The environmental impact of animal agriculture
With the days getting longer, the weather getting warmer the barbecue season can officially begin. But barbecue means steak, ribs, chicken wings…unfortunately hardly anyone knows that by heating up all that meat, you also heat up our climate.
The correlation between meat production and climat change has been established and proven, yet no one wants to talk about it.
The following paragraphs will explain the environmental impact of animal agriculture.
What is Climate change?
The Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in its Article 1, defines “climate change” as: “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods“.
Climate change is initially a totally normal and natural process and has already been going on for many thousands of years. Nevertheless our human activities interfere dramatically with the natural process of climate change by increasing its negative outcomes and speeding up the development. Therefore we are desperate to find new solutions that help us to reduce our ecological footprint. The European Union is eager to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95% (compared to 1990) in 2050, to increase its renewably energy mix and limit any further global warming. To achieve that goal we have to increase our energy efficience especially in the building sector and reduce our CO2 emissions in the transport sector.
But what if our cars, houses, travels are not the real problem? What if it is the food that we eat that is destroying our planet?
Livestock and climate change
One of the most important and influencing documentaries made to inspire saving the planet and the environmental mouvement would be the American documentary « Cowspiracy : The sustainability secret ».
According to the documentary, animal agriculture is the leading cause of a significant number of environmental illnesses like: deforestation, water consumption and pollution, it is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion…
The impact of animal agriculture on land use
The global demand for meat and animal products has exploded over the last 50 years. Today about 70 billion farm animals are used worldwide for food each year which is enough food for 10-12 billion people, yet, more than a half is wasted and one billion people are starving.
This trend is going to continue, especially because the growing urban middle classes in China and other emerging economies will adapt to the so-called western diet of people in North America and Europe.
About 30% of the world’s surface is used to feed the chickens, pigs and cattle that we eventually eat. This presents about 1.3 billion tons of grain consumed by farm animals each year, mostly pork and poultry. In fact the world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people, more than the entire human population on Earth.
Expansion of grazing land for livestock is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America: some 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is used as meadow, and to feed crops.
In other terms, an area of forest equivalent to half the UK is cleared every year to grow animal feed and for cattle ranching, or one acre of the rainforest is being cleared every single second.
The impact of animal agriculture on water use
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations), animal agriculture is estimated to be the largest sectorial source of water pollutants, principally animal waste, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides used for feed crops.
In fact 22 bathtubs are needed for a kilo of chicken, 27 bathtubs of water for a kilo of pork, and 90 bathtubs for one kilo of beef!
The impact of animal agriculture on air pollution
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the FAO estimated that livestock are responsible for 18 per cent of the worldwide annual greenhouse gas emissions, more than the transport sector.
It generates even bigger shares of emissions of other gases with greater potential to warm the atmosphere like methane gas which has a global warming potential 72 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period.
The silence of the environment protection organisations
But why are the world’s biggest environmental organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Earthwatch, Rainforest Trust and others, not spreading the important message?
Well, it’s because money rules the world and those big NGO’s are often sponsored by big meat and dairy industries, and therefore won’t tell the population the real problem.
There are a few methods that allow the capturing of methane produced by cattle, but in terms of land use and water use, the only real and sustainable solution would be to consume less meat and even at some point adopt a vegan plant based diet, because:
« Each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life ». (“Water Footprint Assessment” University of Twente, the Netherlands)