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Assessing a socially optimal level for global livestock

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Thursday, January 09, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Should we “go vegan”? The project will consider the environmental and social costs and benefits of livestock production and consumption with a view to defining whether and how patterns of both might be optimised globally.

Project background
Anti-meat rhetoric and a trend towards veganism appear to be gaining traction in public and policy discourses in many OECD countries. But what happens if such forms of abstinence were to be adopted globally, and is it possible to conceptualise some global optimum level of production consistent with moderated consumption trends?

There is substantial evidence that livestock products can cause disproportionate environmental impact, in protein or energy terms, compared to alternative plant-based foods. Additionally, high animal product consumption has negative health implications, increasing pressure for policy interventions to drive dietary change in many countries including the UK where average consumption exceeds dietary guidelines.

The current debate tends to be betray largely Northern biases, overlooking potentially positive aspects from animal product production and consumption. In lower income countries higher rates of animal production and consumption, particularly within the first 1000 days of life, could have substantial benefits (Grace et al., 2018). In impoverished regions livestock represents an important social capital and a vital livelihood security during droughts or periods of economics or political instability. Animal production can also be environmentally beneficial. Livestock can be beneficial for biodiversity conservation in some contexts, e.g. in rich hay meadows. They can also convert waste foods and by-products to human edible food. Grazing is also able to produce human-edible food on pasture that may be unsuitable for other agricultural purposes. The positive social and cultural outcomes derived from livestock should be considered. However, the quantity of animal production associated with these positive benefits is likely to be limited. The positive and negative outcomes of livestock should be considered consistently to assess livestock’s social contribution to identify a socially optimal level.

Research questions
What is the social optimal level of global livestock, considering both environmental and social consequences?
How might production and consumption be globally re-distributed to achieve an environmentally sustainable livestock sector that also addresses undernutrition and socio-economic issues?
What are the social, institutional and political issues or barriers relevant to a move towards such levels and distribution of livestock production?
How might agricultural technology, e.g. using advanced gene editing (i.e. CRISPR), alter the social optimal levels of livestock?

The initial research stage will entail a social and environmental cost-benefit analysis for the current global distribution of production and human consumption of livestock-related products. The project will use existing studies and data to develop this economic analysis including information on environmental externalities (e.g. biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions), human health and social outcomes. In an approach analogous to that for greenhouse gas emissions (or other productions with externalities) social optimal levels of global livestock will be determined. Additionally, simplifying assumptions will be grounded in exist research findings, for individual aspects across a breath of relevant subjects. The project will synthesise in a manner that helps to illuminate the trade-offs associated with livestock.

Outline timetable:
Year 1: Familiarisation with existing research on livestock externalities and values. Research training in environmental economics and analysis. Initial work on social cost-benefit analysis.
Year 2: Completion and write up of global social and environmental cost-benefit analysis of livestock
Year 3: Analysis of alternative scenarios, e.g. technology change, and barriers to transformations in the livestock sector.

A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills. Advanced training in scientific programming and numerical modelling will be tailored to address the needs of the student, but may involve specific courses, e.g. on economic modelling, valuing of ecosystem services, advanced programming, or use of high-performance computing infrastructures.

The ideal student will have an economics background or perhaps some other quantitative discipline, and some environmental economics knowledge would be advantageous.

Peter Alexander School of GeoSciences
Dominic Moran GAAFS
Rafael De Oliveira Silva GAAFS


Petter, O., 2018. Number of vegans in UK soars to 3.5 million, survey finds. Independent.

Poore, J., Nemecek, T., 2018. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360, 987–992.

Springmann, M. et al., 2018. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature. doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0594-0

IPCC special report on climate change and land, 2019.

How good is research at University of Edinburgh in Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 14.70

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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