Although rates of consumption vary greatly from country to country, global meat consumption is on the rise. As their middle classes expand, populous countries like China and India have seen an increased demand for meat products. And although growing concerns about the undeniable health and environmental impacts of meat-heavy diets have led to the meatless Monday trend in the U.S., Americans still eat more meat than almost anyone else in the world—an average of 270.7 pounds per person every year.
Factory farming and the use of pesticides and fertilizers have allowed us to mass-produce more food, including meat, than previously possible. However, this increased productivity comes at a cost. Meat production is incredibly resource intensive and environmentally damaging. And if, as projected, global population reaches 9.6 billion people in 2050, the costs will only grow.
Meat and Resource Consumption
Producing meat is a very inefficient process. Livestock production requires significant inputs of food, water, land, and energy in order to raise, transport, and process the animals. We produce more meat today than ever before—about 300 million tons each year. This increased productivity has been made possible due to factory farming methods and increased feedstock production, which has been enhanced with fertilizers and technological and genetic advances. According to the Worldwatch Institute, global meat production has tripled since the 1970s and has risen by 20 percent just between 2000 and 2010.
Such a high rate of meat production takes a heavy toll on natural resources. Growing sufficient crops to feed livestock requires a tremendous amount of land—land which could be more efficiently used for crops. Taking into account the amount of cropland devoted to feedstock, an estimated 75 percent of the world’s agricultural land goes into meat production. Meat production is also extremely water-intensive; producing one pound of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 liters of water, while producing one pound of wheat requires much less—between 500 and 4,000 liters.
And the resource costs of meat production don’t end with food and water; fossil fuels are also an essential part of the equation. In terms of the fossil fuel energy required to produce animal protein, broilers—that is, chickens raised for consumption—are the most efficient with an energy input to kcal ratio of 4:1. Pork is much less efficient at a ratio of 14:1, and beef is even less efficient; the ratio for energy input to protein is 40:1. For all animal protein production, the average ratio of energy input to protein is 25:1, over 10 times greater than the energy needed to produce one kcal of plant protein. The inefficiencies of meat production are also apparent in the feedstock inputs. For each kilogram of broiler meat produced, 2.3 kilograms of grain is required. One kilogram of beef requires a total of 43 kilograms of grain and forage input.
“There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected population of 9 billion in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in western nations.”
—Malin Falkenmark, Senior Scientific Advisor, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI)
Meat and Pollution
Meat production is not only resource intensive. It is also a source of significant air and water pollution. In order to feed the growing livestock population, the agricultural process has continued to intensify, relying heavily on the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Aside from the depletion of resources necessary to produce these fertilizers, runoff from their use causes extensive environmental damage. This is compounded by the effect of manure runoff from the livestock production system. In China, agriculture is the leading driver of water pollution due to manure and fertilizer runoff, both associated with the industrialized livestock production system. Phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients from this runoff flow into waterways and cause toxic algal blooms. These blooms then deprive areas of oxygen, hurting fish populations and affecting those who rely on fishing for income or for sustenance.
Global meat production is also responsible for a significant fraction of all greenhouse gas emissions—between 7 and 18 percent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide are the primary greenhouse gasses associated with livestock production. This includes direct emissions from enteric fermentation (a digestion process for ruminants such as cattle and sheep) and indirect emissions from the conversion of forests and other vegetated lands into arable land for feed production. Additional greenhouse gas emissions linked to the production process come from the application of chemical fertilizers on crops that feed the livestock, manure management, and international transport. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ruminant livestock produce 80 million metric tons of methane each year, making up 28 percent of all methane gas emissions worldwide.
Toward a Sustainable Future
Meeting global animal protein demands places a heavy burden on our natural resources, thus threatening our ability to feed our rapidly growing global population. As demand for meat increases, so too will associated greenhouse gas emissions. Soil will erode as land is continually used for crop production—most of which is converted into livestock feed—water resources will be strained, and forests will be degraded as agricultural land expands to meet animal protein demands.
According to Vaclav Smil, professor of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba, if everyone in the world ate as much meat as the average person in the Western world, we would need two-thirds more land than we are currently using. As global population grows and demand for animal proteins increases, this shortfall will only grow. Reducing meat consumption and choosing sustainably produced meats could help lighten the burden meat production currently places on our resources. However, in order to feed the more than 9 billion people projected to live on our planet by 2050, we will need to make dramatic changes to our meat production systems, as current practices are simply unsustainable. Stabilizing our population will be vital as we strive to meet global nutritional needs.
Humans will be extinct in 100 years because the planet will be uninhabitable, said the late Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner, one of the leaders in the effort to eradicate smallpox during the 1970s. He blamed overcrowding, denuded resources and climate change.
Fenner’s prediction, made in 2010, is not a sure bet, but he is correct that there is no way emissions reductions will be enough to save us from our trend toward doom. And there doesn’t seem to be any big global rush to reduce emissions, anyway. When the G7 called on Monday for all countries to reduce carbon emissions to zero in the next 85 years, the scientific reaction was unanimous: That’s far too late.
