When we think of the big drivers of climate change, cars and air travel often come to mind. But transformations over the past century in the way food is produced and consumed have resulted in more greenhouse gas emissions than those from transportation. The biggest culprits? Industrial meat and dairy.
The most widely cited official estimate holds that the food system is responsible for up to 30 per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Some of these emissions are due to the growth of packaged and frozen foods, the increased distance foods are shipped and the rise in food waste. But the most important source of food system-related GHG emissions is the escalation of meat and dairy consumption—made possible by the expansion of industrial livestock and chemical-intensive feed crops. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says meat production alone now generates more GHG emissions than all the world’s transport combined.
There is no way the world can continue down this path without wildly overshooting the target, set by governments in Paris last year, of two degrees Celsius by 2050. Cutting meat and dairy consumption is imperative, especially in the US, Europe and other wealthy countries that have subsidised industrial meat and dairy production for decades. These countries’ policies have generated astronomical profits for corporations and eroded the health of their citizens while worsening the climate.
Cutting consumption first requires understanding which meat and dairy production systems are most at fault, and the mechanisms and policies that prop them up. Herders in poor countries and small farmers practising diversified crop and animal production are not the problem. Factory farming—promoted by the industrial meat lobby, corporate subsidies and free trade agreements—is the real climate culprit.
Box 1. Added benefits of reducing meat and dairy consumption
In addition to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, reducing consumption in the countries that currently eat too much meat and dairy could have significant health and social welfare benefits. One study shows that reducing meat consumption as a means of fighting climate change would also cut the risk of colon cancer, heart disease and lung disease worldwide by 34 per cent. Another says it would reduce global mortality by 6 to 10 per cent by 2050, translating into a healthcare cost savings of US$735 billion per year.
Other scientists point out that cutting meat and dairy consumption would cut infectious disease and reduce the emergence of antibiotic resistance, and have secondary effects as well. One model shows that the worldwide adoption of a healthy diet could reduce mitigation costs for the energy sector by more than 50 per cent by 2050. It would also free up land now used for animal feed production and, if combined with other policy measures, could help small farmers access much needed land.
The answer, quite simply, is yes. Decreasing meat and dairy consumption, especially in North America and Europe, would make a significant impact.
Like fossil fuel consumption, unsustainable meat consumption is driven primarily by rich countries. Countries like the US and Australia are the biggest consumers of meat worldwide with some 90 kg per person per year, followed closely by some countries in Latin America and the EU, Canada and Russia. In India it’s a mere 3 kg (see figure 1). Compounding the disparity is the fact that a large share of US and European meat consumption is composed of beef, which emits far more GHG than pork or chicken. North America, the EU and Brazil together account for half of all beef consumed worldwide.
Figure 1. How much meat do people eat around the world?
Emissions from meat are on the rise in China too (already at 58.2 kg per person per year), Vietnam and other countries where fast food restaurants, meat imports and factory farming are rapidly expanding. If these trends continue, world meat consumption will grow by a whopping 76 per cent by 2050, while emissions from dairy, another major source of food sector emissions, will increase by 65 per cent.
As one recent study found, if people simply kept their meat consumption to the World Health Organisation’s recommended guidelines, the world could reduce some 40 per cent of all current greenhouse gas emissions!
The benefits of such a shift would be felt rather quickly. Methane, the major greenhouse gas from livestock, remains in the atmosphere for only ten years, compared to carbon dioxide, which lasts up to 200 years. Methane also traps 28 times more heat than CO2. Consequently, lowering the production of methane can have a relatively quick payoff. In addition, reducing food waste—especially meat—can have an important impact. One third of the food we produce is wasted, generating about 4.4 gigatonnes of GHG emissions each year. Although meat accounts for less than 4 per cent of food waste by weight, it accounts for an astonishing one fifth of the global carbon footprint of food waste.
Factory farms are the problem, not small farmers and herders
Small farmers and pastoralists do not have to lose from a decrease in global meat and dairy consumption. In most of the Global South—where meat and dairy consumption is at sustainable levels—livestock is raised mainly by 630 million small farmers practising low-emissions, mixed farming, plus 200 million herders who often graze their animals in areas where crops cannot be grown. Not only do these production and consumption systems contribute little to climate change, the diversity of their systems creates positive synergies between crops and livestock (such as recycling animal waste and crop residues) and a “multifunctional” use of livestock (for traction, energy, labour, hide and cash). Small-scale livestock production also enhances family nutrition, giving people access to both animal and plant based foods. In these systems, livestock is an essential part of people’s livelihoods, food security and health, as well as an integral part of cultural and religious traditions.
