. One possible option to deal with food shortage, Thornton says, could be manufactured meat.  

"There's quite a lot of research work going on the idea of artificial meat - so in other words meat that is basically sort of created in a laboratory or a factory without actually involving live animals at all," said Thornton.  That, he said, would have enormous implications for livestock both in the developing and developed world.

Climate change also could have major effects.  New technologies may be needed to deal with the effects climate change will have on livestock production.  What's more, livestock food chains are responsible for almost 20 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and pressure to curb that output will only grow, he said.

Dr. Carlos Sere is Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute based in Nairobi.  He says it's important that questions of the environment don't cloud the importance of meat consumption to developing countries.  Livestock is a crucial source of income, he says, source of nutrients, and a major part of daily life.

"Poor people need livestock," said Sere.  "If we were to make it difficult to have livestock, these people would have no alternatives and in the end we would be creating a lot of social problems, for example, migration to other countries, etc.  So we need to understand that there are environmental problems, but there are also huge opportunities and we need to really invest in tackling those."

Livestock systems cover around 30 percent of the planet's ice-free land and have a financial value of at least $1.4 trillion.  Livestock products also are key to diet - contributing 17 percent of the global calorie consumption.

Thornton's report is part of a set of 21 papers published by Britain's Royal Society.

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