An even more inconvenient truth: Animal agriculture and the environment
- Published: 16 March 2010
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Animal agriculture is devastating to the environment: Presentation by Katrina Fox to the Green Earth Festival, Brisbane, Australia 13 March 2010.
With climate change and global warming now firmly part of our cultural consciousness, you may be seeking ways to reduce your carbon footprint.
You’ll hear talk of energy-saving lightbulbs, the importance of recycling and be bombarded with eco-friendly products from laundry detergent to ‘green’ fashion to energy-efficient cars.
All of these things are fantastic and kudos to everyone doing their bit to implement strategies to combat global warming.
But while cool, funky ‘green’ gadgets and technology are promoted in the media, there is one thing that doesn’t get nearly enough column inches, but which has a massive impact on climate change and the destruction and devastation of our environment. And that is animal agriculture.
How green is your diet?
The question I’d like you to consider is: How green is your diet?
For many of you here today, you may not have ever had anyone ask you this, or considered the environmental impact of your diet. So I’m going to present to you information gained from various sources, both internationally and locally to give you an idea of the cost of animal agriculture to the earth.
This presentation will be made available online at The Scavenger magazine, complete with all the references and links to the original source of information so you can check it out and investigate it for yourself.
I’ll start by giving an international, overall perspective, then move on to what’s happening locally here in Australia.
People are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.
Such rapid growth exacts a steep environmental price, according to a 2006 report by the United Nations.
The report, called Livestock’s Long Shadow, stated that animal agriculture – that is, animals raised to end up on our plates – is “One of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.”
So serious in fact that animals raised for meat, dairy and eggs produce more global warming greenhouse gases that worldwide transportation combined.
Just think about that for a second. The whole of worldwide transportation combined does not produce the amount of damaging greenhouse gases as animal agriculture.
“The environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening beyond its present level,” the report warns.
But it doesn’t end there: livestock production also contributes to:
- shortages of fresh water
- land destruction and deforestation
- air and water pollution
- soil erosion
- loss of habitat
- acid rain.
Let’s look at some of these in greater detail:
With rising temperatures, rising sea levels, melting icecaps and glaciers, shifting ocean currents and weather patterns, climate change is the most serious challenge facing the human race.
According to the UN report, the livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent – although a 2009 Worldwatch Institute report put the figure at a much higher 51 per cent.
Livestock are also responsible for almost two-thirds (64 percent) of ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems.
When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases.
It generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.
And it accounts for 37 percent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of cattle and other ruminant animals.
The world is moving towards increasing problems of freshwater shortage, scarcity and depletion, with 64 percent of the world’s population expected to live in water-stressed basins by 2025.
The livestock sector is a key player in increasing water use, accounting for over 8 percent of global human water use, mostly for the irrigation of feedcrops.
And that 8 percent figure becomes much higher when you take into account the uses of water in animal agriculture that are not just for irrigation – and we’ll look at this on a local level shortly.
Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock.
Expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America where the greatest amount of deforestation is occurring – 70 percent of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feedcrops for farmed animals cover a large part of the remainder.
That is: The soy and grains grown in these areas are NOT for human consumption, but to feed farmed animals who then killed for human consumption.
Crops grown for farm animals in the US requires almost half the water supply and 80% of the agricultural land.
Animals raised for food in the US consume 90% of the soy crop, 80% of the corn crop and 70% of its grain.
The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species shows that most of the world’s threatened species are suffering habitat loss where livestock are a factor.
In fact, the livestock sector may well be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity, since it is the major driver of deforestation, as well as one of the leading drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas and facilitation of invasions by alien species into an area.
Meat and dairy animals now account for about 20 percent of all terrestrial animal biomass. The prescence of livestock in vast areas of land and its demand for feed crops also contribute to biodiversity loss; 15 out of 24 important ecosystem services are in decline, with livestock identified as a culprit.
*Note: The term “livestock” refers to all farmed animals, including pigs, birds raised for meat, egg-laying hens, and dairy cows.
But fishing is also causing environmental devastation. Commercial fishing is emptying our oceans. Today, huge fishing ships stay out on the water for months, using technology such as sonar tracking to hunt down schools of fish. Commercial fishing boats indiscriminately take fish out of the sea, leaving ecological devastation and the bodies of nontarget animals in their wake.
Fishing methods such as bottom trawling and long-lining have stripped millions of miles of ocean and pushed some marine species to extinction.
