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Concern over the environmental impacts of livestock production should not override concern for the livelihoods of 1.2 billion poor people, argues Carlos Sere, head of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock production — largely intensive farming in the West — is responsible for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, writes Sere. But a worldwide curb on meat consumption is not the answer. Livestock production is a key pathway out of poverty for many poor countries, where animal-sourced food consumption reduces malnutrition and improves health.

Agricultural research communities are working to develop objective evidence on the trade-offs between food security, livelihoods and the environment. A 'methane tax' on large feeding operations to reduce animal product consumption is one idea, says Sere. This would encourage demand for local livestock products as opposed to the resource-intensive factory farming that is common in rich countries.

But such areas need research and political discussion before being taken up, admits Sere. And science can help inform the debate, he says.