We need to take bold action over the next decade in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. This includes tackling the greenhouse gas emissions created by food production, including meat and other animal products.
The way we grow our food and raise livestock has changed significantly over the past several decades. Independent, small-scale family farms are increasingly giving way to industrial factory farms.
Factory farms have problems, one of which is their contribution to global climate change.
We need to take bold action over the next decade in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. This includes tackling the greenhouse gas emissions created by food production, including meat and other animal products. The dominant system for producing food animals in the United States – on crowded factory farms – is incompatible with these climate goals, consuming an enormous amount of fossil fuels and generating significant greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that livestock production contributes 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions originating from human activity.
Factory farms are likely to be more polluting than smaller operations:
Factory farms create huge amounts of animal waste. Unlike smaller, more integrated farms that can recycle dry animal manure as fertilizer, factory farms often produce more waste than can be used on the farm. They are more likely to use storage methods that increase greenhouse gas emissions, such as storing liquid manure in lagoons. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that methane emissions from U.S. farms increased by 65 percent between 1990 and 2013, coinciding with the rise in factory farms.
Factory farms usually raise beef cows on grains rather than on pasture. Growing and processing this feed consumes an enormous amount of land and fossil fuels. It also produces significantly fewer calories than using those acres to grow crops for direct human consumption. Additionally, cattle did not evolve to eat grain-heavy diets, which can wreak havoc on their digestive systems. This causes cattle to produce higher levels of methane during digestion than those raised on more natural diets.
Simply switching to chicken or other animal proteins with smaller carbon footprints is not enough. Factory farms raising broiler chickens still emit a huge amount of greenhouse gases and share the same potential to contaminate water and air with other pollutants as factory beef operations.
State and federal policies must be enacted to create a swift transition from factory farms to smaller, more integrated crop and livestock systems. These policies should include aggressive policies to address climate change, including policies to limit the contribution of agriculture to climate change.
By holding our elected officials accountable to create and enforce the right policies, we can replace factory farms with a more sustainable food system that protects people and animals, reduces our climate impact, and revitalizes rural communities across America.
Most environmental/conservation groups are Climate Change deniers. While most organizations are calling climate change the environmental issue of our time, they avoid discussing the contribution of animal agriculture in climate change. It is one of those topics that is avoided in many climate change discussions. We hear about the need to reduce fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy. We are encouraged to drive more efficient vehicles or insulate our homes. We are told to turn down the thermostat in winter.
Most environmental/conservation groups are Climate Change deniers. Specifically, I am talking about the numerous organizations that give lip service to the threat posed by climate change, but don’t even mention to their membership the contribution that livestock production has with regards to rising global temperatures. While most organizations are calling climate change the environmental issue of our time, they avoid discussing the contribution of animal agriculture in climate change.
It is one of those topics that is avoided in any climate change discussions. We hear about the need to reduce fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy. We are encouraged to drive more efficient vehicles or insulate our homes. We are told to turn down the thermostat in winter.
The wheels of business are implacable and totally lacking in compassion. This is a downed cow, being dragged to slaughter. Happy burgers! (Farm Sanctuary, flickr)
Not that these ideas aren’t worthy of action. However, the single easiest and most effective way to reduce one’s personal contribution to global warming is to change one’s diet. Consumption of meat and dairy is one of the biggest contributors to Green House Gas Emissions (GHG) but few organizations are willing to even discuss this problem, much less advocate for a diet change.
Indeed, many groups advocate and promote ranching and animal farming, especially if it’s “local” as if locally produced GHG emissions are better than ones produced far away.
Here’s the problem. Livestock, particularly, cows and other “rumen” animals have bacteria in their guts that assist in the breakdown of grass and other forage. A by-product of this biological decomposition is methane.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and is far more effective at trapping heat than CO2. So, it takes a lot less methane to have a disproportional effect on rising temperature. Methane breaks down over time to CO2, but initially, its ability to trap heat is 100 times more efficient than C02.
