Just Livestock Transition is Critical to Mitigate Climate Change, Improve Health, and Create Jobs

Published 21/06/2021

Livestock production trends are undermining our planet, ecosystems, resources, human well-being, and animal welfare. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, public health, livelihoods, and food security, business as usual [1] is incompatible with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement and other critical international targets.[2] [3] The demand for industrialised livestock products in the Global North and developing nations is especially detrimental to the Global South. The massive amount of land required for industrial-scale livestock—both pasture and animal feed production—leads to increased land concentration by large meat and feed producers headquartered, or with substantial operations in, the Global North at the cost of small-scale farmers (especially women and Indigenous Peoples). This process is often associated with land conflicts, the loss of livelihoods and compromised food sovereignty.[4] 

Reducing livestock has become imperative for human and planetary health.[5] Therefore, a Just Transition is crucial to ensure an equitable transformation towards a fairer, safer, and healthier food system transition for all. If applied in a timely manner, a Just Transition can become a strong driver of job creation, job upgrading, social justice, and poverty reduction.[6]

Transforming global food systems through Just Livestock Transition

Most Paris Agreement signatory countries mention agriculture in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), with some including livestock.[7] However, most of these NDCs advocate for increased production, intensification, and/or technical ‘solutions’ while failing to address the implications for livelihoods, gender, public health, and perhaps most glaringly, the realities of planetary boundaries. Just Transition of livestock production brings numerous environmental, health, and socioeconomic benefits, such as:

Freeing up land for food production, conservation, reforestation, ecosystem restoration, and mitigating climate change – Land is a precious resource, and a significant part is dedicated to animal agriculture: around three-quarters of global agricultural land.[8] A logical step towards food security is to devote arable land to diversify crop production wherever possible instead of feed crops for livestock or fuel. Returning converted lands to their natural states, safeguarded by original stewards, would have immense benefits for carbon sequestration, habitat and biodiversity.[9]

Creating more robust public health by saving millions of lives and cutting health-related costs –  A global switch to diets that rely less on meat and other animal products and more on fruit and vegetables—categorized as ‘healthy diets’ by WHO[10] or ‘planetary health diets’ by the EAT-Lancet commission[11]—could save 5.1 million lives by 2050 (even more saved with vegetarian or vegan diets, 7.3 and 8.1 million, respectively).[12] Similarly, such a shift could dramatically reduce health costs by $USD 735 billion per year in 2050 (even more saved with vegetarian or vegan diets, $973 billion and $1 trillion, respectively).[13] If G20 countries consumed the types of foods and amounts recommended by their national dietary guidelines, they would see a  GHGs decrease of 19% (0.7 gigatons). If each followed the planetary health diet, the reduction would be 46% (1.7 gigatons).[14]

Improving the socioeconomics of the farming system, including a revitalization of rural economies –  Despite the urgent need to transition away from animal production towards climate-compatible and predominantly plant-based, diverse agriculture, there are concerns about the potential negative socioeconomic impacts of the transition among farmers, supply chain workers, and government ministers. These concerns must be addressed by engaging in multilateral dialogues and showcasing pathways for an equitable transition for farmers, growers, and processors. This can enable positive socioeconomic changes, including job creation and GDP boost.[15] The International Labour Organization and Inter-American Development Bank estimate that a Just Transition to plant-based diets would create 19 million jobs by 2030 in Latin America and The Caribbean. Accounting for a 4.3 million loss of jobs in the traditional livestock industry, it is estimated that the transition will net 15 million jobs.[16] Furthermore, the growing interest in alternative protein development[17] among communities forced out of livestock production due to climate change, sectoral intensification, land access, etc. has not been adequately researched.  This has the potential to address many problems, like poverty and malnutrition at the same time. Overall, jobs in plant-based food production would be safer, more equitable, support gender parity and strengthen rural economies when coupled with increased public services.

This solution recognizes wide variances in animal production in environmental impact and health implications. The true cost of each system and the individual animal product should be considered in policy recommendations regarding country-specific production and imports.[18]

Global multidisciplinary policy measures for Just Transition

50by40 recommends a set of multidisciplinary global policy measures to encourage equitable reduction and redistribution of animal protein production and consumption. These measures could include repurposing agricultural subsidies to incentivize the production of more sustainable, animal welfare-friendly, and climate-friendly food, rethinking the principles of conventional trade agreements to incorporate sustainability and labour standards, implementing food sustainability taxes to guide consumer behaviour, and adjusting national dietary guidelines and public policy. These policy recommendations should be fine-tuned to address specific socioeconomic contexts and reflect local realities.

50by40 also proposes developing country-specific transition roadmaps in collaboration with farmers, workers, nutrition, public health, environmental, circular economy, gender, human rights experts, and Indigenous Peoples and labor organizations to envision equitable transition pathways better. Technical and socioeconomic roadmaps for relevant countries will demonstrate specific figures and feasibility and implementation timelines.

