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Diet, Ignorance and the Environmental Catastrophe

Climate Change sounds vast and impersonal, but it’s really a very personal matter; a global crisis caused by the individual actions humanity has collectively taken. All too often such actions proceed from a position of ignorance selfishness and habit, and are undertaken with little or no understanding of the effects on the natural environment.

The debate around climate change commonly focuses on transportation, deforestation, and energy – replacing fossil fuels with renewables. This is right and urgent, and some countries are taking steps; however, what is not tackled at all is the devastating impact of a meat/dairy diet, – common to 97% of humanity. According to Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts Through Producers and Consumers (RFEI), a detailed report published in the journal Science, consumption of animal produce is “degrading terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, depleting water resources, and driving climate change.”

Industrial farming of cows, pigs, sheep and chickens, plus harvesting fish, for human consumption is the single greatest cause of the interconnected environmental catastrophe; unless urgent substantive change takes place this could single-handedly lead to a polluting point beyond redemption. Misinformed, irresponsible lifestyle choices are behind the environmental crisis. The vast majority of people are unaware of the devastating effects of our collective eating habits, and from this position of uninformed ignorance disaster flows; the earth is poisoned, the climate disrupted and all manner of lives are lost.

Animal agriculture is responsible for approximately 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions (GGE), according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This is more than any other sector, including manufacturing and transportation. The principal climate change contaminate is methane (44%), which comes mainly from rearing cattle – the source of 65% of all livestock GGE’s. While methane’s atmospheric life is only decades compared to centuries/millennia for carbon-dioxide (Co2) Scientific American reports that it “warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2,” before degrading to become CO2: So it’s a double whammy, an intensely damaging one.

In addition to high levels of GGE’s the meat and dairy industry is responsible for a range of environmental ills: Colossal amounts of both land and water are used to produce meat and dairy for the dinner plate – a third of all the Earths fresh water is soaked up by the industry, according to PNAS, and Waterfootprint relate that over 15,000 litres of water are required to produce a kilogram of beef, compared to the 322 litres of water needed for a kilo of vegetables. In America, 55% of total water usage goes to animal agriculture, compared to 5% for domestic use.

Globally the human population drinks around 5.2 billion gallons of water and eats 21 billion pounds of food daily, the documentary Conspiracy states. Though a lot, this pales into insignificance compared to the 45 billion gallons of water the world’s 1.5 billion cows drink daily and the 135 billion pounds of food they consume.

Land: use and degradation

The demand livestock farming makes on worldwide land resources is equally alarming. Between 25% and 30% of all (ice-free) land is utilized for grazing (up to 60 times more than the combined urban conurbations of the world); add in land used to grow feed crops and the figure leaps to 45% the International Livestock Research Institute state. This voracious appetite for land is the primary cause of rainforest deforestation (which generates 10% of global GGE, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists) as huge tracts of land are cleared to graze cattle and grow genetically manipulated soya beans and maize, which are used in animal feed.

The World Resource Institute estimates that only 15% of the world’s rain forests remain, the other 85% has been leveled, badly degraded or broken up, destroying ancient ecosystems and displacing hundreds of thousands of indigenous people; and 91% of the lost rainforest is due to farming livestock to feed human beings with meat and dairy.

Tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, but an acre of this most precious land is being cleared every second, and it’s increasing: In the world’s largest rainforest, the Brazilian Amazon, from August 2015 to July 2016 deforestation rose sharply, to, The New York Times (NYT) reported “nearly two million acres…. that’s a jump from about 1.5 million acres a year earlier.” In neighboring Bolivia, the Bolivia Documentation and Information Center say that 865,000 acres of land have been cleared every year since 2011 – a huge increase on the 366,000 acres a year during the 1990’s and the 667,000 acres a year in the early 2000’s. The reason for the increase is “a strategy by multinational food companies to source their agricultural commodities from ever more remote areas around the world.” Areas where law is weak and corporations can do as they like – all in the name of profit.

Deforestation and soil degradation/erosion leading to desertification are closely connected. The UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification), records that “12 million hectares of arable land, enough to grow 20 tonnes of grain, are lost to desertification annually. With over 70% of the global arable land being used to grow crops for livestock, its clear that “animal agriculture is the leading driver for approximately 1/3 of the land lost on earth due to desertification.”