This is an important nuance because the time factor affects how you view methane. If you use a 100-year timeline, the ability of methane to trap heat is only approximately 20 times greater than C02 (because much of the methane has been converted to CO2), but if you use a 20-year horizon which is far more meaningful in our current situation, then methane is far more powerful and destructive.
Any number of recent studies have shown that livestock contributes anywhere from 14.5 percent of global GHG emissions (in a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report) up to a World Watch assessment that includes more of the collateral impacts of livestock production estimates that as much as 51% of all GHG emissions are the result of livestock production.
And worse for the environment, many organizations promote “grass fed” beef and dairy as if that somehow negates the environmental impacts of livestock. Ironically, because consumption of grass and other “free range” forage is more difficult for rumen bacteria than converting higher quality forage like corn, silage, or soy into energy, grass-fed beef/dairy cows emit more methane over their lives than CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) produced beef/dairy.
This is not an endorsement of CAFOs, rather it demonstrates that meat/dairy consumption no matter what the source may be, is counter-productive if your goal is to reduce GHG emissions.
Either way what these studies suggest is that eating less beef and dairy is one of the dietary changes that anyone can implement to reduce the personal contribution to climate change. But most environmental organizations while they might be willing to fund campaigns like “keep it on the ground” or advocate for solar panels, refuse to discuss how a meat and dairy diet is destroying the global climate.
Another new study by researchers at Loma Linda University and elsewhere, have concluded that if Americans would eat beans instead of beef, the United States would immediately realize approximately 50 to 75 percent of its GHG reduction targets for the year 2020!
Even better a change in diet would free up a substantial amount of agricultural land for restoration to native vegetation. Nothing destroys more biodiversity than growing crops (for livestock feed) and grazing livestock. Since livestock is an inefficient way of converting solar energy into food, substituting beans for beef would free up 42 percent of U.S. cropland currently under cultivation — a total of 1.65 million square kilometers or more than 400 million square acres, which is approximately 1.6 times the size of the state of California.
Of course, the problem of livestock goes beyond climate change. There are the associated impacts resulting from livestock production. The annual dewatering of western rivers to provide forage (hay, etc.) for cows. The pollution of water from manure. The trampling of soils and riparian areas by cattle hooves. The removal of forage that would otherwise support native wildlife. The killing of predators like wolves, coyotes, and bears to protect domestic animals. The litany of ecological impacts associated with livestock production is long and significant.
Despite the obvious benefits of a change in diet, we have many organizations promoting “sustainable” ranching, predator friendly ranching,” local” dairy farms/ranches or promoting ranching to discourage subdivisions (the condos vs cows debate) while ignoring the much larger problem associated with livestock production. Many “health food” store promote “grass-fed” beef and dairy as if consumption is somehow environmentally beneficial.
It’s time for environmental/conservation groups to stop being climate deniers and begin to advocate for a change in our diets to help combat global climate change. One cannot be serious about climate change and still be a significant consumer of dairy and meat products.
George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.
Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, have expanded to meet the rising global demand for meat, but they also bring concerns about health and climate. Credit: Jeff Vanuga/USDA/Getty Images
Roughly 200 experts in disciplines from nutrition to animal welfare are calling on the World Health Organization to take a more serious look at the impact of industrial livestock production on human health and the climate.
In a letter sent Monday, the group—which includes former New York Timesfood writer Mark Bittman and environmentalist Bill McKibben—appealed to the WHO, asking that its next director-general work “to reduce the size and number of factory farms.” The WHO’s World Health Assembly got underway Monday, and the body will elect a new leader this week.
“As the global health community acknowledges the intertwined nature of planetary and human health, it must also confront the role that factory farming plays in climate change,” the letter says.
