PDF version: The Environment Report

How Livestock Farming is Killing the Planet


Global warming isn’t a prediction – it’s happening right now! And it’s not the first time – it happened 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 for meat and dairy is one of the main culprits. Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production arise from a range of factors. The long list includes enteric fermentation (cows burping and farting methane as part of their digestive processes); gases from animal manure (more methane); deforestation to create grazing and land for soya-feed production; carbon loss from the soil in grazing lands; energy used in growing animal feed, processing and transporting both it and meat; and nitrous oxide released from nitrogenous fertilisers all contribute.

Governments have joined together to try and limit global temperature rise this century to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels – a critical threshold which, if exceeded, scientists believe would take us into unchartered and possibly very dangerous territory.

Despite this joint declaration, 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 already halfway to the 2°C limit and very close to reaching 1.5°C. If we are going to avert an environmental disaster, we have to take urgent action and the science is unanimous – there is no time to waste.

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, climate change will lead to a whole new range of health risks previously unknown to humankind: the melting of polar ice, 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 believe that 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 portrayed in the dystopian 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. Despite ineffective attempts to reduce them, the only practical way to stop their increase is to change the way we eat, by drastically reducing animal food production. Using energy efficient light bulbs or switching to an electric car is simply not enough if people continue eating steak and burgers.

It is not only on land that the effects are being seen. Our oceans are being decimated and ancient coral reefs destroyed at an unprecedented level. Marine ecosystems are collapsing as industrial bottom-trawlers repeatedly 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-quarters of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species. These massive livestock populations have profound consequences for biodiversity because of their role in deforestation, changing land use, overgrazing, degradation of grasslands and desertification. Loss of habitats and species extinction are happening at an alarming rate as human activity pushes the planet towards a sixth mass extinction and natural ecosystems degrade at a rate unprecedented in human history.

Deforestation remains alarmingly high in many parts of the world. Although it may appear that we are improving matters in the UK, our massive food imports are simply moving the problem elsewhere. This is known as ‘carbon leakage’ and does not reduce global emissions.

The alarming rise in deadly 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 antibiotics, medically important to humans, are used in this way and are losing their effectiveness. Time is running out and we need to act now.

Desertification and land degradation is being driven by the expansion of livestock farming and the intensive production of animal food. The vast majority of soya production is used to feed animals – high-protein soya meal has become the world’s number-one animal feed. Drastic action is required immediately if we are to attempt to halt and reverse these trends.

Most people assume that industry and traffic are the main causes of air pollution, and it could be argued that they have been encouraged to believe that, with the imposition of ‘green’ taxes on air travel. The truth is, agriculture is the single biggest cause of air pollution in Europe, contributing more greenhouse gases 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 are undernourished yet we feed around a third of our global crop production to animals. Growing food for human consumption, without first 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 the old gas-guzzling cars are but how long before livestock farming is viewed in a similar way?

Animal foods require far more precious water than most plant foods. Half a billion people in the world face severe water scarcity all year round and the contribution severe drought made to the conflict in Syria should act as an object lesson. There is a direct path leading from climate change to drought, to agricultural collapse and mass human migration. It now looks as though 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 in reducing global hunger, conflict and malnutrition.

We supposedly 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 problem of world hunger. To exacerbate the situation, we throw a huge amount of food away! If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitting country in the world. In the UK, the average family throws away £700 worth of perfectly good food every year.

The global demand for animal foods will continue to rise unless governments actively promote a change in diet. There is a clear need for strategic, integrated policies in our approach to agriculture, forestry and our use of the planet’s natural resources.

The easiest and 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!