Climate change brought on by the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels and reliance on animal agriculture as a source of food threatens to displace millions of people, cause mass extinction of species, and rapidly alter the lands and waters that humankind depends upon for survival.
According to a 2006 report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and a 2009 report by the Livestock and Climate Change environmental assessment experts at the World Bank, animal agriculture is responsible for over half of the total global greenhouse gas emissions.1 This means that the unnecessary and unsustainable consumption of meat in developed countries accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation, electrical generation, and other industrial uses of fossil fuels combined.
It is estimated that the feeding of livestock now uses over 30 per cent of the earth’s arable land surface, mostly in producing feed for the animals. Animal agriculture also drives deforestation, especially in South America where approximately 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. In the US, approximately 70 percent of the food grains that are grown are fed to livestock. Cattle also cause widespread land degradation through overgrazing, compaction, and erosion. Animal agriculture is also damaging to the environment because of its use of enormous amounts of scarce water resources and the pollution caused by animal waste, fertilizers, and pesticides.
The FAO assessment was based on the most recent and complete data available, taking into account direct impacts, along with the impacts of feed crop agriculture required for livestock production. The report states that the livestock sector is one of the most significant contributors to serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with the problem of climate change, land degradation, water shortage, loss of biodiversity, and air and water pollution. Based on this report, senior U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization official Dr. Henning Steinfeld stated that the meat industry is “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems” and that “urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”
The original U.N. report concluded that livestock are responsible for approximately 20 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions— more than the total from all transportation, which is responsible for 13% of emissions. Such emissions arise from feed production (e.g. cultivation of feed crops, chemical fertilizer production, deforestation for pasture and feed crops, feed transport and soil organic matter losses in pastures and feed crops), animal production (methane and nitrous oxide emissions from manure) and finally as a result of the transportation of animals and animal products.
However, a more recent report for the World Watch Institute, by Robert Goodland, former environmental adviser to the World Bank, and Jeff Anhang, environmental specialist at the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corp., estimates this figure to be much higher—51 percent, when the entire life cycle and supply chain of the livestock industry is taken into consideration.2
Their report factors in emissions from the tens of billions of animals exhaling CO2 annually, as well as deforestation for feed production and grazing, which prevents the reduction in greenhouse gases that would normally result from photosynthesis of biomass growing on that land if it were not transformed into pasture.
As things stand, global meat and dairy consumption is projected by the FAO to more than double by 2050. Reversing the role of livestock in climate change is “even more important than the urgent transition to renewable energy,” Dr. Goodland wrote in an e-mail message.
In their report Goodland and Anhang concluded that livestock (like automobiles) are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe. Their solution to livestock’s global warming effect is simple: eat less animal products, or better still, none at all.
Methane gas, which is a byproduct of digestion by cud-chewing animals, has a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20-year time frame; nitrous oxide produced by manure has 296 times the global warming potential.
Agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of US water consumption; and the growing of feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the US. Estimates place the amount of water to produce a pound of beef at over 2000 gallons and about half this amount for chicken and pork.
One might wonder why the vast majority of environmental organizations stress the negative impact of the use of fossil fuels on the environmental and ignore the contribution from animal agriculture. Could this be because their contributors do not want to be told that as a meat eater they are utilizing 18 times as much arable land as a vegan? Or that changing to a meatless diet would do much more for the environment than driving a hybrid car? Or that 5 million acres of rainforest are felled each year to create pasture for cattle? Or that 82% of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals, and the animals are eaten by western countries?3 Whatever the reasons, the principal environmental organizations in the US and Western Europe have failed to inform their members that as individuals we could do the most good for protecting our fragile environment and helping to reduce the devastating effects of global warming by simply consuming less or no meat and dairy. Until such organizations include in their literature facts about the devastating effects of animal agriculture, it might make sense to inform them that you are withholding your donations until they change their tune.
With a growing world population, one way or another people in the developed world will have to come to grips with the fact that a meat-based diet is unsustainable and is a major threat to human welfare. In the future, we will have no choice but to eat less meat and dairy.
Sources for this blog include:
- FAO, 2006. “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options,”Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
- Goodland, R. and Anhang, J., “Livestock and Climate Change: Whatif the Key Actors in Climate Change were Pigs, Chickens and Cows?” (2009). Worldwatch, November/December 2009, Worldwatch Institute, 10–19.
- Cowspiracy, a documentary available on Netflix or download from www.cowspiracy.com.
- Fiona MacKay, NY Times, Nov. 16, 2009, “Looking for a Solution to Cows’ Climate Problem”
Note: Steven L Richheimer, PhD is author of The Nonlocal Universe, Why Science Validates the Spiritual Worldview, available at Amazon.com.