The group points to predictions that, without a reduction in meat consumption, agriculture—including livestock production and growing grain to feed livestock—is on track to gobble up half the world’s carbon budget if countries expect to meet the 2050 target of limiting global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. The livestock industry’s contribution to greenhouse gases come from direct sources, including methane emitted from the animals belching and their manure, but also from indirect sources, including land conversion and deforestation linked to growing feed.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that agriculture, including livestock production, is responsible for 9 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) gives a higher global number, estimating that livestock production accounts for about 14.5 percent of all human-caused emissions, or about 7.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide or its warming equivalent.
Sara Place, who works on sustainable beef production for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said Monday that the letter’s points about the impact of the beef industry globally misrepresents the U.S. beef industry, the world’s largest producer.
“In the U.S., direct emissions from beef, in terms of methane emissions, was 1.9 percent of U.S. emissions,” Place said, citing 2014 numbers from the EPA. “Transportation is 25 percent of our emissions. Numbers that are accurate at the global level don’t necessarily apply to the U.S.”
While short on policy recommendations and details, the letter suggests that advocacy groups and academics are going to push the issue at a global level.
“The letter highlights the interconnectedness of health, climate and meat consumption. They’re overlapping issues,” said Sunjatha Bergen, a food and livestock specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This is an issue that the WHO should look at.”
Globally, meat consumption has increased over the past 40 years, particularly in developing countries as incomes have risen, according to the FAO. The letter points to data indicating that factory farms have served this increased demand, especially for poultry and swine—but it says this surge in production has come at a cost to health and the environment.
The group’s primary focus is on the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance, which it calls a “major threat to global health.” The WHO predicts that, globally, the use of antibiotics in animal production is expected to rise 70 percent between 2010 and 2030. Studies have shown that a rise in use of antibiotics that are medically important to humans is contributing to antimicrobial resistance, which can render antibiotics useless even against relatively minor illnesses. If current trends continue, the letter says, drug-resistant bugs could kill up to 9.5 million people a year by 2050.
The group also addresses the link between meat consumption and obesity and illness. Last year, the WHO issued a report that declared consumption of red meat to be “probably carcinogenic to humans” and processed meat to be “carcinogenic to humans.”
“The bottom line is that factory farm production isn’t great for the climate, especially the disproportionate impact of red meat,” Bergen said. “If we reduce demand, that will have a big impact on global warming. Even if they do it for health reasons, that will have a positive impact on the environment.”
Bergen said a conclusion by the WHO wouldn’t lead to any kind of enforceable policy.
“It’s more the moral leadership,” she said. “You take it seriously when they’ve weighed in.”
Bernard Keane did well to summarise the recent Productivity Commission“Regulation of Agriculture” report’s chapter on animal welfare. It’s 61 pages in an 800-page report, but there were a few more relevant chapters that are crucial to understanding how agriculture is and isn’t regulated in Australia. Probably the most important is that on biosecurity, and it demonstrates how easily the Productivity Commission can be led astray.
Keane notes that the commission brings animal welfare within its remit by putting numbers on the costs and benefits to the community of changing the way factories treat animals. I use the word “factories” because well over half of the meat eaten here comes from animals you’d never see in any drive through the Australian bush, except perhaps on the back of trucks. But to economists, animal suffering is of no consequence unless consumers put a monetary value on it.
Even if you choose to play by these commission rules, there are clear costs associated with factory (and traditional) farming of animals that the Commission simply ignores. Swine flu emerged from a mix of human, pig and chicken viruses on factory farms in the US in the late 1990s. It percolated away, picking up little bits of RNA here and there, before starting to kill people en masse in 2009. RNA viruses like influenza are intrinsically less stable and more prone to mutation than DNA viruses.
Swine flu might not have been born here, but it could have been, and the next pandemic influenza may well be. The relative sizes of the US, Australian and Chinese industries mean that such diseases are more likely to emerge there than here. But we all have to pay when it hits our shores.
