Playing chicken with conservation & climate change

Climate change is one of the planets biggest challenges. For conservation, it poses serious threats to our biodiversity. It alters habitats, increasing competition for space and resources as well as facilitating the spread of pests and diseases. Climate change is shifting patterns of migration for both people and biodiversity, as resources such as water become increasing scarce.

Anyone who knows anything about climate change, knows what the biggest drivers of (human induced) climate change are, right? With news about burning fossil fuels, the alarming rates of deforestation and the transportation industry, it’s clear who the biggest offenders are. It’s also obvious that CO2 is our greatest enemy, isn’t it? Well, there is another huge driver of climate change that, despite long standing evidence from leading research organisations, seems to be missing from many of the major climate discussions. Ahead of the CoP 21 in December, I wanted to raise something that has recently come to my attention.

3239348976_2c001e9726_zThe livestock sector produces meat as an important source of protein and income, and some one billion people rely on livestock rearing for their livelihood. Yet, the world’s livestock systems place a huge burden on the environment. Still, the impact this sector has on the environment rarely makes the headlines, and some major NGOs that focus on climate change mitigation do not even acknowledge it on their websites.  So, what’s my beef with the livestock industry?

  1. We are losing 100 species a day to deforestation. In the Amazon, 60-70% of this deforestation is for livestock grazing and feed. Whilst palm oil is responsible for 26 million acres of deforestation and has received much attention, the livestock sector is responsible for 136 million acres of deforestation Livestock now covers 45% of the world’s total land surface.
  2. Livestock agriculture is inefficient and the benefits are unequally distributed. The one billion tonnes of cereals produced for animal feed each year could feed an estimated 3.5 billion people. The global population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050. If the whole planet began to consume at the rate of the US, we would need the resources of four planets to sustain us.
  3. Policies to reduce emissions from livestock are not widely implemented. Livestock sector emissions are greater than the entire transportation industry and contribute around 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, including 28% of global Methane (CH4) emissions. Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas, but its global warming potential (GWP)—its warming potency—is around 30 times more powerful than CO2.
  4. The meat and dairy industries combined use one third of worlds fresh water resources. In a world where 783 million people do not have access to clean water, you need 660 gallons (3000 litres) of water to create a single beef burger.
Contrast between forest and agricultural landscapes in Brazil. Credit: CIFOR
Contrast between forest and agricultural landscapes in Brazil. Credit: CIFOR

The mainstream production of livestock is no longer sustainable, but how can we change this? In order to feed a projected 9 billion people in 2050, huge reforms of the agricultural sector and our own consumption patterns will be required. As countries develop, demand for meat and dairy products increase. It is simply not possible for 9 billion people to consume meat at our current rate without completely destroying our forests, water, soil and air.

But I like meat!

The problem is that no one really wants to hear this. The food and agriculture sector is valued at $4.8 trillion. People like to eat meat and limiting peoples meat consumption wouldn’t be a popular political agenda. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to tell the growing middle classes in developing countries that they cannot eat meat as we do in the UK. Equally, I wouldn’t want the task of placing meat quotas on developed countries. Nonetheless, unsustainable livestock farming practices at unsustainable levels needs to stop and substantial changes really are needed.

So what can I do?

On an individual level, we can start by thinking quality, not quantity. Health experts recommend limiting our intake of red meat to 25.5 kg per year. Yet in 2007, a study found that the average American ate 125kg of meat (including poultry) per year. We eat 85kg per year in the UK, meanwhile India consumed 3.2 kg of meat per person (see data). There are huge imbalances in our global consumption patterns and changing consumption behaviour is a major challenge.

beef-shower-2I’m not suggesting we all go vegan, but if you want to do something then eating less processed meat and beef will significantly reduce your water and climate footprint, and potentially improve your health. For example, whilst buying a water efficient shower head may reduce your water consumption from 15 litres a minute to 7 litres a minute, opting against that beef burger saves 3000 litres of water, or enough water for two whole months of showering! In terms of land use, a plant based diet requires eighteen times less land than that of a meat eater.  Check out these excellent resources for fun (yet slightly scary) information on your foods water and carbon footprint.

At a larger scale, agriculture can be made both more economically and environmentally sustainable if we feed animals less food that could feed people. One third of the cereal grains produced globally goes to livestock feed, of which 40% goes to ruminants such as cattle. Cattle can survive on food inedible to people, such as silage or hay. They can also graze in marginal areas leaving more agricultural land to grow food for people.

The scale of the climate change problem can disenfranchise and leave us feeling that our own individual choices have no overall impact on combating climate change. Yet, whilst the livestock sector is neither the sole driver of climate change, nor the worst, we do have the power to make individual changes to our diets that can make a huge difference to our ecological footprint.

Our population is growing and the pressures we are putting on our land, water and biodiversity are increasing with it. Gains in the livestock sectors efficiency can and are being made, but the scale of our consumption and the ways in which livestock are raised must become more sustainable in order to tackle climate change and conserve our natural resources for future generations. I really hope that the CoP21 and related meetings recognise this and push unsustainable levels of livestock farming to the top of their agendas.

For more information on food security and conservation, follow the live streaming of ZSL’s ‘The Future of Food, The Future of Biodiversity’ (21st-22nd October 2015)

 

 

 

 

 

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