The statistics explained
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says animal agriculture is responsible for 14 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The famous United Nations report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, favours an 18-24 per cent range, while a more recent study by the Worldwatch Institute claims it is a staggering 51 per cent.
The Worldwatch figure was used in the popular documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, an expose into the environmental impact of animal agriculture and the reluctance of governments and green groups to do much about it. That documentary has since come under attack.
Does the discrepancy in figures cast doubt on the science and bolster the claims of those who say Cowspiracy uses an inflated figure to promote a personal (read: vegan) agenda?
Not really, says Associate Professor Andrew McGregor, Acting Head of Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University. Rather, it’s all about what’s included in the measurement.
“The 51 per cent figure differs from the IPCC figure because it includes livestock respiration and assesses methane impacts from a 20-year perspective rather than the standard 100-year perspective,” he explains.
Methane, the primary greenhouse gas from animal agriculture is a short-lived atmospheric gas, meaning the shorter the timescale its impacts are assessed on, the more potent it becomes. Since most studies use a 100-year scale, this means the impact appears lower. But, A/Prof McGregor says, the 100-year standard “is not really that useful for 20-year action plans. Methane's impact is 25 times as potent as CO2 over a 100-year timespan and 72 times in a 20-year time frame.”
Even the lowest greenhouse gas estimate means animal agriculture produces more emissions than all the world’s forms of transportation combined.
Beyond greenhouse emissions
Regardless of how long you think methane lasts in the atmosphere; one thing remains true: animal agriculture is bad for the planet. Even the lowest estimate means it produces more emissions than all the world’s forms of transportation combined.
But greenhouse gases are not the only way intensive or “factory” farming is damaging the environment.
“Animal agriculture is listed as one of the top two to three drivers of almost every major environmental issue you can think of,” A/Prof McGregor says. Extending over 30 per cent of the planet’s non-ice surface, it is a “key driver of deforestation, biodiversity loss, land and water degradation as well as climate change.”
Indeed, the more you read about the environmental impact of factory farming, the more damage you will encounter.
Dr Stuart White is director of the Centre for Sustainable Futures at UTS, where he has been researching phosphorus use in animal agriculture. Phosphorus is critical for farming, and it is an element that cannot be manufactured synthetically.
“We can’t get enough phosphorus to feed the entire world at the level of the western industrialised country diet,” says Dr White. “The greenhouse issue, water issues…health, all of those factors lead one to question our animal production trajectory,but phosphorus is one that is pretty fundamental.”
We are on track to see phosphorus production peak by the middle of the century. And, with 75 per cent of all phosphorus reserves owned by the Moroccan royal family, the implications for further geopolitical instability in an already tumultuous region are enormous.
So why aren’t we doing much about this?
Clearly the intensive farming model is not sustainable. And yet with the global population tipped to reach 9 billion by 2050, animal consumption is only going to increase.
“Meat production, globally, is an environmental disaster now,” Ken Cook, president of California’s Environmental Working Group, says in the HBO Vice documentary Meathooked.
“If we try and expand production to reach 9 billion people by 2050, it will be a complete and unthinkable disaster. There isn’t enough land, there isn’t enough water, there isn’t the capacity for the Earth’s atmosphere to absorb all of the CO2 and the methane.”
"There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat."
Similarly, in late 2014, UK think-tank Chatham House warned that time is running out. “Preventing catastrophic warming is dependent on tackling meat and dairy consumption [but while a] lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector,” says Rob Bailey, the report’s lead author, as told to The Guardian.
“There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat,” Bailey explains.
In other words, the discourse around meat consumption is so focused on personal choice, that even full knowledge of its catastrophic effects is not yet enough to propel a global shift.
The personal is problematic
Given all the above, can people care about the environment and eat meat? “Sure,” answers A/Prof McGregor. “In the same way people drive cars and care about the environment. Or fly planes. However, they should consider dropping meat altogether or reducing their consumption dramatically.”
But, as any vegan will tell you, suggesting someone consider cutting down on meat is akin to demanding they stop eating. I asked Clare Mann, a vegan psychologist and Editor in Chief of the digital business magazine Ethical Futures: Conversations that Matter, why the idea of reducing meat consumption inspires such a defensive reaction.
“Eating habits, like all behaviours, are personally, socially and culturally embedded,” she answers. “People resist because of cultural, religious reasons as well as shared myths about the necessity of meat in the diet.”
