How Livestock Effect the Environment



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.

sheep in field at close range

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:

  1. 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 chart showing rising incomes
  2. 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!
  3. 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.

dirty pigs in the sty

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
  • biodiversity

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

high in the sky with sunset

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.


My Conclusion

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)

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32 Replies to “How Livestock Effect the Environment”

  1. catherine says:

    Wow this was a truly fantastic read, very detailed and backed up with supporting evidence. This is a topic that I am very passionate about. I personally like to get my meat from hunting, but with a big family to feed this isn’t always possible when I do buy meet I try to insure that it is organic. i am really concerned about the amount of antibiotics that non-organic farming methods use, due to the close confinement. I am also concerned about how these organics can effect our personal health and the health of our environment.
    Thank you so much for sharing. I love what you are doing here. Keep up the fantastic work!

  2. Maun says:

    Hi Dwyan Alford,

    You raise a very good point about how livestock affects the environment. A few years back I worked in Livestock Industry and I noticed that most of the livestock owners were forgetting about the care of the environment.

    The article should help many to create an environmental awareness you really cover so much here.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Dwyan Alford says:

      Thanks Maun for taking the time to read and understand the premise of writing this article! Take care!

  3. catherine says:

    Great content research ! Very informative and useful knowledge.

    • Dwyan Alford says:

      Thank you Catherine. I thought it would be something interesting for people to be aware of especially since all the “official” players support it – EU, World Bank, USAID, UN, FAO, German etc etc and agreed it was a matter of urgency and the balance of life on the planet was at risk. (which is how I read the report)

  4. Delanee says:

    This is some amazing information Dwyan! My friend has gone vegan and she loves it! There are so many great plant products that can give you the same satisfaction as animal products! I have tried vegetarian so far, but when the family all eats meat, it makes it difficult! Articles like this are so important to realize how much that ribeye is really effecting them and the planet they live on. Thank you so much! I will share this article with my friend!

  5. Alice says:

    What I am most concerned about is the impact that livestock have on our health and nutrition. Diabetes, obesity and other health problems are no longer confined to adults. There are many children today between 3-12 who are suffering from these illnesses resulting from the over consumption of poultry.

    Thank you for sharing. We’ll just have to keep sounding the alarm until people start listening.

    • Dwyan Alford says:

      Yes Alice you are so right about children getting these health problems at such a young age. You would just think that more could be done given the findings in this report. This industry makes so much money and they’re able to numb the public from what’s really going on. I will continue to do my part to highlight this urgent problem.

  6. Dave says:

    Fascinating! My son and I were just watching a documentary on Netflix called Fed Up that talks about the nutrition industry and the affects of big lobbyist groups in the USA. It was brutal to watch and I just can’t believe what we’re doing to the planet and our kids by allowing these big lobbyist groups to affect politics in the US, all in the name of greed.

    Reading this article really resonated for the same reason – greed. People need to ‘wake up’ and stop these big companies from their controlling interests into politics. Genetically modified foods? Irradiated foods being labeled as “organize”? Wow…

    Now livestock and the overpopulate of certain species and the ruining of grasslands, etc. At what point do we as a population say “enough is enough”.

  7. ronda says:

    this is a really very important topic to be raised, so informative, people need this kind of awareness to wake up.

    thanks for sharing

  8. Philip says:

    Hi Dwyan,

    I read every word of your article. I am a little worried now as well. We sometimes hear about these things but I did not realize resources in our world were being so affected so badly.

    Regarding water, 2.5! what?! That is not a lot out of 70% of earths water- I thought it was a lot higher.

    They can’t take from the sea and clean it? I know that is probably impossible but seems a cruel irony.

    I know somewhere in America they can clean human waste and extract the water in it. Sounds nasty but it is a real solution and I do MEAN the water is pure clean!!

    Regarding meat, there is a fungus called QUORN. It tastes just like meat and I use to eat it for a time. It is DEFINITELY a healthy substitute for meat and no one would know the difference if you told them that was a good old beef burger – it is that good quality.

    Regarding food supply:- What is stopping people from sowing their own food in their gardens? I did that one summer, I live in a place now with no garden, but I grew my own food. There was so much in my small little front garden that I HAD TO share it with my neighbors either side of me. I know one man that sows his garden and he tells people to help themselves.

    That is pure straight free food!!!!!!! But no…… people are pure lazy… that is the bottom line! They’d rather have roses instead LOL!!

    Anyways, mother Earth is very generous – 1 seek I could barely see on the tip of my finger, bore 12 courgettes!! 12!!!! OK, I am over laboring my point, but there are solutions that we can all implement if we give an iota of a damn for our kids, our kids kids futures.

