France is a vast carnivorous nation. However, a growing number of French citizens now recognize the urgency of diminishing livestock numbers and meat consumption. This is due to the fact that animal husbandry’s environmental pollution is comparable to that of car exhaust, leading to issues such as water pollution, ecological imbalance, and the abuse of cultivated land.
Sausage sales in France consistently maintain high levels during the summer months, and this trend is unlikely to fundamentally reverse itself by 2023. While this is undoubtedly positive news for meat companies, the situation is quite different when considering the impact on the planet. Extensive scientific research has long indicated that the control of greenhouse gas emissions necessitates a focus on agriculture, which is intrinsically connected to our daily diet. Agricultural production activities contribute to 19% of total greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second most polluting industry in France. To address this, the French National Institute of Agriculture, Food, and the Environment has devised several transition plans aimed at achieving carbon neutrality in the livestock industry by 2050. These plans outline the estimated minimum emission reductions required for various agricultural production activities, including a 19% reduction for the dairy industry, a 26% reduction for dairy farming, a 36% reduction for pig farming, and a 20% reduction for poultry farming.
The French Ministry of Ecological Transition and Land Coordination maintains a clear perspective on this matter: “Recent studies have demonstrated that without reducing livestock numbers, achieving the desired level of carbon emissions reduction in the livestock industry will prove challenging. To accomplish our goals, it is imperative to alter our dietary habits.” While innovative technologies can also reduce carbon emissions, the most efficient approach remains the reduction of livestock numbers.
Whenever the topic of reducing livestock numbers in the industry arises, those involved in the sector often express anger, stating, “Even if we decrease production, if the French people do not modify their eating habits, French meat products will simply be substituted with imported goods. The social impact of the meat industry will merely be shifted to other areas, and France will lose its food sovereignty.” Aurelie Catallo, director of the Ministry of Agriculture at the French Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, asserts, “The aim of reducing meat consumption is to safeguard the environment, climate, and ecological diversity. To achieve these objectives, a reduction in livestock numbers is imperative. If we wish to prevent a significant increase in meat imports, we must commence by altering our daily diets.”
However, in the ecological plan formulated by the French government, the livestock industry appears to have the opportunity to “evade” significant reductions. In contrast to the construction and energy sectors, which are required to reduce carbon emissions by half, the livestock industry is subject to the smallest emissions reduction targets, necessitating only a 16% decrease within eight years. In 2021, the industry emitted 66 million tons of carbon dioxide, nearly equivalent to the emissions produced by all local private vehicles. Nevertheless, if each French individual were to reduce their meat consumption by a certain amount (without becoming vegetarian), approximately 20 million tons of carbon dioxide could be saved. Despite this, the government merely offers the following guidance: consume locally sourced meat products, decrease the overall quantity consumed, and enhance the quality. In 2022, per capita meat consumption in France is projected to rise to 85 kilograms (including fat and bones). According to the French Institute for Climate Economics, “The French currently consume twice as much meat as the global average.” The reduction of meat consumption holds significant implications for the environment and personal health, including climate factors, ecological diversity, and overall well-being.
1. Disturbance of ecological balance
Nearly half of agricultural carbon emissions are attributable to livestock production, primarily due to the methane produced during cattle rumination. “We must halve our meat and dairy intake. The environment offers us limited alternatives,” asserts Carina Barbier, a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research. “To achieve carbon neutrality, all sectors must conserve energy and reduce emissions. The effective reduction of nitrous oxide and methane emissions can only be achieved through decreased fertilizer usage and meat consumption.”
2. Degradation of ecological diversity
Extensive animal husbandry, with its vast grasslands, has the capacity to sequester carbon and preserve ecological diversity. Conversely, intensive animal husbandry in France can lead to severe damage to the ecological environment. The cultivation of grain and oil crops for livestock feed, such as canola and sunflowers, necessitates the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Both of these practices contribute to a decline in insect and bird populations, as well as environmental plant communities. “Many individuals advocate for a reduction in livestock numbers, such as cattle and sheep, due to the methane produced during rumination. However, they overlook the environmental impact of cereal-consuming animals,” notes Catallo. “Compared to beef cattle, the degree of industrialization in French pig and poultry farming is more pronounced, resulting in greater environmental damage.”
