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Livestock’s Long Shadow by David Shaw

Waste lagoon, USDA photo

Editor’s note: David Shaw, a participant in the blog project by Professor Simran Sethi’s Media and the Environment course at the University of Kansas, examines the global impact of livestock production. This post was originally published to the course blog on Tuesday, March 15, 2008.

Recently, I discovered a report from 2006, entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, which is an assessment of global livestock’s impacts on the environment. The report was produced by the Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative. This is not an animal rights group, or a band of hippie vegans, but rather a sub-committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

I’m well aware of many of the report’s findings, but there is much in the report that I never knew. It’s troubling that livestock is rarely addressed by leading environmentalists and environmental groups. Especially because, as the report states, “the livestock sector emerges as one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale from local to global.”

Based on recent posts about the impact of food on the environment, I highly recommend at least skimming through the report. Here are a few highlights I’ve taken directly from the report’s executive summary:
(photo: USDA. Waste lagoon at a hog farm in North Carolina)


LAND:
– Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agriculture land and 30% of the land surface on the planet.
– 70% of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures (in other words, livestock is the biggest contributor to Amazon rain forest loss)

ATMOSPHERE AND CLIMATE:
-Livestock is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (higher than transportation)
– Livestock emits 37% of anthropogenic (resulting from human activity) methane, which has 23x the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2
– Livestock emits 65% of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, which has 296x the GWP of CO2
– Livestock is responsible for 64% of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems.
Waste Laggon at NC hog farm

WATER:
– Livestock accounts for over 8% of global human water use
– Livestock is probably the largest source of water pollution
– In the US alone, livestock is responsible for an estimated 55% of erosion and sediment, 33% of pesticide use, and 50% of antibiotic use

BIODIVERSITY:
– Livestock now account for 20% of the total animal biomass, and 30% of the earth’s land surface they now inhabit was once habitat for wildlife
– Livestock may be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity (due to deforestation), as well as one of the leading drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas and facilitation of invasions by alien species.

The report details many more facts about the negative environmental impacts of livestock. It concludes that if, as predicted, the production of meat will double from now until 2050, the impact per unit of output must be cut in half, simply to maintain current levels of environmental damage caused by livestock. Recommendations for reaching this goal include a sizable reduction in meat consumption from those in developed nations.

If awareness of this issue does not move from the fringes and into a front and center issue for the environmental movement, it is difficult to think the problems will not become significantly worse. This isn’t an opinion, it is a fact. Yet, one of the simplest things an individual can do to have a personal impact is reduce his/her meat consumption.

The sooner people overcome their belief that a vegetarian diet is radical or extreme, but instead is a very positive step toward improving the health of themselves and the planet, and at least reduce their meat consumption, the sooner the problems associated with livestock can be seriously addressed and overcome.

– David

2 comments
  1. Bea Elliott

    Livestock’s Long Shadow – complimented with Mark Bittman’s Washington Post Article: The Rethinking the Gas Guzzler are both compeling environmental arguments against the animal food industries….

    I can only speak for myself, but the physical health (and ethical) benefits of being vegetarian/vegan convinced me years ago that “meat” just wasn’t for me.

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