Industrial meat production, once celebrated as a way to feed the growing population of the post-war world, is increasingly under fire from scientists and conservationists for its role in climate change, pollution, and public health issues. The US has among the highest levels of meat consumption in the world, at 250 grams per person each day. Not only is this number four times the amount recommended as healthy by experts, but such habits carry a disproportionately heavy burden on the environment. As incomes rise in developing economies, this consumption is expected to rise rather than fall. Coupled with a growing population, meat consumption is projected to rise 75 percent by 2050.
The livestock sector alone produces roughly 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, approximately equivalent to emissions from all of the world’s cars, ships, trains, and airplanes combined. While the transit sector has come under scrutiny as the world aims to reduce emissions, people are more hesitant to consider the impact of intensive livestock agriculture.
Where are these emissions coming from specifically? The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that 45 percent come from feed production and processing, 39 percent from greenhouse gas outputs during the digestion process of cattle, and 10 percent from manure decomposition.
Governments are doing relatively little to combat the problem, out of fear of public backlash for trying to interfere with a personal choice as fundamental as diet.
Unfortunately, we may not have much choice if we want to prevent catastrophic levels of warming and climate change. One 2015 study, by the think tank Chatham House, found that a global reduction in meat consumption would be crucial to meeting the Paris target of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius, finding that a shift to healthier levels of meat consumption could account for a quarter of the emissions reduction needed to meet this target.
The problems with industrial livestock agriculture go far beyond carbon emissions.
Each spring in the US, floodwaters wash fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides from farms into the Mississippi River and then the Gulf of Mexico. The river drains 40 percent of America’s lower 48 states, particularly in the Midwest and the country’s agricultural belt. The excess nutrients lead to a surge in plankton, followed by a massive die-off from the agricultural pollution. There are 550 “dead zones” like this around the world, most of which are a result of such pollution.
Plankton are the foundation of ocean food webs – much of life in the ocean ultimately depends on plankton, which means disruptions have the potential for far-reaching consequences.
Manure management issues alone can lead to buildups of excess nutrients and heavy metals in soil, leaching of nitrates and pathogens into groundwater, and the release of ammonia, methane, and other gases into the air. In mixed, less intensive, traditional farming models, animal wastes are recycled as fertilizer by farmers who have a direct knowledge of their environmental impact. Industrial agriculture leads to large buildups of wastes, far from croplands where they could be safely utilized.
Eating less meat is absolutely key to addressing carbon emissions and pollution. Focus groups by Chatham House showed that if the public could see a strong case for making a change, they would be open to government intervention.
However, improvements can also be made to the existing system of livestock agriculture. A report from the FAO emphasized the need for wide adoption of best practices and technologies when it comes to feeding, health and husbandry, and manure management. They also called for wider implementation of underutilized technologies such as biogas generators and energy saving devices, and improvements in breeding and animal health. The report said such improvements in efficiency could allow the livestock sector to reduce emissions by 30 percent.
Many of these changes would also boost production, providing more food and higher incomes. Since livestock supports hundreds of millions of people and provides an important protein source in parts of the world that have struggled with malnutrition and hunger.
Countries like the US should reduce meat consumption, and developing nations should do their best to reduce emissions while increasing productivity to feed their growing populations. Governments should emphasize the role of livestock agriculture in climate change, so that people can voluntarily reduce consumption. Some government intervention may be necessary as well. These moves would have beneficial impacts on public health and pollution as well. To avoid catastrophic climate change, a combination of diet changes and better farming practices is as important reducing emissions from automobiles and other sources.