Each year, over 70 billion animals are raised for human consumption. At any given moment there are more than three times as many farm animals as humans alive on Earth. While the ethical and moral horrors of factory farming are slowly creeping into the mainstream media spotlight, what are the environmental implications of our meat-mad diets? Moreover, to what extent should we hold Big Meat- the meat industry- accountable?

The beginnings of industrial agriculture occurred around the time of the industrial revolution. The discovery that the elements nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are critical for plant growth led to the creation of synthetic fertilisers, which opened the door for intensive agricultural practices. Intensive agriculture refers to the large-scale, intensive production of both crops and animals. Concentrated animal feeding operations, colloquially known as factory farms, are still a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as the 1960s, most animals were kept in small to medium-sized herds in pastures. However, today approximately two-thirds of all agricultural animals around the world are raised in factory farms, while in America, the fourth biggest landmass, around 99% of animals are raised in factory farms. 

The success of these farms is due to our insatiable demand for meat. Over the past 50 years, humanity’s population has doubled, but the amount of meat we eat has tripled. It is estimated that global consumption of meat will have increased by 76% between 2013 and 2050. As it appears that there is no slowing down in the demand for meat, it is worth investigating the effects these farming practices are having on the overall health of our planet. 

Water

Raising livestock is incredibly thirsty work, and water is a resource that the world is short of. By 2025, around 64% of the world’s population are expected to live in water-stressed basins. Consequently, for certain periods each year, these areas will see the demand for water exceeding the available amount, or poor water quality will limit availability. 

Currently, the agricultural industry consumes 70% of global freshwater sources, with more than one-third of that used for raising livestock. To produce one kilogram of beef, over 15 415 litres of water is required. One kilogram of sheep/goat meat requires 8 763 litres and pork requires 5 988 litres/kg. While nuts are the thirstiest crop (9063 litres/kg), vegetables only require 322 litres/kg. 

Intensive animal agriculture is not only draining the planet’s freshwater, but it is also polluting the water that remains. The production of livestock is the single greatest agricultural water polluter. According to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the major sources of water pollution from farms are “animal waste, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilisers and pesticides used for feed crops and sediments from eroded pastures.” The same report estimates that in the US, livestock is responsible for 55% of erosion and sediment, 50% of antibiotic use, and 37% of pesticide use. By compacting the soil they tread on, livestock reduces the amount of water that can be absorbed back into the soil, thus reducing the replenishing effects of rain on the water table. 

The over-fertilising of soil, runoff from improper irrigation systems, and the mismanagement of animal waste all contribute to an excess of nutrients in waterways that accumulate downstream in larger bodies of water and eventually the ocean. These excessive nutrient buildups can cause algae blooms, where algae grow at unprecedented rates and use up all the oxygen in the environment at the expense of other organisms in the ecosystem. Algae blooms are responsible for many of the over 400 ocean dead zones around the world, the largest of which is found in the Arabian Sea, covering over 102 000 sq km. These oceanic dead zones are devoid of life due to the hypoxic conditions. 

Antibiotics and the Potential for Superbugs

Antibiotics are used in animal agriculture for two reasons; firstly to ensure that the animals can survive the conditions they are subjected to in factory farms, and secondly to promote their growth. Pigs who are given growth-promoting antibiotics need 10-15% less feed to reach market weight. Although in 2006 the European Union prohibited the use of growth-promoting antibiotics, an inquiry in 2011 found that 8 500 tonnes of antimicrobial ingredients were distributed throughout 25 countries in the bloc. In many parts of the world, the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is completely unregulated. It is estimated that China administers over 100 000 tonnes of antibiotics to livestock each year, while in America, livestock accounts for nearly 80% of all antibiotic use.

Given that antibiotics are usually administered to livestock through their feed or water, it is almost impossible to ensure that each animal receives the required dosage every time. This presents opportunities for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to develop. This bacteria can be passed to humans via many pathways; through the ingestion of contaminated meat, the use of contaminated soil as fertiliser, or simply blown from the factory farms into the environment. As the production of meat is a global market, it is easy for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to circumnavigate the globe in a matter of days. The World Health Organization stated that superbugs are “notorious globe-trotters.” As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of a global pandemic are long-lasting and unpredictable.