3. Excessive deforestation
Animal husbandry is one of the major contributorsto deforestation worldwide. In order to create more grazing land and to grow crops for animal feed, large areas of forests are cleared, leading to habitat loss, biodiversity loss, and increased carbon emissions. The expansion of soybean cultivation, mainly for animal feed, in countries like Brazil has been a major driver of deforestation in recent years. “Reducing meat consumption is crucial for combating deforestation. By decreasing the demand for animal products, we can reduce the need for deforestation and protect valuable forest ecosystems,” says Catallo.
4. Water pollution
Animal agriculture is a significant source of water pollution, particularly through the runoff of manure and fertilizers into waterways. This pollution can lead to the eutrophication of rivers, lakes, and coastal areas, causing harmful algal blooms and depleting oxygen levels in the water, which can have devastating impacts on aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity. “Reducing livestock numbers can help alleviate water pollution. By decreasing the amount of manure produced, we can reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and protect our water resources,” explains Barbier.
5. Land use and food security
Livestock farming requires large amounts of land for grazing and growing animal feed crops, which puts pressure on available agricultural land. This can lead to the conversion of natural habitats into agricultural land, contributing to biodiversity loss and reducing the availability of land for food production. “By reducing meat consumption, we can free up agricultural land for the production of plant-based foods, which are more efficient in terms of land use. This can help improve food security and reduce the pressure on natural ecosystems,” says Catallo.
9. Excessively concentrated animal husbandry
The French meat industry exhibits discernible regional characteristics, predominantly concentrated in the western enclave, notably in Brittany. Consequently, this region serves as a microcosm delineating the drawbacks of livestock farming. In the context of ecological metamorphosis, fostering the evolution of more self-reliant and versatile animal husbandry is imperative. This entails promoting a paradigm where livestock graze on indigenous flora and consume grains without competing with humans for sustenance. Rene Beaumont, affiliated with the French National Institute of Agriculture, Food, and the Environment, expounded, “The diminution of livestock production endeavors in the west is advisable, and emphasis should shift to cereal-producing realms, such as the correlated industries in the Paris Basin. The over-centralization of industrial zones is not devoid of drawbacks.”
| Apprehension among Livestock Industry Practitioners |
Patrick Benezy, Vice President of the French Agricultural Operators Federation and Chairman of the French Beef Cattle Federation, forthrightly asserted, “What utter nonsense is this chorus of amateurs singing? They harbor myriad prejudices against animal husbandry.” Emmanuel Bernard, a breeder in Nièvre Province, opined, “France would cease to be France without the presence of livestock.” Gilles de Villon, a dairy farmer, contends, “It is reasonable for some to advocate for a reduction in livestock numbers. However, if such advocacy materializes into action, complications are bound to arise.”
In June 2023, the French government initiated an ecological blueprint, vowing to curtail carbon emissions emanating from animal husbandry through innovative technologies. Notably, the plan did not outline any intentions to diminish the livestock population for environmental conservation. Despite voluntary withdrawals from the industry by numerous farmers, the French government seems to believe that allowing the livestock sector to persist in its current trajectory can mitigate carbon emissions while appeasing the sentiments of practitioners. Nevertheless, grappling with the burgeoning trend of heightened meat consumption continues to pose challenges for public satisfaction.
“The government must strategically plan and intervene to curb the proliferation of livestock, lest we find ourselves helplessly witnessing the exodus of farmers, one after another,” asserted the Nuril Group. Comprising 52 institutions, including agricultural unions, the group contends that despite the decline in the number of farmers, the expanse of French agricultural land remains unaltered, signifying a simultaneous contraction and expansion of farms. “In Brittany, we witness the large-scale acquisition of grass-fed cattle farms, subsequently supplanted by enclosed dairy farms where the bovines seldom graze outdoors and are confined to corn and soybeans. This industrial farm model poses an imminent threat to our traditional farming system,” cautioned the group. Laurence Marandola, spokesperson for the French Farmers’ Federation, emphasized, “The focal point should not solely be on decapitalization and reducing the number of livestock, but rather on delineating the kind of livestock industry France aspires to. What form of livestock farming can seamlessly adapt to the ecological transition?”
