The environmental cost of meat

by Antonio Pasolini on February 27, 2008

We have insisted on the importance of cycling as a marvelous way to cut carbon emissions and stay fit. It really is the way to go. But there’s another aspect of daily life that plays a huge role in the fight against climate change and that is our diet. The organic food movement, which has become a major market force in recent years, emphasizes the importance of pesticide-free food, preferably sourced locally. Eating seasonal food is also best. However, cutting down on meat consumption, or preferably not eating meat at all, is one of the most politically significant things you can do to help the planet. Why?

Because the rearing of cattle causes more greenhouse gas emissions than driving cars. It’s a global environmental tragedy. According to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.

Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

The problem lies in demand. With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.

The global livestock sector is growing faster than any other agricultural sub-sector. It provides livelihoods to about 1.3 billion people and contributes about 40 percent to global agricultural output. For many poor farmers in developing countries livestock are also a source of renewable energy for draft and an essential source of organic fertilizer for their crops.

But such rapid growth exacts a steep environmental price, according to the FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow –Environmental Issues and Options. “The environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening beyond its present level,” it warns.

When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.

And it accounts for respectively 37 percent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 percent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.

Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock, the report notes. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.

In short, it is an environmental nightmare against which our best contribution is to stop eating meat. If you need suggestions on how to turn to a vegetarian diet, here’s a good place to go. It will be better for the planet and for your health.

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