And no possible treaty that emerges from the current United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany, in preparation for November’s United Nations climate conference in Paris, will be sufficient. At this point, lowering emissions is just half the story — the easy half. The harder half will be an aggressive effort to find the technologies needed to reverse the climate apocalypse that has already begun.
For years now, we have heard that we are at a tipping point. Al Gore warned us in An Inconvenient Truth that immediate action was required if we were to prevent global warming. In 2007, Sir David King, former chief scientific advisor to the British government, declared, “Avoiding dangerous climate change is impossible – dangerous climate change is already here. The question is, can we avoid catastrophic climate change?” In the years since, emissions have risen, as have global temperatures. Only two conclusions can be drawn: Either these old warnings were alarmist, or we are already in far bigger trouble than the U.N. claims. Unfortunately, the latter seems to be the case.
Lowering emissions and moving to cleaner energy sources is a necessary step to prevent catastrophic temperature rises. The general target is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Higher increases — like the 5C increase currently projected by 2100 — run the risk of widespread flooding, famine, drought, sea-level rise, mass extinction and, worse, the potential of passing a tipping point (frequently set at 6C) that could render much of the planet uninhabitable and wipe out most species. Even the 2C figure predicts more than a meter’s rise in sea levels by 2100, enough to displace millions. It is no wonder that the Pentagon calls climate change a serious “threat multiplier” and is considering its potential disruptive impact across all its planning.
This is where the U.N. talks fall short — by a mile. The targets proffered by the United States (a 26 percent to 28 percent decrease from 2005 levels by 2025), the European Union (a 40 percent decrease from 1990 levels by 2030) and China (an unspecified emissions peak by 2030) are nowhere near enough to keep us under the 2C target. In 2012, journalist Bill McKibben, in a feature for Rolling Stone, explained much of the math behind the current thinking on global warming. He concluded that the United Nations’ figures were definitely on the rosy side. In particular, McKibben noted that the temperature has already increased 0.8C, and even if we were to stop all carbon-dioxide emissions today, it would increase another 0.8C simply due to the existing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That leaves only a 0.4C buffer before hitting 2C. Even assuming the Paris conference implements everything that’s promised, we will be on track to use up the remaining “carbon budget” — the amount of carbon we can emit without blowing past the 2C threshold — within two to three decades, not even at mid-century.
These emissions-reduction frameworks, it is safe to say, are simply insufficient. By themselves, they only offer a small chance of preventing the earth from becoming mostly uninhabitable – for humans at least — over the next few centuries. For the talks to be more than just a placebo, they need to encompass aggressive plans for climate mitigation, with the assumption that current wishful targets won’t be met.
Apart from coordination to cope with climate-driven crises and associated instability, climate-change leadership needs to encourage and fund the development of technologies to reverse what we are unable to stop doing to our planet. Many of these technologies fall under the rubric of “carbon sequestration” — safely storing carbon rather than emitting it. Riskier strategies, like injecting sulfates into the air to reflect more of the sun’s heat into space and ocean iron fertilization to grow algae to suck in carbon, run a high risk of unintended consequences. Better and safer solutions to reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere don’t yet exist; we need to discover them and regulate them, to avoid the chaos of what economists Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman term “rogue geoengineering” in their book Climate Shock.
None of these approaches are substitutes for emissions reductions. Achieving a carbon-neutral society is a necessary long-term goal regardless of other technological fixes. Technology could buy us the time to get there without our planet burning up. Ultimately, we need a Cold War-level of investment in research into new technologies to mitigate the coming effects of global warming. Without it, the United Nations’ work is a nice gesture, but hardly a meaningful one.
A Costco egg supplier was recently found cramming chickens into tiny cages, forcing birds to live in cages with the decayed, mummified corpses of their dead cage-mates, and engaging in other inhumane practices that are bad for animals and food safety. This is in stark contrast to the happy hens and green fields depicted on egg cartons sold at Costco.
It’s been eight years since Costco indicated publicly that it wanted to eliminate cage confinement of chickens from its supply chain. Let the company know that now is the perfect time to go cage-free!
April 7, 2015 by Donny Moss
In its extensive coverage of the California drought, the New York Times has consistently focused on the cultivation of crops without so much as mentioning animal agriculture, which is far more water intensive.
The glaring omission has sent readers the message that fruits, vegetables and nuts – not beef and dairy – are responsible for the state’s grave water shortage. Following are excerpts from the NY Times over the past three days.
April 6th: “Even as the worst drought in decades ravages California, . . . millions of pounds of thirsty crops like oranges, tomatoes and almonds continue to stream out of the state and onto the nation’s grocery shelves.”
April 5th: “The expansion of almonds, walnuts and other water-guzzling tree and vine crops has come under sharp criticism from some urban Californians.”
April 4th: ”There is likely to be increased pressure on the farms to move away from certain water-intensive crops — like almonds.”