These aggressive fishing practices are emptying our oceans of life at an alarming rate—13 of the world’s 17 fisheries are depleted or in serious decline, and the other four are fully exploited or overexploited.
One very common commercial fishing method, bottom trawling, involves dragging nets larger than football fields along thousands of miles of ocean floor. After scraping the ground clear of coral, ocean plants, and all the fish and marine animals in their path, trawlers leave huge gashes in the ocean floor.
Trawling and other aggressive commercial-fishing practices are wiping out entire underwater ecosystems and pushing our oceans to the brink of environmental collapse.
Commercial fishing has also been linked to the dramatic decline of an array of aquatic species worldwide.
These farms raise millions of fish in netted cages in coastal waters. Confining so many fish in small areas leads to extreme fecal contamination, deadly diseases, parasite outbreaks, and the depletion of wild fish stocks.
The massive amount of faeces produced by fish on aquafarms upsets the natural balance of the aquatic ecosystem. According to the Norwegian government, the salmon and trout farms in Norway alone produce roughly the same amount of sewage as New York City.
In some cases, the massive amount of fish excrement settling below fish cages has actually caused the ocean floor to rot. Dead fish carcasses and uneaten antibiotic-laden fish feed also pollute the coastal areas that surround these farms.
Worldwatch Institute report
Now the UN report cited above estimates that 18 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributable to livestock.
However recent analysis by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang co-authors of “Livestock and Climate Change” in 2009 by the Worldwatch Institute found that those figures were grossly understated and that livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or a massive 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions.
Australian perspective (Animal Liberation NSW flyers, drawing on ABS figures and CSIRO Balancing Act report)
The Australian Bureau of Statistics keeps records of water usage in Australia. About 25,000 giga litres is used annually. Here is where 70% of that water goes:
- A whopping 4,000 glasses of water to create 1 glass of milk.
- Just 550 litres of water to produce enough flour for a loaf of bread
- But a huge 7,000 litres of water to produce 100 grams of beef.
A dairy cow typically produces 57 litres of manure each day and around 20 tons per annum. 200 dairy cows can produce as much nitrogen in their manure as a town of 10,000 humans.
Small to medium sized dairies can generate 900-1800 litres of wastewater daily while larger operations can generate up to 4500 litres in a single day. A lactating cow excretes 73-81% nitrogen which can contaminate both surface and ground water.
Water and Piggeries
Not only are the meat industries prodigious users of water, most of the water they do use ends up seriously polluted and needs treatment. Abattoir waste water and piggery waste is some of the most highly polluted water in the world, requiring extensive treatment before release or reuse. Piggery waste also contains many harmful pathogens.
Water, Rice and Methane
Many environmentalists are fiercely critical of rice growing in Australia. However the data shows that rice uses far less water than beef production. Why is the environmental movement generally silent on beef? Any replacement of beef by rice will save water.
But more importantly it will significantly reduce methane production because beef production produces far more methane than rice production. From an environmental viewpoint, any grain is preferable to beef.
Rice feeds a huge global population with stunning efficency. A recent scientific study showed that rice paddies actually sequester large amounts of carbon.
However the Chinese have increased their beef consumption 4 fold in the past decade and much of it comes from Australia. In 1990 we exported 172,000
tonnes of beef to China — well over half their total imports. In 2004 we exported 662,000 tonnes of beef to China.
As the Australian herd increases, so does the methane from the cattle. Grain fed beef cattle generally produce 2 or 3 times the amount of methane as feedlot beef – that is cattle contained in small spaces, factory farms – which is why Australia has 1/4 the number of cattle as the US, but they produced over 1/2 as much methane.
Where does Australia’s water go?
You might think it’s our gardens, but it’s actually our plates.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows which commodities use the most irrigation water in Australia, with pasture and grazing animals using the most.
But the water used by the beef and dairy industries goes far beyond mere irrigation water. Figures from ABS and a 2005 CSIRO report called Balancing Act show dairy and beef to be the biggest users.
Household water use in Australia is about 120,000 litres/year per person. The Australian Conservation Foundation website has an eco-footprint calculator which calculates the water attributable to your lifestyle. This is the water that doesn’t appear on your water bill but is attributable to your lifestyle.
The amount of meat in a high meat diet, such as the CSIRO diet, will increase your water usage by about 200,000 litres per annum.
Water for Beef
We produce about 2 million tonnes of beef annually in Australia, between 1/3 and 1/2 is eaten here and the rest is exported.
You may have read that it takes 50,000 litres of water to produce a kg of beef.