    I feel I have learned a lot out of this article Dwyan and feel very privileged you took the time to lay it all out for us as well. Great job.

    – Philip.

    • Dwyan Alford says:

      Hey Philip thanks for your passionate and thoughtful comment. I agree with everything you say. It’s why I felt I had to present this because when I read the report I could not believe what I was reading. Thanks again!!

      • Philip says:

        The quiet rumblings of those in power are but whispers because they don’t want to freak out the masses, Perhaps?

        All we ever hear about in Ireland is all about the Famers and their EU free money for farming! Now I see a huge need for that money to help them stay good in business. However, and also, I have NEVER met a poor famer – I don’t think anyone in Ireland has either!

        Reading your article Dwyan, LOL! – I felt the same way. This is TOO IMPORTANT to have it stalled. Our population in 1920 was 2 billion people – 2 bill.

        That was considered to be the perfect amount on the planet thus leaving room for nature.

        Now look at us! hehe, people need to calm down a little because I like the quietness of the country side LOL.

        I often wonder though Dwyan, if they are kite-flying, to test public reactions need for ‘solutions’. It seems whenever we hear something bad then I KNOW – ALWAYS – there is a NEW TAX heading our way, another one.

        Much can be done but I believe the people are leaving TOO MUCH up to our Governments. Yes, that is what they get paid for but they are not keeping up with everything.

        If everyone person in all the small towns, cities, spent tiny money and bought a small tree – went and planted it somewhere, wouldn’t that be amazing?!

        I think we should have a World Tree Day where YOU HAVE TO buy a baby tree and go and plant it! It is time to take personal responsibility for our earth and start to think to leave the place cleaner and livable for our beautiful children and theirs.

        Thanks for the reply Dwyan because too many sites just don’t bother themselves to acknowledge their readers, so, I do appreciate you doing this for sure.

        I have never learned so much on how livestock effect the environment and certainly your post here will make for a good conversation in the future. I am gonna sound SOOOOOO smart – thanks for that Dwyan, LOL!

        – Philip.

  9. Alicia says:

    Wow, thank you for writing such a detailed post about livestock. I am not a vegan, but I do not consume a lot of meat and when I do, I try to buy them from a free range farm instead of those caged livestock and injected with hormones alteration so they grow really fast. I can’t be a full vegan so this is the best I try to save the environment.

    • Dwyan Alford says:

      Hi there Alicia. Thanks for reading the article. I totally understand your choices and it will certainly help alleviate some of the problems addressed here.

      It is of my opinion that it’s really about the excessive use of, and rising demand for, animal products, and not so much about being less cruel. Ultimately the animal will still be killed and used by us. We will still need to breed and kill more animals than we do now – even though its organic. So the effect on the environment will still be a major concern. In fact, if livestock is cage-free, roaming the land freely, eating grass and plants, then livestock would require even more land than it does now. This would exacerbate the problems outlined in this article.

      I understand that a lot of us won’t be willing to go vegan. But we must not cripple the young children because the evidence is overwhelming for a plant-based diet and wholistic approach to life – if we dare to look at it – so let’s give the children the health and nutrition, that will not only heal them, but also our environment. The children are the future.

  10. Christen says:

    I’ve read up a lot on this recently – the impact of livestock on the environment. I 100% agree that there is a clear link to methods of raising and caring for livestock and I myself do usually limit meat consumption to about 1-2x per week. If everyone did this, imagine the change that we would see!

  11. Rabia says:

    Wow Dwayn.

    Congrats on writing such an informative, in-depth educational article on the effects of livestock on our environment. I feel like I am reading a scientific paper on the topic.

    I can see that you are very passionate on this issue and are genuinely concerned about how the animals and our environment are affected.

    I do occasionally eat meat and chicken. I have also been a vegetarian for many years in the past and sometimes prefer to eat food without poultry, just that my body can recover and rebuild itself.

    Like you I have been concerned about the damage we cause to our planets and animals alike. The meat we eat is not healthy as the animals are often injected with growth hormones which then get passed down the food chain.

    I remember the time when we had mad cow disease. It was scary, I am pretty sure what’s been done to these animals has probably worsened much more than before.

    People are greedy and seem to care about increasing their profits than the welfare of the animals or human beings.

    Like you said, this issue is huge and will not be solved overnight. There are health and environmental implications.

    The responsibility lies in all of us as consumers of meat and poultry. Governments alone cannot solve this problem.

    It is up to all of us to take responsibility for our actions and asses the damage we cause to our planet.

    Your article has highlighted one major problem we are facing right now in our planet, the other issue is related to plastic pollution on sea and land. It is completely destroying the marine life.

    Not forgetting our un-unpredictable weather patterns. The earth is getting warmer, the seas levels are rising, as a result of which, we see the consequences of the damages on our television screens yearly.

