Why should you read this chapter?

A central topic of most debates on sustainable food systems is the complex role of livestock, meat and dairy. This is due to their connection to many issues of moral and practical concern related to food systems; affecting both humans and the environment, and animal's own interests.

The picture is complex. And because different stakeholders bring different worldviews and perspectives, people often disagree about the appropriate role of livestock, meat, and dairy, in sustainable food systems.

Yet demand for meat and dairy consumption is expected to grow considerably, and as a result, debates around livestock-related issues are becoming increasingly prominent. Understanding these helps to provide a broader understanding of food systems more generally.  

This chapter addresses the following questions:

  • How does livestock product production and consumption relate to issues around nutrition, the environment and animal welfare?
  • Who are the major stakeholders in these debates and what arguments do they make in relation to the above? What is the evidence to support these arguments?
  • Why do people who agree on the nature of a problem disagree about the way(s) to solve it?
  • What are the perspectives that shape how a person approaches a problem?

Key points

  • Livestock represent a convergence point of concerns within food systems; encapsulating issues and outcomes of greenhouse gas emissions, nutrition, animal welfare, livelihoods and many others.
  • The debate around meat and dairy has many stakeholders holding many different priorities, interests and values: the livestock and food industry, civil society, consumers, vets, ethicists, public health bodies, academics and policy makers.
  • Many countries have official food-based dietary guidelines. Meat and dairy features in all of them, with around a quarter recommending reducing or limiting meat intake, and some distinguishing between forms of meat and dairy on the basis of health impact. Very few take into account the sustainability of diets.
  • In high income countries, the evidence on the association between meat consumption and poor health outcomes often falls short of proving beyond doubt, a causal link. Different ‘pathways’ for impact have been proposed, but different stakeholders interpret the meaning of the evidence differently.
  • In low income countries, livestock rearing and meat consumption are usually associated with positive health outcomes, both via the benefits of keeping livestock on access to animal-sourced foods, and income to spend on health; and by the nutritional contribution that meat and dairy make to people’s diets.
  • Livestock contribute 14.5% of human-made GHG emissions. Carbon sequestration has been posited by pro-livestock stakeholders to offset these emissions, but the evidence is that this potential is limited, and very dependent on circumstance.
  • Under business-as-usual scenarios, total meat consumption is projected to nearly double by 2050, and per capita meat and dairy consumption is also due to rise, but with most of this rise taking place in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Animal welfare can be defined as five freedoms. Freedom from: hunger and thirst; discomfort; pain, injury and disease; fear and distress; and to express normal behaviour. These can be affected by many different factors in farming systems.
  • The effect of intensifying livestock production on animal welfare is complex and debated. Impacts will depend on how intensification occurs, and will differ, according to the baseline type of farming system considered: i.e. subsistence versus more industrial farming models.
  • Better animal welfare and lower environmental impacts per unit of food, don’t always co-occur. The most intensive livestock production systems are more GHG and land-use efficient. However, increased total consumption due to lower food prices, may offset any reduction in impacts.
  • Differences in perspectives on what the problems of livestock production are and how to solve them, stem from three main worldviews: the efficiency perspective; the demand-restraint perspective; and the systems transformation perspective.


Suggested citation

Garnett, T., Scarborough, P., & Finch, J. (2016). Focus: the difficult livestock issue (Foodsource: chapters). Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford.

Written by

Tara Garnett, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford

Contributing authors

Jessica Finch, Food Climate Research Network, Warwick University; 

Dr Peter Scarborough, University of Oxford;

Edited by

Samuel Lee-Gammage, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford;

Marie Persson, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford;

Reviewed by

Professor Mike Hamm, Michigan State University;  

Dr Elin Röös, Swedish Agricultural University;  

Dr Peter Scarborough, University of Oxford;

Dr Tim Hess, Cranfield University;  

Professor Tim Key, University of Oxford;

Professor Tim Benton, University of Leeds;  

Professor David Little, University of Stirling;  

Professor Peter Smith, University of Aberdeen;

Mara Galeano Carraro.

Reviewing does not constitute an endorsement. Final editorial decisions, including any remaining inaccuracies and errors, are the sole responsibility of the Food Climate Research Network.

Funded by

The production of this chapter was enabled by funding from the following sources:

The Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation;

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food;

The Wellcome Trust;

The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation;

Jam Today;

Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP);

The Sustainable Consumption Institute at Manchester University.

Chapter resources

Flickr Album: 

External resources