A major report released this month details the grave problems being created by the rapidly growing livestock industry. Global meat production has increased threefold in the past thirty years and could double its present level by 2050, according to the report by an international team of scientists and policy experts. The results of this “livestock revolution” are expected to create notable negative impact on human health, the environment and the global economy, the authors conclude. Safe to assume this report wasn’t commissioned by the beef council.
“The livestock industry is massive and growing,” said Harold A. Mooney, co-editor of the two-volume report, Livestock in a Changing Landscape (Island Press). Mooney is a professor of biology and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. “This is the first time that we’ve looked at the social, economic, health and environmental impacts of livestock in an integrated way and presented solutions for reducing the detrimental effects of the industry and enhancing its positive attributes,” he said.
Key findings in the report are staggering:
- More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide and occupy more than one-fourth of the Earth’s land.
- Production of animal feed consumes about one-third of total arable land.
- Livestock production accounts for approximately 40 percent of the global agricultural gross domestic product.
- The livestock sector, including feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
It’s estimated that about 1 billion impoverished people worldwide earn at least some of their income from raising livestock, yet the rapid growth of commercialized industrial livestock has slashed work opportunities for many. In developing countries like India and China, large-scale industrial production has displaced many independent, rural producers.
Human health is also affected by pathogens and harmful substances transmitted by livestock, the authors said. Emerging diseases, such as highly pathogenic avian influenza, are closely linked to changes in the livestock production but are more difficult to trace and combat in the newly globalized marketplace, they said.
The livestock industry is a serious environmental polluter, the authors added, saying that much of the world’s pastureland has been degraded by grazing or feed production, and that many forests have been clear-cut to make way for additional farmland. Feed production also requires intensive use of water, fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels, added co-editor Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Animal waste is another troubling concern. “Because only a third of the nutrients fed to animals are absorbed, animal waste is a leading factor in the pollution of land and water resources, as observed in case studies in China, India, the United States and Denmark,” the authors wrote. Total phosphorous excretions are estimated to be seven to nine times greater than that of humans, with detrimental effects on the environment.
The beef, pork and poultry industries also emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, Steinfeld said, adding that climate-change issues related to livestock remain largely unaddressed. “Without a change in current practices, the intensive increases in projected livestock production systems will double the current environmental burden and will contribute to large-scale ecosystem degradation unless appropriate measures are taken,” he said.
Calculating the true cost of meat production is a daunting task, Mooney added. Consider the piece of ham on your plate, and where it came from before landing in your local market. Consider the amount of land used to raise the pig. Then add in all the land, water and fertilizer used to grow the grain to feed the pig and the associated pollution from that. Finally, consider that while the ham may have come from Denmark, where there are twice as many pigs as people, the grain to feed the animal was likely grown in Brazil, where rainforests are constantly being cleared to grow more soybeans, a major source of pig feed. With all of that in mind, it’s easy to see that a simple piece of ham isn’t really that simple at all…