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The extensive environmental foodprint of the livestock industry

livestocks environment foodprint

Meat & dairy products have a much larger environmental foodprint than a vegan diet. Unknown to most, the livestock industry is the single largest contributor to our worst environmenal challenges, including global warming, water & land degradation and global hunger.

Our growing population and environmental challenges

7,000,000,000 (7bn) people

The world crossed the 7bn mark in Oct 2011. 1 bn people have been added to global population in the last 12 years, and the UN predicts the world will touch the 9 bn mark by 2050.

As human population and consumption continues to grow, the strain on our planet and natural resources keeps increasing. We are already being faced with global warming, shortages & degradation of our land & water resources and global hunger challenges. Unless we act soon to reduce the intensity of our resource consumption soon, the very sustainability of human life beyond the current century is being widely questioned. The essential question really is, what kind of a world do we wish to leave behind for our children & grandchildren?

Popular opinion, both amongst leading environmental organisations and the general public, tend to focus on a few industries with relation to its resource intensity and a focus of change in consumption habit's to reduce our environmental impact.

Common solutions to environmental problems

Transportation: Reduction solutions include advising people to drive less, use smaller more fuel efficient cars, the use of public transport, travel by rail rather than air etc. Technological solutions revolve around vehicles than run on renewable fuels amongst others.

Energy: Reduction solutions including ensuring people switch of lights & fans, use more energy efficient appliances, etc. Technological solutions revolve around renewable energy sources, cleaner energy production and more energy efficient appliances.

Industries: Reduction solutions include carbon emission limits, carbon taxes and stricter environmental laws amongst others. Technological solutions revolve around cleaner and more green manufacturing technologies and practices.

Water: Reduction solutions include using tapped instead of bottled water, using a bucket instead of a shower, reducing water intensity of industries, irrigation amongst others.

The environmental movement is rapidly gaining ground, with more people becoming conscious about the environmental impact of their consumption and making changes at different levels. However what is surprising, is how the industry that causes the maximum damage to the environment at every level (emissions, land & water usage, pollution & global hunger) is mostly ignored by environmental organisations, policy makers and the general public.

Livestock's environmental foodprint

24,000,000,000 (24 billion) animals

On any given day 24 bn animals are artificially kept alive, to produce the meat & dairy products consumed by the 7 bn people on our planet – a little more than 3 animals per person. How resource intensive is it to keep 24 bn animals alive only for human consumption? The answer is startling. In a nutshell, the livestock industry is the leading global cause of all of the most serious environmental issues facing makind today.

Environmental foodprint of livestock industry

As per the United Nations1, the livestock industry is responsible for:

Carbon emissions: the single largest contributor to carbon emissions globally – contributing 38% more emissions than the energy industry, 28% more than transportation and 12.5% more than the industrial sector.

Land: the single largest user of global land resources – using up 70% of global agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet

Water: the single largest user of our freshwater resources – consuming 36% of global usable fresh water resources and accounting for 8% of global human water usage.

Deforestation: the single largest cause of deforestation globally. It is estimated that land cleared for pastures accounts for 70% of the deforestation in the amazon, with land cleared for animal feedstock production accounting for the bulk of the rest.

Pollution (land & water): one of the leading causes of pollution globally, accounting for a disproportionate share of the degradation and pollution of our precious land and freshwater resources.

Hunger: possibly the leading cause of food shortage and hunger globally. Every year 760 mn tons of grains are fed to animals instead of humans – accounting for 36% of all grain produced globally. 

Despite being the leading cause behind our most serious global environmental issues, the livestock industry amazingly manages to escape the attention of public policy makers, environmentalists and the general public. The environmental issues we face today are too significant to be wished away. It is critical for policy makers, environmentalists and the general public to start examining the environmental impact of their diet and look towards solutions towards the same.

By avoiding focusing on solutions around our diet choices, we are ignoring what is possibly the simplest and most far reaching solution to global environmental issues. A global shift away from resource intensive meat & dairy towards a significantly more environmentally friendly plant based diet would result in a significant drop in our carbon emissions, free up vast tracts of valuable land and freshwater resources, help resolve global hunger & malnutrition, reverse deforestation and solve some of our most serious water & land pollution issues.

Dietary solutions to our worst environmental problems

Reducing meat and dairy consumption: Based on personal choices with relation to desired environmental impact – a person could look at replacing one meal in 3 / 4 / 5 with a vegetarian option. Similar to all conservation initiatives, the more meat & dairy we reduce, the greater is the positive impact on our planet.

Vegan lifestyle: Ultimately, when it comes to reducing your environmental footprint, there is no greater initiative that can be taken than a complete shift to a vegan diet (a diet that includes no meat & diary products). Apart from the environmental impact, this is also possibly the single most important change an individual can make to help reduce animal suffering around the world and to improve their own health.

Innovative Foods: 2 major forms of innovative food technologies are taking off which have the potential to completely replace meat & dairy products, without consumers having to make any substantial changes in lifestyle. The first (in more advanced stages) is a rapidly increasing vegetarian meat industry - companies that have started to create dishes that taste & feel similar to meat, but are purely plant based. The second (in earlier stages of development) is the potential to make lab grown meat. The potential of this industry is so high and the issues involved are so critical, that it has attracted investments from the founders of Google, Twitter, Microsoft and Pay Pal.