How Livestock Farming is Killing the Planet
Global warming isn’t a prediction – it’s happening around us right now. It’s happened before, around 55.5 million years ago, when a burst of CO2 raised the Earth’s temperature by 8°C. It had major impacts on plants and wildlife and took 200,000 years for the planet to recover.
This time it’s caused by human activity – and livestock farming is one of the main culprits. Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production arise from a range of factors. Enteric fermentation (cows burping and farting methane), gases from animal manure (methane again), deforestation for grazing land and soya-feed production, soil carbon loss in grazing lands, energy used in growing animal feed, processing and transporting animal feed and meat and nitrous oxide releases from nitrogenous fertilisers all contribute.
Governments have joined together to try and limit global temperature rise to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels – a critical threshold above which scientists believe would have devastating effects.
We’re not doing very well – in 2015, global temperatures broke through the 1°C barrier as the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached an all-time high. So, we are now already halfway to the 2°C and very close to reaching 1.5°C. If we are going to avert an environmental disaster, we must take urgent action.
Some experts warn that current trends could lead to a 4-5°C increase of global temperatures by the end of this century. If the warnings are ignored, human-related climate change will lead to a whole new range of health risks, the like of which we have never seen before: polar ice melting, rising sea levels, flooding, drought, water shortages, loss of biodiversity, mass extinctions, hurricanes, tornadoes, starvation, infectious disease outbreaks, conflict and warfare.
This may sound like science fiction but some scientists say if we don’t act soon to curb climate change, we could be heading towards a situation resembling the world ravaged by drought and hardship seen in the futuristic film “Mad Max: Fury Road”.
As food production expands to meet the world’s growing appetite for meat, emissions from livestock farming continue to rise. The only way to stop this is to change the way we eat, drastically reducing animal food production. Simply using energy-efficient light bulbs or switching to an electric car will make little difference if you continue tucking into steak and eating burgers.
Our oceans are being decimated and ancient coral reefs destroyed at an unprecedented level. Marine ecosystems are collapsing as industrial bottom-trawlers plough through sea beds with no consideration of the consequences. This is unprecedented in the history of animal life and may disrupt ecosystems for millions of years to come.
Three-quarter of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species. Massive livestock populations have profound consequences for biodiversity because of deforestation, change of land use, overgrazing, degradation of grasslands and desertification. Loss of habitats and species extinction are taking place at an alarming rate. Human activity is pushing life toward a sixth mass extinction and natural ecosystems are degrading at an unprecedented rate.
Deforestation remains alarmingly high in many parts of the world. Part of the problem is food imports – it may look like we are improving matters on our own doorstep but really the problem is just moving elsewhere. This is known as ‘carbon leakage’ and of course, it does not reduce global emissions.
Desertification and land degradation are being driven by the expansion of livestock farming and the production of animal food. Drastic action is required immediately if we are to attempt to halt and reverse it.
The alarming rise in antibiotic-resistant bugs is a problem of our own making, a direct consequence of the inappropriate use of antibiotics in livestock farming. Many farmers routinely use antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals. In some countries, a huge proportion of medically important antibiotics are used in this way.
Most people assume that industry and traffic are the main causes of air pollution. However, agriculture is the single biggest cause of air pollution in Europe, contributing more than residential energy use or power generation. Reducing air pollution could mean the difference between life and death for millions of people every year.
One in nine people in the world today are undernourished, yet we feed around a third of our global crop production to animals. Growing food for human consumption, without feeding it to animals, could feed an additional four billion people – more than enough for everyone for years to come! We all know how wasteful old gas-guzzling cars are – how long before livestock farming is viewed the same way?
Animal foods require far more precious water than most plants foods. Half a billion people in the world face severe water scarcity all year round. We have already seen how severe drought contributed to the conflict in Syria. There is a direct path leading from climate change to drought, to agricultural collapse and mass human migration. Now it looks like Yemen may be the first country to actually run out of water. Which country will follow? Pakistan, Iran, Mexico or Saudi Arabia? Will future conflicts be fought over water rather than oil? Some scientists believe so. A shift in eating habits towards a plant-based diet could play an important role in preserving water and reducing global hunger and malnutrition.
We may have a global economy, but the huge disparities between rich and poor, and the persistent depletion of environmental resources used in food production on land and at sea, prevent us from reducing the very basic public-health problem of world hunger. On top of that we throw a huge amount of food away! If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world. In the UK, the average family throws away £700 worth of perfectly good food a year.
The global demand for animal foods will continue to rise unless governments actively promote changing the diet. There is a clear need for a strategic, integrated approach to agriculture, forestry and other policies linked to how we use the planet’s natural resources. The best solution is to stop eating animals. A global switch to diets that rely less on meat and more on fruit and vegetables could save eight million lives by 2050 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds. We talk the talk with sustainable energy and electric cars – let’s walk the walk with diet!