Meat and Development in Liberia

By Ross Miranti

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on June 4, 2013.

Meat consumption correlates with income; poorer individuals and countries tend to consume less than their wealthier counterparts. This applies to Liberia, one of the poorest nations in the world, which has an annual per capita income of about 374 dollars and an annual per capita meat consumption of about 10.4 kilograms/kg (22.9 pounds/lbs).

Three decades ago Liberia was one of the more prosperous nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the violent, fourteen year civil war (1989 to 2003) devastated the country in countless ways; it claimed 250,000 lives, displaced over 600,000 people, demolished infrastructure, and ravaged the economy.

The standard of living for the average Liberian diminished quickly, with the GDP falling 90 percent in the first five years of the war. Today, incomes remain low, even with a flood of aid money, the presence of a major UN peacekeeping force, and the ambitious efforts of president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state.

Unlike most countries in the world, including many of its neighbors, Liberia has lower levels of meat consumption than it did fifty years ago (see the graph below). Today, average per capita consumption is slightly less than it was in 1961, when Liberia’s meat consumption was above that of most other Sub-Saharan African countries and three times higher than that of China. Since then, per capita consumption in China has increased fifteen fold and is over five times that of Liberia.

 Source: FAOSTAT

Though meat consumption in Liberia remains low, it is likely to rise dramatically with increasing incomes, much as it has in other countries. In the coming century, the entire region of Sub-Saharan Africa seems set for a massive increase in the consumption of animal products as incomes creep up and populations grow rapidly. The net impact of this regional dietary shift will be harmful in terms of sustainability, climate change, food security, animal welfare, and public health.

While this dietary shift in Liberia and the region will push our global food system more towards an ecological tipping point – spiking global demand for scarce agricultural land, consuming more fresh water, contributing further to climate change, and consigning an increasing number of animals to livestock production (over 60 billion animals worldwide are involved in livestock each year) – one mustn’t overlook the persistently high consumption of meat and other animal products in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world. If the international community is to mitigate the global externalities of livestock, developing countries will need to resist the urge to put meat at the center of their diets, but likewise, developed countries will need to work on removing it from the center of theirs.

Rich countries can help to prevent or reverse the livestock revolution in poor countries like Liberia by leading by example. So far, only a minority in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world believe that meat, eggs, and dairy are not the right foods we should be using to nourish the world’s population. Perhaps high-income countries need to develop their understanding of the impacts of the livestock revolution before they can help Liberia and other low-income countries develop their food systems in a truly humane, sustainable, and climate-friendly way.

This blog is first in a series of three blogs on Liberia and animal agriculture.

Graph created by Ross Miranti using FAOSTAT statistics

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