Is Eating Meat Killing Our Planet?

Of all the ways you can help to combat climate change and environmental deterioration, reducing or even eliminating meat from your diet has the potential to be the most effective. Livestock production — factory farming of beef, chicken, and other meats — increases greenhouse gas emissions and water usage. The livestock sector emerges as one of the top 2 or 3 most significant contributors to our environmental problems — at every scale, from local to global. Livestock production should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of climate change, land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.

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How are Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Livestock Production Related?

Many people do not know that feed is the primary source of meat’s growing environmental impact. Livestock shapes entire landscapes and their demands on land for pasture and feed crop production modify and reduce natural habitats. Demand for feed crops is  driving widespread water contamination, destroying the last native prairies and releasing potent greenhouse gases.

The climate impact of meat is enormous, with ever-increasing warnings that meaningfully reducing global warming will require reducing emissions from animal agriculture, which make up 14 to 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than the entire global transportation sector.

For example, in December, Charles Stanley-Smith told delegates at the Food Wise Conference 2017 that Europeans would find it impossible to meet climate change targets unless they learned about the effects of meat consumption. “I’m not sure that you are aware of what’s happening in the world; it is impossible for us to meet our climate change problems if the world does not stop eating meat, or to cut down substantially on the amount of meat it eats.” He noted that anti-meat campaign groups are advocating for review of industry models on meat production and climate change available.

Major reductions in livestock production could be achieved at reasonable costs, and the resulting cultural change in the way we think about livestock production could be proportionally large. However, the scale and concentration of the meat industry’s market power means that decisions made at the top shape the entire industry.

Livestock Production’s Devastating Hold on Water

An influential study in 2010 of the water footprints for meat estimated that, while vegetables had a footprint of about 322 litres per kg and fruits drank up 962 kg, meat had a much higher water footprint:

  • chicken = 4,325l/kg
  • pork = 5,988l/kg
  • sheep/goat meat = 8,763l/kg
  • beef = 15,415l/kg.

To put these figures into context: the planet faces growing water constraints as our freshwater reservoirs and aquifers dry up. On some estimates, farming accounts for about 70% of water used in the world today, but a 2013 study found that it uses up to 92% of our freshwater, with nearly one-third of that related to animal products.

Calling the extensive need for water for animal products “a blind spot in water policy,” researchers in the Netherlands argue that livestock significantly contributes to humanity’s water footprint, water pollution, and water scarcity. Despite the fact that animal products form the single most important factor in humanity’s water footprint, they say “water managers never talk about meat or dairy. Indeed, livestock farmers are rather invisible.”

Eutrophication and Livestock Production

Directly and indirectly, through grazing and through feed crop production, the livestock sector occupies about 30% of the ice-free terrestrial surface on the planet. In many situations, livestock are a major source of land-based pollution, emitting nutrients, organic matter, pathogens, and drug residues into rivers, lakes, and coastal seas.

It’s a process called eutrophication, which is characterized by excessive plant and algal growth due to the increased availability of one or more limiting growth factors needed for photosynthesis, such as sunlight, carbon dioxide, and nutrient fertilizers. Eutrophication occurs frequently when agricultural runoff, including fertilizer and animal waste, gets dumped into rivers and ends up the ocean. The runoff contains nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that are the essential building blocks of life.

Widespread water quality degradation associated with nutrient enrichment — with livestock production, that means animal feces, leftover feed, and crop residues — causes algae and plants to grow excessively and use up all the oxygen in the body of water at the expense of other species. Eutrophication has and continues to pose a serious threat to potable drinking water sources, fisheries, and recreational water bodies.

img src="" alt="livestock production"">livestock productionDon Scavia has said, “Meat production is directly causing it.”

img src="" alt="livestock production" width="570" height="326"">livestock productionImage courtesy NOAA — yellow area = dead zone from livestock production fertilizer runoff

Snowmelt and spring rains feed algal growth and phytoplankton blooms, which then sink to the bottom of the ocean and get devoured, consuming huge amounts of oxygen. That consumption process slowly suffocates the seafloor, and different densities of cooler, saltier water on the seafloor and warmer, fresher water on the surface prevent the Gulf waters from mixing and bringing oxygen back to replenish the seafloor.