    It is also ironic, to see that the poor nations of the world are the ones suffering the most.

    I am genuinely concerned about the state of our planet and what we are living behind for the next generation.

    Carry on, with the excellent work you are doing by bringing awareness and educating the public on these important issues. We are all affected whether we like it or not. I will be following in your article.

    • Dwyan Alford says:

      Hello Rabia, thanks for your thoughtful comment. What you said, you said very beautifully. I absolutely agree that the solution is in our hands, the choices we make. Thanks again!

  12. Karin says:

    This is a very volatile topic where I am in central Minnesota! I once told someone that drinking cow’s milk was equated to smoking cigarettes and I was nearly ridden out on a rail!

    That being said, I would speak in favor of the small family farm (of which there are fewer and fewer each year). The small family farm with a modest number of animal units has long been a source of income and sustenance for people since the beginning of time.

    I believe it has been the gradual switch to “corporate” farming that has led to many of these environmental issues that we now face. As the demand grew, so grew the sizes of the herds and the processing of our foods which is also a part of the reason for our physical health issues.

    I recently learned that a cut of beef from one of the big meat producers is filled with water—to Increase the weight when you purchase it at the supermarket—it Is also pumped full of sugar and other “ingredients” to make it more shelf-stable and taste better and—without surprise—to make us fat, sick and nearly dead!

    Growing up on a farm, we butchered our own beef. It was wholesome and not filled with chemicals and water. I never had a problem with my weight or health when I was a kid. But now, later in life, when I purchase most of my food at a grocery store, I am diabetic, overweight and suffer from several illnesses related to the foods I eat!

    It is sad ? because what was once a wholesome market for families has been replaced by a huge corporation that is, in essence, making people sick!

    Thank you for sharing this information. I don’t have a solution, but I think a good step is getting back to the roots of farming and making it possible for small, family farms to thrive again…

    As the saying goes, “Good luck with that!” But we can always try!

  13. Thabo says:

    This is such a great article
    It is so alarming to see that the production of livestock is getting so effected already.
    I can attest to the dangers caused by livestock. At the age of 20 years I got clogged arteries which made me change my diet and focus on a more plant based diet.
    Now I always advice people to eat less animal products.
    Do you think if we all eat plant based foods we would have enough food on planet earth?I am asking because I recently saw a debate on tv about this topic.

    Thanx for such a great article, it is very informative.

    • Dwyan Alford says:

      Hey Thabo thanks for your comment. To answer your question, let’s consider this. Over 50 billion land animals are killed each year for food. Those animals have to be fed. We feed these animals with food and water now. Over 80% of the soybean and over 70% of the corn produced is for livestock feed. The world human population is 7 billion, which is much less than 50 billion. So yes we will be able to feed the world on a plant-based diet even when the world population hits 9 billion in 2050.

  14. I actually study this at university! I it is definitely scary about how much meat we do consume and how fast its getting rid of biodiversity, reducing your supply on water and the GHG emissions its is putting into the atmosphere!
    It is all very scary.
    I loved your post, I learnt a few things I hadn’t learnt at university yet so there you go!
    Thanks for being so informative in such a nice manner, very easy to read even though there is a lot, we all need to know about how the meat industry is effecting our world 🙁

    • Dwyan Alford says:

      Hey Danielle thank you for your comment. I learned so much myself. It is very scary and i hope we can solve these problems and leave a better safer, greener, world for our children.

  15. Heidi says:

    While I have horses, obviously not for meat production, I am crucially aware of their impact on the environment and try my very best to limit it when I can.

    This is a fascinating (and disturbing) report, the figures are truly mind-boggling!

    It is indeed a balancing act, as you say this industry employs 1.3 billion people, some of them the poorest on our planet and I feel they must be considered when we make calls about the environmental impact of our community.

    This is not to say we should do nothing but every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and all our actions have consequences.

    Thanks for a very in-depth and worthwhile blog.

    • Dwyan Alford says:

      Thanks Heidi for your comment. Figures are truly mind boggling. And you are quite right to point out that so many people depend on the industry for their livelihood. It is not an easy issue to address. But something has to give for a solution to emerge.

  16. Zulfaqar says:

    Hey man…great article.

    It’s unbelievable about how much impact the environment has on livestock, and in turn how much that affects us as humans who consume it.

    The old saying goes “you are what you eat”. If we end up eating meat that has “developed” in a dirty environment then we ourselves will end up dirty (diseases and lack of energy etc).

    So much of our food is now processed, it’s no wonder we as a species are suffering more in terms of health and diseases.

    What worries me though is that a lot of people know about this, but they just don’t care enough to do something about it.

    Articles like this, I hope, will help change that.

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