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Land Use and Deforestation

The production of animal products requires extensive land use, often resulting in deforestation for pastoral lands. According to the FAO, 30% of all terrestrial, ice-free land is used for the production of livestock, with 70% of all agricultural land dedicated to the production of livestock, whether that be for feed or pastures. A study on the environmental effects of agriculture and how these effects are perceived by people found that 40% of all harvested crops are used as feed for livestock. If just half of those crops were redirected to countries suffering from severe famine, world hunger could be solved

In Latin America, where cattle ranches are ever-expanding, the increased production of livestock has seen over 70% of the land that was once forested in the Amazon lost to cattle ranches, while feed crops cover a large portion of the remaining land.

In addition to the loss of natural habitats, the overuse of land has seen a decrease in the quality of the soil. The FAO found that 20% of global rangelands and pastures have been degraded by soil erosion, compaction or overgrazing. Drylands are particularly affected, as in these areas, livestock is often the only form of livelihood. Drylands are areas that are characterised by great water scarcity, where rainfall is either limited or only abundant for brief time periods. These areas cover more than 40% of the Earth’s surface. Approximately 73% of rangeland in dry areas have been degraded.

Biodiversity Loss

The planet is currently in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with over 500 terrestrial vertebrate species threatened by extinction. Some scientists believe that this is the greatest mass extinction to occur since the dinosaurs. 

Each day, deforestation can cause the loss of up to 137 species of plants, animals and insects. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 306 of the 825 ecoregions it has identified are threatened by livestock, among other things. In addition, Conservation International has reported that 23 of the 35 global hotspots for biodiversity are threatened by livestock production.   

Agricultural animals now account for over 20% of the total terrestrial animal biomass, but this 20% is comprised mostly of eight species; cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys and ducks. These are the animals most used in intensive agriculture, yet within these domesticated species, there is very little genetic diversity. Due to selective breeding, the livestock industry now relies on a narrow genetic pool for each of the eight intensely farmed species, thus exposing them to increased risks of disease and pests. This creates long-term risks to food security, as these species may be unable to adapt to environmental challenges. 

Climate Change 

Climate change is currently the largest threat to planetary health. With rising sea levels, ever-increasing temperatures, the melting of the polar ice caps, less predictable and more severe weather patterns and shifting ocean currents, climate change is highlighting humanity’s vulnerabilities and is threatening life as we know it. 

Global warming is one facet of climate change and is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Calculating the contribution of livestock to global greenhouse gas emissions is complicated and estimates range from 18% – 51% annually. This range is due to the variability in the basis of measurements used by different studies. Should the production of feed, pesticides and fertilisers be included in the measurement? Should transport emissions be included in measurements? What about deforestation, ploughing and the drainage of peatlands? Or should the measurement only consider the direct emissions from livestock? Irrespective of the answer, it is indisputable that livestock contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions. Even if emissions from livestock are estimated at 18% (as the FAO suggested in their 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow) then livestock is the second biggest polluter, following the electricity industry and greater than the transport industry, which accounts for approximately 13%.  

Scientists have estimated that by 2030 humanity will probably have exceeded the 565 gigaton carbon dioxide limit due to livestock rearing. This limit is the amount of carbon dioxide researchers believe can enter the atmosphere while still having a reasonable hope of remaining below the 2-degree Celsius global warming. 

In addition to releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide, the livestock industry also releases 68% of enterogenic nitrous oxide emissions, 35-40% of global methane and 64% of total ammonia emissions. Nitrous oxide is a gas that can remain in the atmosphere for 150 years and has a 296-fold greater potential for ozone depletion and global warming than carbon dioxide, while methane has a 23-fold greater potential for global warming. Ammonia emissions significantly contribute to acid rain and can cause the acidification of ecosystems. 

Moving Forward

The evidence is clear. Industrialised agriculture is significantly contributing to water shortages and pollution, ocean acidification, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions. All these facets are contributing to climate change and driving the planet ever closer to the brink of collapse. It is time for society to demand accountability and action from large corporations who see animals purely as a commodity and natural resources as expendable. It is time for big meat to pay up.