In a sense, this is a measure of the intensity of our use of the land. Instead of the 50,000 litres nourishing natural vegetation and forests, we clear the forests, stock the land with cattle and destroy the biodiversity in massive areas.
Water and Milk Production
Dairy products, like cheese, cost over 5,500 litres per kg to produce.
Greenhouse gases and land degradation
Methane – as we noted earlier – is a potent greenhouse gas: around 21 times more potent in greenhouse terms than carbon dioxide, and sheep and cattle in Australia are producing around 14% of Australia’s total greenhouse emissions.
In 2006 the dairy industry in Australia spent more than $500 million on grains and concentrates and became the single biggest user of feed grain of all the animal industries.
Producing more human food and animal fodder over the past 40 years in Australia is dependent on increasing inputs of water, fertiliser and energy.
As use of energy and fertiliser increase, so do greenhouse emissions and pollution problems.
It’s not just methane that makes meat a heavy greenhouse emitter. There are also large amounts of fuel and electricity used in the production and distribution of meat before it is cooked. Cattle trucks use energy, slaughterhouses use energy, refrigeration uses energy.
If you use figures from the CSIRO/Sydney University Balancing Act report to compare Australian production of beef cattle and meat products against wheat, flour and bakery products, you’ll find energy usage for meat being the highest by far.
The energy used for meat is even higher if you consider that most bakery products do not need further cooking, but most meat products do.
We produce and export about 10 times more wheat than meat, nevertheless meat production is a much larger user of energy — and you still have the cooking and refrigeration to add in.
As feedlotting of beef cattle increases and the grain fed chicken and pig industries expand, the energy used in meat production increases.
Most of Australia’s cattle today end their lives eating grain in feedlots, 75 days for the domestic market, and 145 days for the export market.
Shipping grain around the country and refrigerated meat around the globe uses far more energy and generates more greenhouse emissions than shipping grain directly for human consumption.
So what to do?
You’ve listened to the figures and hopefully got a good idea of the devastating effects of animal agriculture on the planet.
So what can you personally do to make your diet greener? Environmental pundits, including the UN, will tell you to reduce your intake of red meat. But as we’ve seen, the dairy, egg, fish and poultry industries all harm the environment considerably.
So, I’m going to suggest what might seem to some of you a ‘radical’ move: to go vegan. To eliminate all animal products – meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs – from your diet.
But surely what’s happening to the planet – not to mention our health and the terrible cruelty inflicted on farmed animals – needs radical solutions. We can’t afford to put sticking plaster over a gaping, bleeding wound; we have to take steps to heal the wound. And we need to take drastic measures to heal the planet.
From an energy perspective, the CSIRO/Sydney University study calculated that reducing your meat intake from the Australian average of 300gms per day to 150gms saves 1.4 tonnes of greenhouse emissions every year — about the same as reducing your annual car travel by 4,700 kms in a family automobile.
The energy savings each year would power the average household for nearly a month.
If you’re still not convinced: Another thing to consider is that Compassion in World Farming predicts that a 50 per cent reduction in meat consumption in developed countries (where obesity is one of the major causes of illness and death) could save approximately 3.6 million children from malnutrition. If you incorporate everyone suffering from poverty and malnutrition, not just children, the estimate rises to 33.6 million.
If a 50 per cent reduction in meat consumption can save 34 million people from malnutrition, think how many millions more will be saved if you switch to a vegan diet.
In addition to eating a plant-based diet, it’s also important to buy local products. Consider your food miles – that is the distance your food has travelled to end up on your plate.
If you aren’t buying local then sustainable table.com suggests your food miles tend to be 27 times higher than if you bought from local sources.
The fossil fuels used to transport food contribute to global warming, acid rain, smog and air pollution and don’t forget the extra energy burnt up by refrigerating your meat, dairy and vegetables over long distances.
There is also the impact the transportation and packaging of the food has on its quality.
On the other hand if you buy locally, you will be eating seasonal, fresh food and supporting your local economy. Buying locally means there is less chance of rot and contamination, of buying produce that has been in storage for months and if you buy organic, no harmful chemicals and pesticides.
As American nutritionist Kathy Freston puts it: ‘We are eating our planet to death. But a vegan diet is a powerful new weapon to use in addressing the most serious environmental crisis ever to face humanity.”
In 2007 researchers at the University of Chicago found that a greener diet is even more effective than a greener car, but how often are people in the market for a new car anyway?
But we can make a difference at every single meal, simply by leaving animal products off of our plates.