Animal Farming Is No Longer Sustainable

A new report says livestock farming is no longer sustainable because of increased damage to the environment, and because meat consumption is increasingly tied to serious health risks.

The tough truth about the need to reduce global meat consumption is staring us all in the face. We just need to do something about it.

According to a new report from the RISE Foundation, the world is living on borrowed time when it comes to our food choices. It is time to cut back on milk and meat production worldwide, or risk both the collapse of the agricultural ecosystem and significant environment harm.

The report, “What is the Safe Operating Space for EU livestock?”, from the RISE Foundation and written by principal authors Emeritus Professor Allan Buckwell, Report Director, and DR. Elisabet Nadeu of the RISE Foundation, sends a tough message. This is no longer just about eating healthier, making more efficient use of land and water, or cutting back on damaging methane emissions from livestock. The report says the globe simply will not support animal farming anywhere near on the scale we have now. If nothing is done to change farming priorities, the agricultural industry will contract catastrophically at some time on its own.

As Janez Potocnik, the EU’s former environmental commissioner, says in the preface to the report, “Unless policy makers face up now to the need of the European livestock sector to adjust, and support the sector through that transition, the sector will pay the price of their inactivity. Protecting the status quo is providing a disservice to the sector.”

The statement and the report focus on the countries of the European Union, but they must be considered in the context of the entire world.

The analysis starts with realizing that livestock production currently ties up 80% of the agricultural land on the planet. That land is used for grazing and animal production, with dairy and meat growing as a part of the world’s world diet. This is despite meat providing only 18% of our calories.

Just from health considerations, we are eating way too much meat. Meat consumption, particularly where there are larger quantities of saturated fats, has been tied to cardiovascular disease and weight gain, in particular. Processed meat consumption is even more dangerous, with strong links between cured, smoked, fermented or salted meat and colorectal cancer. Red meat has also been linked to colorectal cancer on its own.

When meat is cooked at high temperatures or cured, carcinogenic compounds such as nitrite and N-nitroso compounds (NOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAS) are produced. It has also been demonstrated that ‘haem’, a compound produced with the NOCs decompose in the bowels, can cause cellular destruction in the bowels. This could be part of the reason that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, found in a 2015 report that eating just 50 grams of processed meat daily by 18%.

In the EU, the focus of the RISE report, people consume 104 grams of protein daily. 58% of that comes from animal protein, and the remaining 42% comes from cereals, vegetables, and pulses. That contrast with global numbers showing only 40% of protein consumed on average daily comes from animal-based sources, while 60% comes from plant-based proteins. Based on protein alone, the World Health Organization recommends an average of 50 grams of daily protein intake. On average, protein is being consumed in the EU at double the recommended rate, and where it comes from – the majority being from animal products – is dangerous.

As noted earlier, the vast use of land and associated water and nutrient supplies by the livestock industry is another concern. As the population rises, the 80% of agricultural land used for livestock is not going to increase significantly, just because there is not much left to expand upon. If plant-based diets were more common, more food could be produced to feed far more people.

Another issue is how much the livestock industry contributes to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to recently analyses, that total mount works out to between 9.4% to 14.5% of all global GHG. That includes direct emissions from the animals themselves, including manure and enteric fermentation. It also counts emissions from feed production used for the animals. Though some might shrug their shoulders and say that range of emissions is “not that much”, livestock GHG is on par with the total direct GHG contribution of transportation of all kinds around the world – 14%.

According to the RISE Report, livestock in the EU produced 51% of all methane emissions and 78% of all N2O for the agricultural sector. Dairy cows and beef cattle produce the majority of those emissions. Dairy cows produce the equivalent of 195 million tons of CO2 emissions annually, and beef cattle a close second runner-up at around the equivalent of 190 million tons of CO2 emissions every year. By comparison, pig production produces just under 80 million equivalent CO2 tons of GHG, and poultry less than 20 million equivalent CO2 tons of GHG.

A further point in the report is that the high use of livestock significantly damages the nutrient content in the soils they graze on, over time. With that lack of nutrients then comes the need for even more land to feed livestock appropriately, which continues to expand the already inefficient use of agricultural land to produce the good necessary to feed the world.

The report also notes that runoff from livestock lands contributes in a major way to water pollution locally, chiefly from fertilizer on the land and excess manure. This also produces increasingly higher rates of nitrogen loading in the waterways and the soil, which itself contributes to further damage to the ecosystem. An analysis done as part of the EU27 findings shown in the report shows that every nation in the EU suffers from at least minor nitrogen overloading. In Ireland, much of Germany and northern Europe, and the northernmost areas of Italy, that overloading was near extreme levels of 80-150 kg/ha in 2005. It is likely far worse today.

According to the report, the combined impact of all these issues is that the agricultural industry – and the consumers who eat its food – need to take drastic action just to avoid damaging the industry itself. Recommendations include major “adjustments” needed to get the agricultural sector into line. If taken, the report’s authors say the agricultural sector could produce 74% less greenhouse gas emissions and nitrate-based fertilizers, a major part of the nitrogen loading problem, could be cut by 60%.

That won’t be easy. As principal report author Allan Buckwell said, this is going to require some “deeply uncomfortable choices” from farmers, policymakers and consumers. He said that, “We’re talking about fewer meat meals, less meat portions, and moving to flexitarian diets without being dogmatic about it. There is a role for softer public health messaging but harder messages are necessary too.” He went on to say that such a major change “requires strong signals from the government so the policy proposal must include measures to discourage consumption of livestock products harmful to public health and the environment.”

These policy issues could include direct taxation on meat-based products with the deliberate intent of cutting public consumption. That is similar to what is already happening in the sugar industry, where certain types of products, notably drinks with added sugar, are being taxed around the world. The idea there, just as with meat, is to decrease consumption.

Shifting from meat to plant-based diets could save the world and the agricultural industry. It might be a bitter pill to swallow, but at least – with it being a plant-based pill – might be a lot healthier for all in the long run.