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Livestock's foodprint on the environment

Causes: Feedstock consumed by 24 bn animals, and their digestive processes and manure.   

Foodprint: The livestock sector is the single largest contributor to some of our most critical environmental issues including global warming, water & land shortages, global hunger and sustainability. 

As the world population continues to grow (crossing 7bn people in 2011), the strain on natural resources keeps increasing. While many people have started taking initiatives to reduce their environmental footprint, the most far reaching solution to critical environmental challenges is often overlooked.

Environmental foodprint of livestock industry

Unknown to most, the livestock industry is the single largest contributor to all our worst environmental issues. 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. 

Lowering our environment foodprints

Meat & dairy products are much more resource intensive at every level, as compared to plant based foods. Even small shifts in dietary patterns towards a vegetarian / vegan diet can have large positive implications for reductions in carbon emissions, as well freeing up significant land, water & grain resources.

Diet's environment foodprint

  • Carbon foodprint: Most fruits & vegetables have a footprint of less than 0.5 kg of CO2, animal products have a footprint ranging from 2-16 kg of CO2 .
  • Water foodprint: Most plant based foods have a water footprint of between 200 – 800 ltrs / kg, animal products have a water footprint of between 3000 – 15000 ltrs / kg
  • Hunger foodprint: It is estimated that if the world turned vegan, all global hunger and sustainability challenges would be more than addressed

Carbon foodprint of common food items

Data source: Clean Metrics

Water foodprint of common food items

Data source: waterfootprint.org

What if the world turned vegan by 2050?

The United Nations Environment Program, released a report ‘Environment & Food Crisis’, in which they calculated the loss of grains & energy due to the inefficient process of eating proteins indirectly through animals, as compared to direct consumption of plant based proteins. They concluded that in 2050, ''taking the energy value of the meat produced into consideration, the loss of calories by feeding the cereals to animals instead of using the cereals directly as human food represents the annual calorie need for more than 3.5 billion people"

To understand this number better, a global shift to a vegan diet by 2050 would free up enough grains to:

  • take care of all population growth from 2011 to 2050 (i.e. 2 bn people)
  • feed every person hungry today (i.e. 870 mn people)
  • and still have enough grains for another 630 mn people

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).

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 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.

References: 
  1. UN FAO, Livestock's Long Shadow
  2. UN FAO, Livestock in the Balance