Industrial meat and dairy production, however, sits at the other end of the spectrum. It is based on the highly concentrated production of cheap meat and powdered milk surpluses, which are traded as global commodities. This surplus production is what underpins the unsustainable growth of global consumption—and the spectacular rise of GHG emissions.
Factory farms are the most rapidly growing segment of meat and dairy production. They account for 80 per cent of the growth of global meat and dairy in recent years. Industrial livestock production has grown at twice the annual rate of traditional, mixed farming systems, and at more than six times the annual growth rate of production based on grazing. This is especially the case for pigs and poultry, as factory farms now account for 74 per cent of the world’s total poultry production, 40 per cent of pig meat and 68 per cent of eggs.
Figure 2. Projected increase in meat consumption by region* (kilograms per person)
A lot of the GHG emissions generated by industrial livestock occur indirectly, through the production of feed. In 2010, about one third of all cereals produced went to feed, and the FAO predicts this figure will reach 50 per cent by 2050. More feed means more land under cultivation. An additional 56 million hectares of land were cultivated with soybeans and maize for animal feed in the first decade of the twenty-first century, resulting in the release of copious amounts of carbon dioxide through land use changes and deforestation. In addition, feed crops are usually grown with chemical fertilisers, another powerful source of greenhouse gas emissions. Because of the expansion of factory farms, the production and processing of feed for animals now account for almost half of livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions—and this is expected to grow.
Another major source of GHG emissions from factory farms is manure. The industrialisation of livestock means concentration, i.e. fewer farmers and more animals per farm. The sheer scale of the operations turns manure from a valuable natural fertiliser into a toxic problem. In the US, where this process is very advanced, in the early 1990s less than one tenth of dairy cows were kept in herds of more than 1,000 cows. By 2007, this figure had risen to one third. The same year, feedlots with a capacity of over 16,000 animals raised for beef were handling 60 per cent of US-fed cattle marketing. The same, or worse, is happening in the pig and poultry sectors.
According to the FAO, manure storing and processing are responsible for 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions related to livestock worldwide. A lot of that comes from concentrated animal feeding operations or “CAFOs”. The manure deposited by animals onto pasture produces about six to nine times less volatilised ammonia than surface-applied manure from CAFOs. Alex Turner, a researcher at Harvard University studying manure waste lagoons, found they emit about 35 times more methane than manure that is left in the field. Due to the tremendous growth in factory farming and waste lagoons in the US, overall methane emissions from manure grew by more than two thirds between 1990 and 2012.
Finally, a central but often overlooked climate factor is livestock’s reliance on fossil fuels. According to the FAO, 20 per cent of the emissions generated to produce meat and dairy come from the use of fossil fuels. Most of this comes from factory farming, with its need for animal feed and the fertilisers used to grow it. It also comes from the distribution and retail systems that industrial farming relies on, which demands electricity, heating, transport and refrigeration.
Meat lobby undermines climate action
Factory farming—and our appetite for meat and dairy—are not only deadly for the earth’s climate, they create a wide range of other environmental and social ills. Scientists have been warning of this problem for at least a decade now. But efforts to tackle the issue invariably bump up against aggressive resistance from meat and dairy companies, who have the most to lose from actions that reduce consumption and curb factory farming.
“I have been hit on the head several times for suggesting that people should eat less meat”, says Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 2002 to 2015. “I was the target of several efforts to discredit me”.
The FAO was blasted by the meat industry after it released a report in 2006 putting livestock’s share of global GHG emissions at 18 per cent. “You wouldn’t believe how much we were attacked”, said Samuel Jutzi, director of the animal production and health division of the FAO. The FAO soon buckled under the pressure and agreed to establish a partnership with the meat industry’s main lobby groups to jointly reassess emissions from livestock. Both the partnership’s Steering Committee and its Technical Advisory Groups are dominated by representatives of meat companies, their lobby groups and scientists funded by meat and dairy companies.
As a result of the FAO’s partnership with industry, it has shifted its focus towards a narrow assessment of “emissions intensity”, in which GHG emissions are examined per unit of output (per kg of meat, litre of milk or unit of protein). Measured this way, animals that are intensively raised for maximum output of meat and milk—by a few million farmers mostly in the US, Europe, Brazil, New Zealand and a few other rich countries—have a lower “emissions intensity” than the animals of poor farmers, which are raised for many more uses and without access to the high protein feed, antibiotics, growth promoters and hormones used by intensive livestock industries. Poor farmers are thus said to suffer from an “emissions intensity gap” and should be pushed into what is termed “sustainable intensification” or, more broadly, “climate smart agriculture”.