A Just Transition fund for animal agriculture should be established to enable countries and regions to assist farmers and communities directly during the transition period (this process needs to be voluntary but incentivized). While Just Transition can be applied to both high- and low-income countries, the initial focus should be on countries and regions with high animal product consumption and countries and regions that export such products to them. This should be guided by the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility. Simultaneously, the solution prioritizes the Global South to avoid further intensification and expansion of unsustainable animal agriculture.

Relevant outcomes of the Summit should guide recommendations for country NDCs at COP26, including, if possible, a presentation of the roadmaps at side-events with participation from the above stakeholders. Selected champion countries could continue to build the case for Just Livestock Transition as an integral part of NDCs, with the next Paris Agreement so-called stocktake in 2025 being a key target. Already this year, these measures can inform country NDCs at COP26. Champion countries could continue to make a case for Just Livestock Transition as a critical component of NDCs, with the 2025 Paris Agreement stocktake as a critical milestone. Post-COVID-19 investments are critical for advancing the future of eco-friendly and nutritionally beneficial food. This entails innovating at the farmer level, coordinating investor messages, and shortening supply chains. To influence policymakers, 50by40 recommends a Just Transition dialogue to be included in policy conversations to become a key strategy in our global efforts towards ensuring resilient food systems for all.

50by40 is the convener of a cross-sector stakeholder group and a thought-leader on Just Transition within livestock production. The above article is based on the cross-cutting solution that 50by40 put forward for the UN Food Systems Summit 2021. The solution is officially hosted under Action Area 3.2: Manage sustainably existing food production systems.


[1] Commentary on types of livestock production are addressed throughout this solution

[2] Benton TG, Bieg C, Harwatt H, et al. (2021, February 3). Food system impacts on biodiversity loss: Three levers for food system transformation in support of nature. Chatham House Research Paper. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/02/food-system-impacts-biodiversity-loss

[3] Clark M, Domingo N, Colgan K, et al. (2020). Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets. Science; 370: 705-708. https://www.doi.org/10.1126/science.aba7357

[4] Participants at the “Livestock Diversity Forum”. (2007, September 6). Wilderswil declaration on livestock diversity. http://www.ukabc.org/wilderswil.pdf

[5] Van Oosterhout C, Hall N, Ly H, and Tyler KM. (2021). COVID-19 evolution during the pandemic – Implications of new SARS-CoV-2 variants on disease control and public health policies. Virulence; 12(1): 507-508. https://doi.org/10.1080/21505594.2021.1877066

[6] International Labour Organization. (2015). Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all. Geneva. https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/green-jobs/publications/WCMS_432859/lang–en/index.htm

[7] Schulte I, Bakhtary H, Siantidis S, et al. (August 2020). Enhancing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for Food Systems. WWF, UNEP, EAT and Climate Focus. https://www.climatefocus.com/publications/enhancing-ndcs-food-systems-recommendations-decision-makers

[8] Ritchie H, and Roser M. (2019, September), ibid.

[9] Hayek MN, Harwatt H, Ripple WJ, and Mueller ND. (2021). The carbon opportunity cost of animal-sourced food production on land. Nature Sustainability; 4: 21–24. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00603-4

[10] Healthy diet. (29 April, 2020). World Health Organization (WHO). https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet ; “The exact make-up of a diversified, balanced and healthy diet will vary depending on individual characteristics (e.g. age, gender, lifestyle and degree of physical activity), cultural context, locally available foods and dietary customs. However, the basic principles of what constitutes a healthy diet remain the same. For adults… A healthy diet includes the following: Fruit, vegetables, legumes (e.g. lentils and beans), nuts and whole grains…”

[11]  EAT. (2019). Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission: Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems. https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/eat-lancet-commission-summary-report/ 

[12] Springmann M, et al. (April 2016), ibid.

[13] Springmann M, et al. (April 2016), ibid.

[14] EAT. (2020). Diet for a Better Future: Rebooting and Reimagining Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems in the G20. https://eatforum.org/knowledge/diets-for-a-better-future/ 

[15] In addition, we encourage member states to invest in research and development into theories like ‘Beyond GDP’ and economies of wellness, to move towards increased standards of living for all people and away from perpetual growth. 

[16] Saget C, Vogt-Schilb A, and Luu T. (2020). Jobs in a Net-Zero Emissions Future in Latin America and the Caribbean. Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and International Labour Organization (ILO), Washington D.C. and Geneva. https://www.ilo.org/global/docs/WCMS_752069/lang–en/index.htm 

[17]  Ismail I, Hwang YH, and Joo ST. (2020 March). Meat analog as future food: a review. Journal of Animal Science and Technology; 62(2): 111–120. https://www.doi.org/10.5187/jast.2020.62.2.111 [18] The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) (2018). Measuring what matters in agriculture and food systems: a synthesis of the results and recommendations of TEEB for Agriculture and Food’s Scientific and Economic Foundations report. UN Environment, Geneva. http://teebweb.org/our-work/agrifood/reports/measuring-what-matters-synthesis/

[18] The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) (2018). Measuring what matters in agriculture and food systems: a synthesis of the results and recommendations of TEEB for Agriculture and Food’s Scientific and Economic Foundations report. UN Environment, Geneva. http://teebweb.org/our-work/agrifood/reports/measuring-what-matters-synthesis/