Agriculture and Sustainability

Five reasons why livestock production isn’t sustainable

Australian’s eat the most meat out of all the OECD countries eating 93kg per capita each year (OECD, FAO, 2014).

That’s nearly 100kg a year and 250g a day per person. The federal government recommends you eat 65-195g of meat a day. We are eating too much, and it’s simply not sustainable. Why? 

1. Climate Change

This is scary stuff. Climate change is bad, and it’s happening. August 2017 was the second warmest year on record for the last 137 years (NASA, 2017). Already island nations like Tuvalu are quite literally going underwater. Climatologists have predicted multiple situations for the future based on various scenario’s. The best scenario will happen if we stop using fossil fuels and producing greenhouse gases right now. The fourth and worst scenario will happen if we continue the way we are going. Even in the best scenario, average temperatures will still rise by at least 2 degrees Celcius. Two is bad, if temperature’s rise by just two degrees tropical coral reefs will be wiped out, the sea level will continue to rise, Mediterranean areas will have 18% less water, multiple major crops will disappear and natural disasters will increase in frequency and intensity. 

The livestock industry contributes to climate change in two ways. In the use of fossil fuels, producing carbon dioxide and through methane from cattle. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Oragnisation estimate that 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to livestock production (2006). That makes it the most polluting industry worldwide, more than the 14% of total emissions from the entire transport industry (US EPA, 2017). Recent analysis by Goodland and Anhang finds that livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide greeenhouse gas emissions. 37% of total methane emissions are directly from livestock. Methane is 56 times more powerful in warming the earth than carbon dioxide, meaning it sticks around for a whole lot longer and makes things a whole lot hotter (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2014). Additionally the livestock sector accounts for 65% of anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions (mainly from manure) and 64% of anthropogenic ammonia emissions (Joyce.A, Dixon.S, Comfort.J, Hallet.J, 2012). 


Source: IPCC, 2014

2. Energy

Livestock production may not look like an energy intensive industry but a lot more goes into it than you would think. For example, a soy bean crop is grown in South America then flown to the USA to a feedlot where it is fed to cattle, these cattle are then trucked to an abattoir hours away to be processed where they are then packaged and then trucked or flown to a supermarket and kept in giant chillers. Compare that to growing a lettuce which is then trucked or flown directly to a supermarket. An extreme comparison I know, but you get the point. A University of Aberdeen study that found a worldwide adoption of a vegan diet would reduce CO2 emissions by a massive 7.8 gigatonnes. Obviously, the world isn’t going to turn vegan, but a reduction in meat intake is definitely achievable. However by 2030 the world will be eating four times as much meat than they did 50 years earlier so I worry this won’t happen (WHO, 2016). 

The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “It is easier to change a man’s religion than his diet.” It is also, apparently, easier to change the entire world’s energy production. (Hamad, 2014).

3. Water

Globally, there are increasing problems of freshwater shortage, with a projected 64% of the population living in water-stressed areas by the year 2025. The livestock sector is a major contributor to water shortage, being directly responsible for over 8% of global human water use. In Australia the dairy industry is the highest user of irrigated water in the Murray-Darling Basin (Joyce.A, Dixon.S, Comfort.J, Hallet.J, 2012). It takes 15,000L of water to produce 1kg of beef (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2016).  

4. Feed

“We need to grow more food to feed the world”. Bull. We currently have enough food to feed the whole world though most of it is either wasted or fed to livestock. In fact almost half of the food produced worldwide each year is wasted. If we wanted to get the most energy out of the food we already have, we would not feed it to animals. Livestock have an incredibly low Feed Conversion Rate (FCR) meaning the rate at which they convert food to energy is low. For example cattle have a FCR of 10:1 meaning that only 10% of the plant energy that goes in comes out in animal based food – in simpler terms, you need ten pounds of plant biomass to produce one pound of beef (AWFW, 2017). This is just simply inefficient. Though I understand that you could easily eat 500g of beef and not 500g of broccoli – no one is asking you to eat 500g of broccoli, just reduce the amount of meat. People are eating much more than the recommended daily intake of protein and calories. Make more of your plate plant based and include plant based foods with higher calories like whole grains and healthy fats. 

5. Land

The Amazon produces half of the worlds oxygen. Since the 1960s, the cattle herd of the Amazon Basin has increased from 5 million to more than 70-80 million heads.An area the size of 50 football fields is cleared every minute. Around 15% of the Amazon forest has been replaced and around 80% of the deforested areas have been covered by pastures (approximately 900 000 km2) (FAO, 2003).

Worldwide land is cleared to grow food for livestock and for pastures. Take a look at the following figures for the US (Earthsave, 2016):

  • One-half of the Earth’s land mass is grazed by livestock.
  • More than 60% of the world’s rangelands were damaged by overgrazing during the past half century.
  • As much as 85% of rangeland in the western US is being degraded by overgrazing.
  • Overgrazing is by far the most pervasive cause of desertification.
  • 35 pounds of topsoil are lost in the production of one pound of grain-fed beef.
  • 64% of US cropland produces livestock feed.
  • Only 2% of US cropland produces fruits and vegetables.
  • Pounds of edible product that can be produced on an acre of prime land: Apples 20,000; Carrots 30,000; Potatoes 40,000; Tomatoes 50,000; Beef 250

With 75% of all agricultural land used for animal production—and more than a third of global calories and half of global protein inefficiently used as animal feed —the impact of increasing global meat consumption is monumental. (ERL p.2-3). Whether you eat meat or not,  please do little research or watch any of the documentaries surrounding it and make sure you are aware of the implications of your decision. Know that every time you spend a dollar, you are casting a vote and creating demand. Find out why I personally choose a plant based lifestyle here.

Note: I am talking about the worldwide livestock industry in its current state, free range, grass-fed and feedlots. Not meat that is grown in petri dishes. I know that practices are changing and there are new practices that reduce methane, etc, but in reality, we do not have time for that, change needs to happen now, it is already too late.

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