Read on to understand more of the connection between meat-eating and the degradation of Earth's health.
Written by Jim Motavalli
Jim Motavalli is the editorial director of New Mass Media and a frequent contributor to *The New York Times* auto section.
The environmental consequences of meat-based diets extend far beyond their impact on climate change. According to the UN report, producing the worldwide meat supply also consumes a large share of natural resources and contributes to a variety of pressing problems. Livestock production consumes 8 percent of the world's water (mainly to irrigate animal feed), causes 55 percent of land erosion and sediment, uses 37 percent of all pesticides, directly or indirectly results in 50 percent of all antibiotic use, and dumps a third of all nitrogen and phosphorous into our fresh water supplies.
A study by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP), released last April, called the human health and environmental risks associated with the meat industry "unacceptable." One of the commission's major recommendations was to "implement a new system to deal with farm waste to replace the inflexible and broken system that exists today, to protect Americans from the adverse environmental and human health hazards of improperly handled IFAP waste."
And livestock forces other animals out. With species loss accelerating in a virtual "sixth extinction," livestock currently accounts for 20 percent of all the animal biomass on the planet. As they occupy 30 percent of the planet, they also displace that much wildlife habitat. The grazing of livestock is considered a serious threat to 306 of the 825 "eco-regions" identified by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, and to 23 of Conservation International's 35 global hotspots for biodiversity.
Upping the volume
Meat production has become a major problem because of its very success as a human food. In 1950, world meat production was 44 million pounds annually; today, it has risen fivefold to 253 million tons per year. Pork production, for instance, was less than five million tons annually in 1950, but it's more than 90 million tons today. The average person on the planet ate 90.3 pounds of meat in 2003, double the figure of 50 years ago.
These sharp increases are partly the result of dramatically higher meat consumption in the Third World. China alone now consumes half the world's pork, a fivefold increase since 1978.
Brazil makes an excellent case history. With 160 million head of cattle, it has the second-largest herd in the world after India. In Brazil, cattle provide 29 percent of the country's methane production, and an amazing 10 percent of the world total. If that were the only issue, Brazil's large cattle herd would be a major problem. But it would be an enormous global warming aggravator even if its cattle produced no methane, because Brazilian farmers burn rainforest land to create pastures.
This process releases carbon into the atmosphere from the heavy fires, and also destroys the rainforests' ability to act as a carbon sink and capture CO2. These fires are Brazil's largest contribution to global warming, which worries Brazilian environmentalists such as Rubens Born of the group Vitae Civilis. He says he's waiting for Brazil's national inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, which will allow him to see more precisely the scope of the problem.
The few commentators who have taken on the connection between meat consumption and global warming ignore the most obvious solution: not eating meat.
The UN report offers a lengthy section entitled "mitigation options" with a range of other choices. To avoid cutting down rainforests that sequester carbon, the report suggests "intensification of agricultural production on some of the better lands, for example by increased fertilizer benefits." The logical conclusion to this suggestion is the total confinement factory farming methods used in the United States — which, by twisted logic, could be said to have environmental benefits because they are not land intensive (and don't cut down trees). But the environmental problems associated with factory farming are legion, and include polluted air and waterways.
Other UN suggestions include conservation tillage (leaving agricultural residue on the soil surface to enrich its health) and organic farming for better soil health, improved grassland management, better nutrition for livestock to reduce methane gas production, and capturing methane in anaerobic digesters to produce "biogas."
The latter method has been adopted by several Vermont dairy farms and works well. Cow manure is stored in the digesters (huge tanks) at 100 degrees Fahrenheit and deprived of oxygen. That encourages bacteria to break the manure down, releasing biogas that is 90 percent methane. This fuel is captured and burned in an engine to generate electricity. Unfortunately, the equipment is expensive — $200,000 to $1 million, depending on the size of the farm. Only 32 U.S. farms were using digesters in a recent tally, so only a tiny amount of methane production has been mitigated in this way.
A Canadian study by Karin Wittinberg and Dinah Boadi of the University of Manitoba lists 20 separate ways to reduce greenhouse gas production from livestock. These include grinding and pelletizing food for confined animals to make it more fully digestible (a 20 to 40 percent reduction), grazing steers on high-quality alfalfa grass pastures (50 percent reduction), adding canola oil to feedlot rations (30 percent reduction), and separating animals by age group and phasing in food related to their growth stages (50 percent reduction). These are laudable solutions and should be implemented, but, absent legislation, they're unlikely to be put in place.
It takes seven pounds of corn to add a pound of weight to a cow, and that's why 200 million acres of land in the U.S. are devoted to raising grains, oilseeds, pasture and hay for livestock. That land requires 181 billion pounds of pesticides, 22 billion pounds of fertilizer and 17 trillion gallons of irrigation water (not to mention billions of gallons of global warming-aggravating fossil fuel for farm equipment).
Another way of looking at this, supplied by M.E. Ensminger, the former chair of the Animal Sciences Department at Washington State University, is that "2,000 pounds of grain must be supplied to livestock in order to produce enough meat and other livestock products to support a person for a year, whereas 400 pounds of grain eaten directly will support a person for a year."
Because vegetarians enjoy lower levels of blood cholesterol and suffer less frequently from obesity and hypertension, their life expectancies are several years greater. But the benefits of the vegetarian option are rarely on the agenda, even when the environmental effects of the meat industry are under discussion.