Environmental Impacts of Food: Livestock

Why be an ecotarian?

In the first of a series of blog posts to help you understand how the food industry interacts with the environment, we list some of the environmental problems caused by producing meat and compare to those of other foods.

Carbon Foodprint

A report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) [1] found that the farming sector is a BIG source of greenhouse gases - growing livestock, vegetables and fruit emits 15% of the GHGs that we pump out every year. The same reports estimates this is more than all the planes, ships and cars in the world.

Before this landmark report, a 2005 study [2] compared the fossil fuel energy required with the calories on offer in a range of foodstuffs. Plant-based foods such as corn, potatoes and apples are generally 10 times more energy efficient than red meat, poultry and dairy products. Fish – shrimp in particular - comes in last place. Simply put, the emissions released from producing a kilo of fruit & veg are much less than from a kilo of meat/chicken/fish/eggs/milk.

But we may not need to boycott the cows altogether. The FAO also found that if existing, energy-saving appliances and practices were rolled out across the livestock production cycle – in both developed and developing countries - this global industry’s emissions would be cut by a whopping 30% [3].

Why is farming such a big polluter? How much of this is down to meat?

Grain or grass: feeding our food

Let’s start with animal feed. “Grass fed” livestock are those allowed to roam in fields and graze the land. This can (but not always) ensures a comfortable life for the animal. However, a LOT of land is needed – more than is sustainable for 7 billion carnivorous diets [4].

A space-saving and cost-effective alternative exists - the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (does what it says on the tin). “Grain-fed” swine, cattle and poultry are tightly packed into a caged units for weeks until suitably meaty. Side-stepping animal welfare and the quality of mass-produced meat, there are other problems with CAFOs. Firstly, growing grain has its own carbon-dioxide footprint. We are using energy and water to grow food for animals which we could otherwise be eating ourselves.

On top of this, CAFOs produce a lot of manure …

Methane – a very natural gas

…which brings us onto the next problem: a big pile of crap. “Manure gases” include methane and nitrous oxide – two GHGs which don’t get as much media attention as carbon dioxide.  They much more potent in terms of their contribution to global warming but on a shorter term. So, any waste which is not reused as a natural fertilizer will inevitably contribute to GHG emissions.

Synthetic fertilizers also release nitrous oxide. These are used to grow cheap mass-produced maize for animals – but also for rice, cereal and wheat for us.

So far, so complicated. Now let’s look beyond the farm.

Flying pigs

Once meat has been prepared and packaged, it goes on a refrigerated journey to the supermarket shelves. Unsurprisingly, it takes a lot of fuel to fly in produce from the other side of the world while keeping it cool. Flying a kilometre releases the same amount of CO2 per passenger as a kilometre of driving [5,6]. Of course, what makes aviation a dirtier polluter is the long distances travelled.

In most British supermarkets, the food with the most air miles tends to be vegetables - we're quite proud of our own meat.

So, meat beats vegetables here?

Not quite. Transporting food contributes to less than 10% of the industry’s GHGs emissions [1]. This gives you an idea of the sheer amount of resources needed for all things which happen on the farm. (We're not suggesting that buying fruit and veg from the other side of the planet is now sustainable - far from it!).

A thirsty business

To grow a kilo of grain requires 1000 litres of water [7]. That’s about 20 showers. The same amount of cheese needs 5 times as much, and beef 16 times.

Clearly, farming animals is not a wise choice in regions prone to drought or with depleting water reserves. In more severe cases in poorer countries, grazing land can all but disappear along with the number of healthy animals [8]. Drought is very rarely our own fault but pre-existing water-saving techniques [9] would better prepare farms, from CAFOs to locals, for not-so-rainy days.

No solution till the cows come home

Like any industry, agriculture leaves dirty paw marks on the scale it works at. It requires a lot of fuel, space and water - currently almost 40% of the planet's land is used for agriculture [10]. To feed more and more people, with fewer and fewer resources, would require this land to be used as efficiently as possible.

As it stands, this would suggest a shift away from using it for livestock. Will the future bring a consumer movement away from meat? Should we treat it as a luxury? Will we need government policy to make meaningful progress? Is it fair to eat meat when so many of the world's poor have little access to it?

We leave you with more questions than answers - but also with some of the facts to make sure you're decisions are a little more informed.

Intrigued? Want to learn more? Check out the "Links & Survey" page for documentaries like Cowspiracy (the award for best-documentary name goes to...).