Oxygen levels get too low to support any sort of life in a phenomenon called hypoxia, in which many sea creatures will eventually suffocate and die. The Louisiana Marine Universities Consortium says the major events leading to the formation of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico include:

  • Freshwater discharge and nutrient loading of the Mississippi River
  • Nutrient-enhanced primary production, or eutrophication
  • Decomposition of biomass by bacteria on the ocean floor
  • Depletion of oxygen due to stratification

The Worst Environmental Impacts from Industrial Meat and Feed Production

An investigation about meat pollution in the US funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation uncovered the extensive networks of supply chains of the US largest meat companies. Mighty Earth mapped the meat and feed companies’ extensive infrastructure, including grain silos, feed mixing facilities, feedlots, and slaughterhouses, and overlaid the maps with data showing both natural grassland clearance for corn and soy and water nitrate concentrations linked to fertilizer pollution.

img src="" alt="livestock production"">livestock production

No longer is the idyllic image of small picturesque family farms a reality in the US. On the contrary, just 5 companies produce most meat under a highly industrialized and centralized factory farm system. Fertilizer pollution from these factory farms affects millions of people in the US who use and rely on waterways. From feed to slaughter, Mighty Earth found the meat industry to be the driving force behind some of the most urgent environmental crises facing our country.

“With water pollution worsening, native ecosystems disappearing, regulations weakening, and consumers demanding a more sustainable food system, the meat industry needs to take responsibility for cleaning up the pollution in its supply chain and leading US agriculture toward a more sustainable future.”

The report applauds consumers who have succeeded in holding the meat industry accountable for delivering more sustainable meat options on issues ranging from animal welfare to antibiotics. They also call for Tyson and other meat producers to adopt the following measures:

  • raise all meat using pollution-free feed;
  • diversify beyond corn and soy to include rotationally raised small grains;
  • implement more responsible manure management;
  • enact a moratorium on native ecosystem losses; and,
  • provide transparent reporting on progress towards cleaner meat.

Stats You Should Know about Livestock Production

Humans’ reliance on animals for food moved from small, homegrown animals for personal consumption to the factory farm. Producers discovered that animals could be kept inside, fed grain, and bred to grow quickly. Since 1925, the average days to market for a US chicken has been reduced from 112 to 48, while its weight has risen from a market weight of 2.5 pounds to 6.2 pounds.

Food and farming is one of the biggest economic sectors in the world, employing more than 26% of all workers globally. And that does not include the people who work along the meat supply chain: the slaughterers, packagers, retailers, and chefs.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states that livestock is about 40% of the global value of agricultural output and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost a 1.3 billion people.

One-third of the world’s grain is now fed to animals.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture, forestry, and other land use accounts for 24% of greenhouse gases.

In 2015, the average American ate 211 pounds of meat, and the US produced 24 billion pounds of beef, with 40 and 25 billion pounds of chicken and pork, respectively.

In 2016, the world’s meat production was estimated at 317m metric tons, and that is expected to continue to grow. Figures for the value of the global meat industry vary wildly from $90bn to as much as $741bn.

A 2017 landmark study found that the top three meat firms – JBS, Cargill and Tyson – emitted more greenhouse gases in 2016 than all of France.

Just 4 companies control more than 85% of both the corn and soy processing market in the US, with the agricultural traders ADM, Bunge, and Cargill —nicknamed the ABCs of global agriculture—consistently rank as the top grain processors in the US.

In Europe, 5.7% of agricultural land is managed organically.

The US is the world’s largest producer of beef and poultry and the third largest producer of pork.

Tyson is the largest meat company in the US, controlling over 20% of the chicken, beef, and pork markets.

img src="" alt="livestock production" width="270"">livestock productionPhoto courtesy FAO of the UN

Final Thoughts

According to Nature, the combination of demand for freshwater resources and diminishing water resources has become one of the most pressing environmental issues and will likely become more complicated as climate change, species invasions, and pollution further degrade water quality and quantity. Control and management of cultural eutrophication will require the collective efforts of scientists, policy makers, and citizens.

An energetic discussion is now taking place around extensive versus intensive farming and regenerative farming, which attempts to reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. It results in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle while also sequestering carbon. There are other agricultural models, too, such as biodynamic farming and permaculture.

Any farming methods need to begin with consumer awareness of the effect of factory farm livestock production on the earth. Powerful conglomerates like Tyson need to be held accountable for the way their production processes are incrementally destroying the land and water quality of the planet.

In the meantime, if all Americans substituted plants for beef, the country would be close to meeting the greenhouse gas goals agreed to by President Barack Obama in those truly great, golden years of the US.

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