What’s the cost? In it’s first 12 months swine flu killed 284,000 people globally. Unlike ordinary flu, it didn’t just kill the elderly on the cusp of death anyway, but 80% of its victims were under 65 years old. So we aren’t talking about future risks of events that have never happened. These risks have a real body count. Australia has a good hospital system and did better than many countries, but this influenza still killed an estimated 300 people younger than 65.
Economists aren’t normally shy about putting a value on human deaths, but the commission fails to do so.
How did swine flu emerge? And why is this relevant to commission considerations? To answer that, you need to understand some of the kinds of processes that can yield a new disease.
Here’s a method scientists use to reliably breed killer diseases. Infect a chicken with a harmless flu virus isolated from a waterbird. The chicken’s immune system will begin to kill the viral particles. After a few days, the particles that aren’t dead are the ones that have evaded the chicken’s immune system. Kill the chicken, grind up the lungs and you have something where the virus particles are, on average, a little more dangerous than the initial population you used to infect the chicken. Use this to infect a second chicken. In the time it takes the chicken to mobilise its immune system, the virus will multiply, and after a few days, the particles that are still poor at evading the immune cells will be dead, leaving just the nastiest viral particles. Do this over and over and eventually the virus will start to kill. In one such experiment, by the 24th passage through the 24th batch of chickens, the virus had evolved into a killer that killed 100% of the last batch of chickens.
Once a virus enters a chicken or pig factory, it begins a similar kind of cycling. It may arrive with the pigs or chickens and start off harmless, but it might not stay that way. A factory farm isn’t quite as efficient as a laboratory, but it is still very good at providing excellent conditions to encourage a virus to become deadly. Crowding causes stress and stress depresses immune function. Chickens in a broiler shed live in their feces for their entire lives. One gram of droppings from a chicken infected with bird flu can contain enough virus to infect the entire shed.
As of March this year, 77 countries were infected with 13 strains of avian influenza. Perhaps the next human pandemic will come from one of these, or, more likely, from some currently benign virus that isn’t yet causing enough symptoms to be noticed. Australia has had its own outbreaks of avian influenza in 1976, 1985, 1992, 1995, 1997, and 2010 and 2012.
So the commission chapter on biosecurity is an exercise in inverted logic. The issue isn’t how do we protect factory farms from things that might infect them. These are intrinsically leaky facilities and this is a distributed problem. Distributed problems are, by their nature tough to solve. You could protect one facility with robust safeguards, or perhaps 50, but there are more than 2500 chicken sheds in Australia, each holding 40,000 birds.
The real biosecurity challenge is how to protect people from the new diseases that evolve on factory farms; these are a potent source of totally new viral strains, not simply a conduit. The environment supplies the viral raw material, that’s true, but the factory farming conditions provide the conditions to amplify pathogenicity. This is not a particularly subtle distinction, and it shouldn’t have been missed by the commission.
So how did the PC miss this? There are 34 mentions of “trespass” in the 800-page report, including sub-sections devoted entirely to this topic. In contrast, avian influenza gets two passing references and no sections. So the commission wasted a whole lot of time on a trivial issue and totally missed an issue with literally fatal consequences. Clearly, the bleating and moaning by factory farming bodies about people exposing what goes on behind closed doors has distracted the commission from the main game.
Similarly missing in action is any systematic treatment of food poisoning. It gets a single mention in relation to salmonella from eggs, but what about the 31,000 hospitalisations for food poisoning, the majority of which will have been from animal products, either directly or indirectly when infection is spread to plant materials on cutting boards, knives and the like.
There is a significant part of our health sector that is no more than a hidden subsidy for our animal industries. Again, this is perfectly capable of being analysed and costed within the PC framework, but it wasn’t. Keane highlights the excellent treatment in the commission report of the way in which the animal industries control and subvert any attempt at regulation. But the commission itself has fallen victim to the tricks of the industry in letting them set the agenda on biosecurity and waste so much time on trespass and the resulting ag-gag laws while neglecting much bigger issues.