Animal agriculture is also the principal cause behind the unprecedented level of species extinction, and this because of a variety of factors: Clearing forests destroys natural habitat; wild animals are hunted to protect livestock; pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers used in the production of feed crops “interferes with the reproductive systems of animals and poison water supplies.” Together with the broader impact animal agriculture is having on climate change, this all contributes, Conspiracy relates “to global depletion of species and resources.”

The industrial farming of livestock is a multi-layered environmental disaster, a global industry worth an estimated 3.178 $Trillions per year according to the World Bank that is growing at a phenomenal rate. Over the past 50 years global meat production increased fourfold. In 1963 it was 78 million tonnes, now, Global Agriculture records that it’s around 308 million tonnes per year. It’s expected to rise a further 75% by 2050 and demand for dairy to increase by 65%. If this trend continues, research published in Nature shows that by 2050 agricultural emissions will take up the entire world’s carbon budget, with livestock a major contributor. This would “mean every other sector, including energy, industry and transport, would have to be zero carbon, which is described as ‘impossible’.”

The enormous rise in production, of cheap low-quality food stuff is being generated through large-scale factory farming; it is how 70% of all farm animals are now reared, is the biggest cause of animal cruelty, and the source of many of the health pandemics in recent years. Livestock is regarded as human property – living commodities within a world of commodification to be used and profited from with no concern for the well-being of the animals.

Regionally, Asia produces almost half of the total meat production, Europe and America account for 19 and 15% respectively. The countries that consume most are currently the industrialized nations, Australia tops the chart of meat eaters, with, Forbe tells us, an average Australian eating “205 lbs. of beef and veal, poultry, pork and sheep meat a year”. America follows with 200 lbs. a year, then comes Israel at 189 lbs. It’s interesting to note that these countries also lead the world in wealth and income inequality.

Some will argue that even more livestock is needed to feed a growing global population. This claim is totally unfounded. Whilst the world is certainly overpopulated (7.6 billion), enough food is being produced to feed an estimated 10–12 billion people, but as FAO relates, “an estimated one-third of all food produced for human use, valued at $1 trillion, is lost or wasted each year.” In full sight of this criminal act almost a billion people are starving, whilst 1.9 billion are overweight. As the Meat Atlas makes clear, the global system for producing food is totally broken, it is a failed industry controlled by a handful of multinational corporations sitting within a dysfunctional economic system that places profit before people and the planet.

Change of Lifestyle

If humanity is to overcome the environmental crisis, a major shift in behavior is needed, including a change in diet. The RFEI report reveals that adopting diets which exclude animal products “has [enormous] transformative potential: reducing food’s land use by 2.8-3.3 billion hectares (a 76% reduction), including a 19% reduction in arable land; food’s GHG emissions by 49%; acidification by between 45-54%; eutrophication [excessive richness of nutrients in a body of water] by up to 56%.” In large meat eating societies like America, where meat consumption is three times the global average and a mere 3.5% are vegetarian, changing diet “has the potential for a far greater effect on food’s different emissions, reducing them by up to 73%.”

Awareness is the critical ingredient in change, individually and collectively. In order to raise awareness of the impact of meat/dairy production and create a well-informed society, information needs to be widely available. The lead researcher on RFEI, Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford, proposes labeling which reveals product impact should be made available. Such a step should be compulsory, so “consumers could choose the least damaging options.” In addition, Poore suggests governments subsidize “sustainable and healthy foods” while “reallocating agricultural subsidies that now exceed half a trillion dollars a year worldwide.”

These measures would greatly help, but changing behavior is extremely difficult, particularly on the scale and within the time-frame required, and it won’t happen without incentives. In 2013 a group of scientists proposed “implementing a tax or emission trading scheme on livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions”, this “economically sound policy would modify consumer prices and affect consumption patterns.” Such a common-sense scheme should be implemented throughout the world as part of a set of global policies, consistently enforced, designed to change harmful behaviour and encourage responsible action. We all have a duty to do everything we can to restore the Earth to health and safeguard it for future generations and the most effective way to do this, as the RFEI study shows, is to stop eating animal produce.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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