Cultivating crops might be be water intensive, but it uses a fraction of the water consumed in animal agriculture. On California’s factory farms, which house tens of millions of chickens, pigs and cows, water is used not only to hydrate these animals but also to grow their feed and clean the facilities and slaughterhouses where they are raised and killed.
Eliminating animal agriculture, which inefficiently uses of a scarce resource and is altogether unnecessary, would undoubtedly help to curb California’s water shortage.
Following are just a few statistics that demonstrate the impact of animal agriculture on the water supply:
- 2,500 gallons of water are used to produce one pound of beef compared to 100 gallons for a pound of wheat.
- Vegetables use about 11,300 gallons of blue* water per ton. Pork, beef and butter use 121,000, 145,000 and 122,800 gallons per ton respectively. (*Blue water is water stored in lakes, rivers and aquifers.)
- Each day, cows consume 23 gallons of water; humans drink less than one.
- The amount of water needed to produce a gallon of milk is equivalent to one month of showers.
- 132 gallons of water are used every time an animal is slaughtered.
One year ago (March, 2014), the NY Times published an op-ed, Meat Makes the Planet Thirsty, that included statistics comparing the amount of water used for crops and animals. So why is it omitting this vital information in its current coverage of the drought? Could it be a mere oversight? Or is it something more sinister?
Avian flu spread raises some concerns about human infection
At least for now, chickens, turkeys and other fowl are the only direct targets of the avian flu outbreak that has spread across the U.S. Yet scientists say there is a subtype of the virus that may have the potential to become a human pandemic.
The outbreak, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture says has affected 20 states, has resulted in the destruction of at least 6 million chickens and turkeys and has put upward pressure on poultry prices. It has also triggered fears that much worse could be in store.
Daniel Janies, professor of bioinformatics and genomics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who co-authored a paper this year on the spread of an avian influenza, admits it’s “hard to say” whether the flu could make the jump from contained to catastrophe. Still, according to his research, bird flu has the potential to be “highly pathogenic and periodically infect humans.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that human infection, though rare, has been known to happen when people come into contact with an infected bird. Most recently, the H7N9 variant of bird flu infected some people in China, according to the CDC.
“Our work and that of others suggest that H7N9 has pandemic potential,” saids Janies, who is also a research associate in the invertebrate zoology department at the American Museum of Natural History, “but we have not seen human to human transmission yet.”
Bill Gates gets worried
Flu pandemics, which are based on how a disease spreads rather than its death toll, have only occurred four times since the beginning of the 20th century, kicked off by the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed about 50 million people. The most recent was swine flu, which “quickly spread across the United States and around the world” in the spring of 2009, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
This new avian flu subtype, first reported in China in the spring of 2013, hits the human body hard. Federal officials say that many patients experience “severe respiratory illness, with about one-third resulting in a death.” The strain still seems to be outside of the United States, but in January it reached Canada from two people who had been in China.
As of March, more than 640 human cases and 224 deaths from H7N9 flu have been reported globally.
Epidemiologists have been worrying about a global pandemic for years. Just this week, philanthropist and billionaire Bill Gates—whose foundation is involved in disease prevention in developing economies—told Vox he was worried about the potential for a global disease outbreak, although he acknowledged that the probability is “very low.”
In a normal season, human influenza can kill at least 10,000 and result in the hospitalization of more than 200,000 others in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. That translates into an economic cost of $14.9 billion in direct medical costs and lost productivity each year. Some estimate this is just a fraction of the damage a severe flu pandemic could create. One study by the CDC puts the economic impact as high as $166.5 billion.
A recent study in mBio looked at the H5N1 avian flu’s spread in Egypt, and whether it has the potential to become airborne. It found that the virus there “could rapidly adapt to growth in the human airway microenvironment,” but emphasized that such a mutation was not one that “enhanced viral airborne transmission between humans.”
In other words, explained Janies, the H5N1 in Egypt is not adapting to become transmitted between humans. Rather, the bug is doing “a better job of deepening the infection” in humans.
However, the question remains whether scientific inquiry and technology can keep pace with mutating viruses. That area at least offers modest comfort, according to Janies.
“We are much better equipped to see, via genetic sequencers, and communicate, via data sharing over the Internet, on viral spread than in the past,” he said.
T. Colin Campbell PhD, co-author of the extraordinary China Study, and his son Nelson Campbell, are hosting a sneak preview of the new documentary “PlantPure Nation.” They are on a multi-city tour before the movie premieres in July. “PlantPure Nation” was written and produced by the same team that made the acclaimed documentary “Forks Over Knives.”
by Anjali Athavaley, Reuters
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Food distributor Sysco said on Friday that a record U.S. outbreak of avian flu would limit its supply of eggs and chickens that lay them for nine to 18 months, based on information provided to the company by its suppliers.
Sysco is the biggest U.S. food distributor, whose clients include restaurants, hotels and hospitals.
The company is discussing options with its customers, including creating alternative menu items during the period, a Sysco spokesman said in an email.