J500 Media and the Environment

Livestock’s Long Shadow by dshawla

Recently, I discovered a report from 2006, entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, which is an assessment of global livestock’s impacts on the environment. The report was produced by the Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative. This is not an animal rights group, or a band of hippie vegans, but rather a sub-committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

I’m well aware of many of the report’s findings, but there is much in the report that I never knew. It’s troubling that livestock is rarely addressed by leading environmentalists and environmental groups. Especially because, as the report states, “the livestock sector emerges as one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale from local to global.”

Based on recent posts about the impact of food on the environment, I highly recommend at least skimming through the report. Here are a few highlights I’ve taken directly from the report’s executive summary:

– Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agriculture land and 30% of the land surface on the planet.
– 70% of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures (in other words, livestock is the biggest contributor to Amazon rain forest loss)

-Livestock is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (higher than transportation)
– Livestock emits 37% of anthropogenic (resulting from human activity) methane, which has 23x the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2
– Livestock emits 65% of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, which has 296x the GWP of CO2
– Livestock is responsible for 64% of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems.
Waste Laggon at NC hog farm

(photo: USDA. Waste lagoon at a hog farm in North Carolina)

– Livestock accounts for over 8% of global human water use
– Livestock is probably the largest source of water pollution
– In the US alone, livestock is responsible for an estimated 55% of erosion and sediment, 33% of pesticide use, and 50% of antibiotic use

– Livestock now account for 20% of the total animal biomass, and 30% of the earth’s land surface they now inhabit was once habitat for wildlife
– Livestock may be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity (due to 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.

The report details many more facts about the negative environmental impacts of livestock. It concludes that if, as predicted, the production of meat will double from now until 2050, the impact per unit of output must be cut in half, simply to maintain current levels of environmental damage caused by livestock. Recommendations for reaching this goal include a sizable reduction in meat consumption from those in developed nations.

If awareness of this issue does not move from the fringes and into a front and center issue for the environmental movement, it is difficult to think the problems will not become significantly worse. This isn’t an opinion, it is a fact. Yet, one of the simplest things an individual can do to have a personal impact is reduce his/her meat consumption.

The sooner people overcome their belief that a vegetarian diet is radical or extreme, but instead is a very positive step toward improving the health of themselves and the planet, and at least reduce their meat consumption, the sooner the problems associated with livestock can be seriously addressed and overcome.

– David


4 Comments so far
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Does the report differentiate between large commercial livestock operations or factory farms and smaller, family owned farms?

I think what we need is to establish balance in the world. Obviously, if all of this land were turned into veggie farms, there would be even less opportunity for biodiversity and wildlife. Nobody wants deer, rabbits, bugs, etc. eating the veggies they’re trying to raise. On the other hand, these other species can live in tandem on a ranch where livestock is raised. You also can’t start a veggie farm under the canopy of the rain forest – so no help there, either. I think Adam has also pointed out before that livestock can be raised on a ranch at various elevations, under conditions that veggies can’t, in tandem with the existing environment.

So, I think people need to learn to eat moderately, period. Balance out the intake of meat, eat more veggies, etc.

What is grown, where and in what way also needs to be balanced. Quite frankly, the entire food system that relies so heavily on large, polluting, commercial operations/factory farms needs to change.

~ Sarah Hemme

Comment by shemme

It takes more land to raise livestock than it does to raise veggies. You can feed more people on an acre of land used for veggies than you can with an acre of land used for livestock. Remember this key finding of the report -70% of farm land is used for livestock! That means only 30% is used for all veggies and non-animal food crops. So, no, if land used for livestock was used for veggies, there would not be a greater loss of biodiversity. Livestock production uses far more resources and contributes to far more pollution and land degradation than growing veggies. This has been proven again and again by sources other than the UN report.

I think the bigger issue is changing people’s perceptions about what and how they eat. The Western diet is much more meat based than the Eastern diet. And as those in the east start eating more like those in the West, the problems associated with livestock production will only increase.

Factory farms have done an amazing job at altering the natural ways in which livestock were traditionally raised and the amount of meat we eat. It has allowed Americans to eat meat at every meal and every snack every day if they so desire. It has wreaked havoc on the environment.

However, in order to raise the amount of livestock currently consumed in a more traditional way, it will take a lot more land. So, that’s not really the solution on its own.

This is a complex problem that touches deeply personal issues including tradition (Easter ham, hot dog at the ball game, burger on the grill on Memorial Day), taste (meat tastes good to most people) and beliefs (“Beef, it’s what’s for dinner!”), which include the belief that no one has the right to tell someone else how to eat (which I agree with).

This issue is basically being ignored by the media. In “An Inconvenient Truth” Al Gore talks all about the causes of global warming, but makes no mention of the fact that livestock cause more man-made greenhouse gases than any other source. The media is all over hybrid cars, but rarely touches livestock.

My feeling is no one wants to accept the realities of the harm done by livestock. Knowing how difficult it has been for me to get my head around this issue (and I consider myself to be a pretty serious environmentalist) and make the decisions I’ve made to stop eating meat, eggs and dairy (with rare exceptions to the last two), I can only see this problem becoming much worse, before it gets better.

However, to end on a positive note, what do you think of this article? I have some thoughts, but I’ve written enough for now. . .

– David

Comment by dshawla

David & Sarah,
Thanks for this debate. The inputs on organic farms would be slightly lower and I am sure scale makes a huge difference but the impact of animal husbandry is clear. I like what Michael Pollan has to say: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
This may be the tipping point for folks: Chickens in North Carolina Can No Longer Afford to Eat Corn. When feedstocks (for people and animals) become fuel and we can no longer afford it, what price will we all pay? I think about Mexico, where corn is a food staple. The price of corn is forcing people to make all kinds of behavioral changes. We just have to make sure in the process we are smart and intentional.

Comment by j500

As someone who has written two books about animal agriculture, and has followed the issues involved for more than a decade, it’s abundantly clear that while animal agriculture in general poses problems to the environment, beef and fish production are such extravagant environmental menaces as to be indefensible. I recently started blogging on Vegan.com, and this entry about buffalo will give you a taste of what I’m talking about.

Comment by Erik Marcus

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