Why a 2006 Report by the FAO Animal Production and Health Division assessing how livestock effect the environment is critically important.
I want to bring attention to a 2006 Report entitled: “Livestock’s Long shadow – Environmental Issues and Options.”
This multi-stakeholder Initiative, coordinated by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Animal Production and Health Division, supported by the World Bank, the EU and others, was formed to address the environmental consequences of livestock production, particularly in the light of rising demand for food products of animal origin and the increasing pressure on natural resources.
Disclaimer: All information here is basically copy and paste from the report – it is not what I say except for my conclusion at the end. Here are the key elements in the report.
The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global… The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency. (Executive Summary, page xx)
Livestock’s growing impact
While veganism (and vegetarianism) is on rise globally, the same is true for the Livestock sector. Even more so. Global demand for meat, milk and eggs is fast increasing because of 3 major factors according to this report:
- Rising Income – between 1991 to 2001, per capita GDP grew at more than 1.4 percent a year for the world as a whole. This is expected to accelerate rapidly in developing countries in through to at least 2030.
- Rising Population – the world population was 6.5 billion in 2003. The United Nations forecasts that world population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050. That’s a 40% increase within 30 years!
- Rising Urbanization rates – 49% of the world population were living in cities (FAO, 2006b). Virtually all population growth between 2000 and 2030 will be urban areas. In cities, people typically consume more food away from home, and consume higher amounts of precooked, fast and convenience foods, and snacks. This means greater demand for animal products.
Global production of meat is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, and milk will grow from 580 to 1,043 million tonnes… The bulk of this growth will occur in developing countries (FAO, 2006a).
Livestock activities have significant impact on virtually all aspects of the environment including;
- climate change and air pollution
- water depletion and pollution
The impact may be direct, through grazing for example, or indirect, such as the expansion of soybean production for feed replacing forests in South America at a pace of 9.4 million hectares per year.
Livestock’s role in climate change and air pollution
Global warming is the increase of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) in the atmosphere, increasing the average temperature of the earth’s surface since the beginning of the industrial period of the 1800s.
Industrial and agricultural activities lead to the emission of many other substances into the atmosphere; carbon monoxide, chlorofluorocarbons, ammonia, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds.
Global warming is expected to result in changes in weather patterns, including an increase in global precipitation and changes in the severity or frequency of extreme events such as severe storms, floods and droughts.
Livestock account for:
- 9% of the total anthropogenic (of human origin) carbon dioxide emissions.
- 65% of global anthropogenic emissions of nitrous oxide – the most potent of the three major greenhouse gases.
- 60% of the total anthropogenic amonia emissions.
- 35–40% of the total anthropogenic methane emissions.
For the agriculture sector alone,
livestock constitute nearly 80 percent of all emissions.
Livestock’s role in water depletion and pollution
More than 70% of the Earth is water. Yet only 2.5 percent of all water resources are fresh water (where we derive drinking water, irrigation water and water used for Industrial purposes).
The water used by the livestock sector is over 8% of global human water use. The major part of this water is in fact used for irrigation of feed crops, representing 7% of the global water use.
According to the report, the situation will worsen in the coming decades:
- Water consumption for non-agricultural uses is projected to increase by 62% by 2025.
- Water cycles are further affected by deforestation at the pace of 9.4 million hectares per year.
- Pollution of water resources – 90–95% of public wastewater and 70 percent of industrial wastes are discharged into surface water without treatment. Say whaaaaat?
Livestock excreta contain a considerable amount of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium), drug residues, heavy metals and pathogens. If these get into the water or accumulate in the soil, they can pose serious threats to the environment (Gerber and Menzi, 2005).
Organic farming practices and methods in Livestock production would reduce some of these threats (See Why Organic Meat is Healthier – What the Research Says).
Livestock’s impact on biodiversity
Livestock now account for about 20 percent of the total terrestrial animal biomass, and occupies a vast area that was once habitat for wildlife.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA, 2005) gauged that 33% of all known amphibians, 20% of all known mammals and 12% of all known birds are now threatened by extinction.
Conservation International has identified 35 global hotspots for biodiversity, characterized by exceptional levels of plant endemism and serious levels of habitat loss. Of these, 23 are reported to be affected by livestock production.
The livestock sector may well be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity, since it is the major driver of deforestation, as well as one of the leading drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas and facilitation of invasions by alien species.
Livestock’s impact on health and nutrition
- Livestock products are one of the major causes of overweight persons and people suffering with obesity.
- Livestock consume 77 million tonnes of protein contained in feeds that could potentially be used for human nutrition, whereas only 58 million tonnes of protein are contained in food products that livestock supply.
- A large number of non-communicable diseases among the more wealthy segments of the world’s population are associated with high intakes of animal fats and red meat: cardio-vascular disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer. It may well be argued that environmental damage by livestock may be significantly reduced by lowering excessive consumption of livestock products among wealthy people and nations.
- A series of human diseases have their known origins in animals (such as common influenza, small pox). Tuberculosis, brucellosis and many internal parasitic diseases, such as those caused by tapeworm for example, are transmitted through the consumption of animal products.
- In terms of health and food safety, livestock products are more susceptible to pathogens than other food products. They have the capacity to transmit diseases from animals to humans (zoonoses). The World Organization for Animal Health estimates that no less than 60 percent of human pathogens and 75 percent of recent emerging diseases are zoonotic (includes recent emerging diseases, such as avian flu, Nipah virus or the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease).
Report Summary Conclusion
Ultimately, environmental issues are social issues: environmental costs created by some groups and nations are carried by others, or by the planet as a whole. The health of the environment and the availability of resources affect the welfare of future generations.
The future of the livestock‑environment interface will be shaped by how we resolve the balance of two competing demands: for animal food products on the one hand and for environmental services on the other.
If this is the impact of livestock then we indeed have an urgent and serious problem.
How can we solve these problems? Does the industry itself have a responsibility to address this issue? An industry which, by the way, employs 1.3 billion people and creates livelihoods for one billion of the world’s poor.
At the very least something must be done to address the “rising” and “excessive” use of animal products — which is consumed every day, at every meal, in every portion and in every mouthful.
The future is in our hands.
For those interested – Download the full report:
Livestock_Longshadow.pdf (File size: 19 MB)