“Climate change will make a difficult situation much worse, and will affect millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa region,” World Bank MENA Vice-President Hafez Ghanem warned at the 22nd Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The Middle East and North Africa region is currently the largest global net food importing region in the world. In fact it is the largest regional importer of poultry products in the world; and with the rapid growth of its population and its low food production capabilities due to climate and geographic elements, the demands for livestock imports, like meat and dairy, will certainly increase. This increasing demand for animal products has adverse effects on the environment as they contribute to human made climate change .
It is a fact that the current global food system is one of the greatest factors contributing to climate change with 14.5% contribution to global greenhouse gas emission- which is more than the emissions from ALL planes, trains, cars and trucks in the world. It lays a huge burden on natural resources as well as causing reverse effects on the industry and thereby jeopardizing food security.
In order to raise, feed and manage the waste of the 70 million animals annually raised for human consumption we allocate a 3rd of our planet’s ice-free land, almost 16% of global freshwater and a third of the global grain production. This massive dependency on natural resources is placing a huge burden on our environment, leading to potentially irreversible environmental damage. Livestock feed production resources abuse has contributed to problems like water scarcity, water & air pollution, land degradation and deforestation. In fact, 75% of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has been linked to animal agriculture, not to mention that animal agriculture is responsible for the loss of almost a third of our biodiversity which terribly harms the balance of our ecosystem. This grave land mismanagement by the industry results in 29% of the overall emission of nitrous Oxide (N2O) which lives a 110 years in the atmosphere making it 310 times more dangerous than Carbon Dioxide, not to mention the global loss of ecosystem services due to land degradation and desertification that is estimated to be between US$ 6.3 and 10.6 trillion annually.
The most problematic aspect of the relation between climate change and livestock agriculture is its circular nature; hence the increasing environmental abuses by the industry will harm the climate and the harm caused to the climate will in turn take a toll on the industry. For instance, it is due to intensive agriculture aimed at feeding animals that many forests are cut down which leads to Carbon Dioxide emissions contributing to global warming and in turn global warming causes droughts which prevents the growth of crops to feed these animals. The negative impact of this vicious cycle was highlighted by Michael Oppenheimer, the co-author of the fifth report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) who stated that “Climate change is acting as a brake” in reference to the 50% estimated decrease in crop yields over the next 35 years due to climate conditions. This decline is indeed a bullet we need to dodge with 795 million people with minimum access to food.
Being particularly vulnerable to climate change, the MENA region will face severe socio-economic repercussions and humanitarian crisis due to outcomes such as droughts; which for instance destroyed more than half the wheat harvest in Morocco in 2015. By 2025, 80-100 million people are predicted to be exposed to water scarcity. Most critically, climate change directly impacts food security in the MENA region, and in a region that is constantly destabilized by political conflict, food should not be an additional fuel for these conflicts. According to the World Bank, climate change will cause economic distress due to outcomes such as rising sea levels, which could affect 43 port cities. In case of Alexandria, Egypt, a 0.5 meter rise would leave more than 2 million people displaced, with $35 billion in losses in land, property, and infrastructure, as well as incalculable losses of historic and cultural assets2.
This critical position facing the region must be met by a serious and collective effort to address and tackle the causes of the problem through top down policies and grass-root action. With 5 billion dollars in meat imports by the Gulf states3 and 7.8 billion by the rest of the region, the grave reliance on importation of livestock products in the MENA region needs to be reduced. Changing the food culture that is increasingly relying on animal products and adopting sustainable policies and regulations that facilitate self-sufficient food production for the region is becoming a necessity not an option as a myriad of studies concluded. Doing so will reduce the level of demand that is driving the growth in production of livestock products. Sustainable food production structures will not only help in tackling climate change, but will also improve the economic status of the region by creating local industries which would generate jobs and possibly export products, thus creating a source of foreign currency which would boost the economy. Actually, since May 2015, Qatar has achieved a 56% increase in domestic dairy products, all due to governmental policies focusing on enhancing domestic production.
The initiatives adopted in the region to address climate change are indeed a step in the right direction, however they lack the element of a firsthand consumer involvement to reduce the demand of animal products. Engaging consumers will be more sustainable and will have benefits beyond addressing global warming. For instance, promoting a dietary plan that depends more on vegetables, grains and fruits will not only reduce livestock demand and thus production, but will also reduce mortality rates and healthcare costs since meat consumption is linked to myriad of health problems like diabetes and cancer. In fact a study conducted by John Hopkins concluded that keeping global warming below 2°C is intrinsically linked to reduction in meat and dairy intake.
That said, it is necessary to recognize that the issue of climate change cannot be tackled single-handedly, as it will require international cooperation and commitment, specifically from large industrial countries that are more susceptible to emitting higher amounts of greenhouse gas emission. It will not be easy to achieve this necessary level of cooperation; but even if we cannot get everyone to the table and agree to tackle the elephant in the atmosphere, the least we can do is lead by example.