Meat and the environment – the facts

FeedlotThe rise of intensive livestock production (factory farming) is causing major environmental damage around the world. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said: “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.”

In June 2007, a UN study, Industrial Livestock Production and Global Health Risks, blamed intensive livestock farming for threats to the environment and human health. It states that: “Concentration of food animal production and the unregulated ‘evolution’ of densely populated livestock production areas not only result in major environmental burdens but also generate significant animal and public health risks.”

In June 2005, the World Bank Agriculture and Rural Development Department published a report, Managing the Livestock Revolution, which said that concentration of livestock “has significant negative effects on the environment, animal and human health, and social equity.”

Climate Change

According to a 2006 United Nations report called Livestock’s Long Shadow, livestock production is responsible for 18 per cent* of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is due to a number of factors, including:

  • Deforestation caused by expansion of pastures and land for feed crops
  • Burning fossil fuel to produce fertilizers used in feed production
  • Maintaining industrial animal production facilities
  • Transporting feed and processing and transporting animal products
  • Methane release from the breakdown of fertilizers and from manure
  • Methane release from enteric fermentation (exhaled by livestock)

In January 2008, Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nation’s Nobel Prize-winning scientific panel on climate change asked the world to “please eat less meat.” Speaking at a press conference in Paris in he said meat was a very carbon intensive commodity.

Despite the major role meat production has in contributing to global warming, it is rarely discussed by governments or non-governmental organizations dealing with climate change.

FAO research has stated that “…it may well be argued that environmental damage by livestock may be significantly reduced by lowering excessive consumption of livestock products among wealthy people.”

The prestigious medical journal The Lancet has called for a 10 per cent cut in meat consumption, which it said would slow global warming considerably.

*The 18% figure has been the subject of scientific debate since it was published in the FAO report, but continues to be referenced by peer-reviewed studies.  Two scientific papers from 2011 illustrate the complexity of the issue and the differences of opinion within the scientific community about the challenges of measuring GHGs from livestock production:

Water pollution

Meat production is a major cause of water pollution. For example, livestock produce large amounts of manure which contaminate rivers and groundwater. (Simon Donner, a scientist at the University of British Columbia has calculated that the world’s livestock produce 308 million kilograms of manure – the weight of the Empire State Building – every two hours.)

Livestock manure contains nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that run off into streams, damaging wetlands and fragile coastal ecosystems. High levels of nitrates in drinking water are associated with blue baby syndrome, a condition which reduces babies’ ability to carry sufficient oxygen in the blood.

This is a global problem but is evident here in B.C. A study released in Feb. 2007 by BC Agriculture Council found “high to very high environmental risk” levels of nitrates in soil on Fraser Valley farms. (Fraser Valley Soil Nutrient Study 2005.)

A multi-agency study released in 2005 found groundwater nitrates in excess of the maximum acceptable concentration for drinking water in several areas in the Fraser Valley. The study stated: “Intensive agricultural land use over the study area appears to remain the primary source of nitrate in the aquifer.” (Nitrate and Coli form Bacteria Distribution in the Abbotsford Aquifer – results of a Groundwater Quality Survey 2004-05, BC Ministry of Environment; Environment Canada; Fraser Health)

Air pollution

Livestock production also contributes to air pollution. In B.C. surplus manure from the Fraser Valley’s 128,000 cattle, 95,500 pigs, 767,000 turkeys and 15.4 million chickens produces large amounts of ammonia. Ammonia can react with other pollutants to form fine particulates, which can be harmful to respiratory health.

Ammonia is a colourless gas with a sharp pungent odour. Agricultural activities such as cattle, pig, and poultry housing, manure spreading and storing, and fertilizer application account for more than three-quarters of ammonia emissions in the Lower Fraser Valley.

Scientific investigations in the Lower Fraser Valley indicate that combined reactions of chemical compounds like ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulphate represent a significant portion of ambient fine particulate. (Metro Vancouver website.)

Why the problem will get worse

Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.

Developing countries, especially China and India are consuming and producing more meat. By 2020, developing countries will consume 107 million metric tons (mmt) more meat and 177 mmt more milk than they did in 1996/1998, dwarfing developed-country increases of 19 mmt for meat and 32 mmt for milk.

Intensive livestock production is growing in Canada, replacing traditional small farms. The 2006 Census of Agriculture found that Canada has 20 per cent fewer cattle farms than it did in 2001, but the average number of cattle and calves is up 13 per cent to 144 per farm. As well, the number of pig farmers has dropped by more than a quarter, but the size of the average operation has grown by 45 per cent, from 902 pigs to 1,308.

B.C.’s Fraser Valley has the highest concentration of very large farms in Canada, with 30 large farms for every square km of farmland available. Between 1991 and 2001 the number of large farms increased by 88 to 146, the biggest increase in Canada during that period. (2001 Agricultural Census – Vista paper).