Numerous representatives from non-governmental organizations contend that environmental preservation is paramount, yet the obliteration of the livestock industry is not the solution. Instead, they advocate for an overhaul of the agricultural system, advocating for a transition to extensive management. Cyriel Denhardy of the Climate Action Network asserted, “Farmers rely on livestock for their livelihoods. Proposals to curtail livestock numbers are bound to elicit discontent among them. Navigating this predicament is no facile task. Nonetheless, the livestock industry necessitates a comprehensive reform. This would not only salvage the environment but also sustain the industry and the farmers themselves.”
Presently, the diminishing number of farmers and the expanding scale of farms are concomitantly raising the barrier for entry into the animal husbandry industry for young individuals. “Farm resale prices witness an annual escalation, and aspiring young farmers must grapple with soaring loan commitments,” analyzed Rokisar. Data from the French Institute of Livestock Research reveals that, in 2021, 42% of dairy farmers and 29% of livestock farmers grappled with medium- and long-term loan debts.
| Environmental and Ethical Shifts: Abstaining from Meat Consumption |
Atiel (Luxembourg), 25 years old, a manager, has embraced vegetarianism for six years.
I have harbored an aversion to meat consumption for as long as I can remember. Initially, it commenced as a gradual reduction in meat intake, coupled with an elevation in the quality of the meat consumed. Then, one evening as I was returning home from work, I found myself stranded beside a substantial truck laden with pigs en route to the slaughterhouse. In that moment, an overwhelming sense of repugnance towards meat enveloped me. It took nearly a month for me to systematically eliminate meat from my daily diet. Over time, my rationale for embracing vegetarianism crystallized. In addition to safeguarding animal welfare, I recognized the imperative of environmental preservation.
While my family adheres to traditional culinary practices, they harbor no objections to my vegetarian lifestyle. Colleagues often inquire, “Do you not miss the taste of meat?” On a weekend, I attended a barbecue gathering where numerous individuals insisted that I sample various meat dishes. They fail to comprehend that sausages and steaks hold as much appeal to me as inert rocks. Furthermore, these individuals queried, “Without meat consumption, how do you ensure an adequate protein intake?” Contemporary restaurants now feature vegetarian menus to cater to diverse customer preferences—a marked departure from the scarcity of vegetarian options in the past.
Sabrina (Paris), 45 years old, entrepreneur, has embraced vegetarianism for a decade.
My decision to adopt vegetarianism is grounded in a myriad of reasons, chief among them being the preservation of animal welfare and the environment. Since childhood, I have harbored a profound affection for animals. Having raised chickens and rabbits, the notion of relegating them to dinner is inconceivable to me. As the years have advanced, my commitment to vegetarianism has only strengthened. However, those in my immediate social milieu have struggled to reconcile with my choice, with my uncle even scoffing at my decision.
This sentiment is mirrored in my workplace. During a recent company annual meeting I couldn’t attend, a colleague brashly remarked to my daughter, “Since your mother is not present today, you can indulge in meat consumption without her knowledge.” Abstaining from meat, however, poses no hardship for me. I derive protein from an array of sources such as lentils, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, and more.
Hyppolite (Jura), 23 years old, a student, has embraced vegetarianism for nearly three years.
I relinquished meat consumption primarily to contribute to environmental conservation. While my venture into vegetarianism is relatively recent, my enthusiasm for cooking piqued my interest in vegetarian recipes. Upon delving into this culinary realm, I discerned that individuals who consume meat emit a higher volume of carbon dioxide than their vegetarian counterparts. This realization propelled me to alter my lifestyle, initially eschewing meat and subsequently eliminating fish from my diet. Initially, I permitted myself a barbecue sandwich on occasions when dining out with friends, but over time, I effortlessly transitioned to a completely meat-free diet.
My aspiration is to gradually transition to a stricter vegetarian lifestyle. Admittedly, eliminating eggs and honey poses a challenge, necessitating a reshaping of dietary habits. Initially, when embarking on my vegetarian journey, I refrained from seeking substitutes for meat. Nowadays, I approach experimentation with enthusiasm and have discovered a plethora of new foods, such as tofu and vegetarian meat. Similar to other vegetarians, I am frequently met with skepticism.
The reduction of livestock numbers and meat consumption in France is crucial for addressing environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, water pollution, and land use. While the government has set modest targets for emissions reductions in the livestock industry, individual actions can make a significant difference. By decreasing meat consumption and opting for more sustainable and plant-based alternatives, individuals can contribute to the preservation of the environment, climate, and ecological diversity. It is necessary to recognize the urgent need for change and take action to create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly food system.