To that we can add the fierce western concept of the individual as king, a concept that we subscribe to in theory, if not always in practice. Since, for many people the choice of what to eat is one area of their lives they can control, then, “challenging someone to not eat meat is pressing buttons and triggering reactions of reduced freedom, choice and being told what to do,” Mann explains.
But, with a recent study, in The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, estimating that 50 per cent of Australia’s emissions in the next 20 years will be from livestock, just how much sway do we give to personal choice when the consequences are this drastic?
At what point does the government have to act and how?
Not surprisingly, given its prominent role in the economy, Australia’s two major parties are largely silent on the issue of animal agriculture and the environment.
Mehreen Faruqi, environmental spokesperson for the NSW Greens says her party is aware that addressing animal agriculture is vital to reducing emissions as well as other impacts. And, she stresses that it’s not as simple as encouraging people to reduce their own consumption.
“We do need to increase pace and a range of tools that target behaviour change, such as regulation, legislation, incentives/disincentives, education/information, [that] have to be used in conjunction to achieve desired outcomes.”
Faruqi suggests reducing farming subsidies that give a distorted perception of the actual economic costs of animal farming. “Animal products should include the price of externalities to reflect the true cost to the environment and this would influence consumption,” she says.
In other words, without government subsidies, the price of meat would be significantly higher, which in itself would propel people to eat less of it.
Dr Stuart White agrees. “You don’t get changes in personal habits without policy. So the first thing is to say, ‘Are we seeing the real cost of it?’” he says. “In our economy, we are not charging the appropriate price of the impact of animal agriculture.”
Without government subsidies, the price of meat would be significantly higher, which in itself would propel people to eat less of it.
“We already know there are explicit subsidies for animal production, so if we add to that…the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, the embodied cruelty, the water use, and so on. If we add all of those impacts that are not currently monetised, then the price…would rise dramatically.”
The fundamental problem with factory farming, says Tim Cook in Meathooked, is that “our focus is on making the meat as cheap as possible, and as they cut those corners, that’s where we often have environmental catastrophes.”
These corners include cramming animals into small spaces, feeding them antibiotics and other drugs, and breeding them to grow more rapidly than their bodies can handle to enable their slaughter as early as possible. Without all this, then we would by sheer virtue of necessity and availability eat less meat.
Essentially, animal agriculture has been able to do enormous environmental damage because we have never borne its full economic cost. It is too cheap.
Cheap meat is killing the planet, but there is hope
Criticising “cheap” meat isn’t about depriving the poor of food, nor is it a call to merely raise the price of animal products. Rather, it is a necessary critique of the entire industrialised process; of cheaply produced meat that treats animals only as unfeeling commodities.
It is this cheapness that has given rise to the addiction to meat at every meal that is escalating climate change. It is important to note here that for all the talk of veganism being a privileged western diet, intensive animal agriculture itself is a western invention.
The high consumption of meat is an advanced capitalist diet, one that it is being exported all over the globe. As countries grow in wealth, so too does their meat consumption. This in turn increases the pace of production and drives prices down further, creating an endless loop of production and consumption.
If this all seems like a lost cause, Dr White says that the change is already coming. He notes that the consumption of meat in wealthier countries already seems to have plateaued and may soon begin to decrease. The question is, how can we speed up the process?
Criticising “cheap” meat isn’t about depriving the poor of food, nor is it a call to merely raise the price of animal products.
“There needs to be more discussion and debate and that’s already starting,” ventures Dr White. “We’re at the point of, if you like, a deflection point from a very low base and quite rapid change in social awareness and that’s a very interesting time to be in.”
“And we’ve been there before with other issues. Even if we look at something as prosaic as seatbelts or cigarettes. Any of the different campaigns you can see that point, the deflection point off a low base,but it does have to be across the board,” he finishes.
Of course, eliminating factory farming will not on its own be enough to ward off climate change. “Fossil fuels are still the main problem,” A/Prof McGregor notes. “However animal agriculture is a key contributor.”
Because methane has a lower life span than other greenhouse gases, a reduction in animal agriculture will yield changes in the atmosphere much quicker than equivalent reductions in fossil fuel burning as well as open up areas for reforestation.
“As such it is a strategy that yields results quickly... reducing meat is something that can be done easily and quickly while we transition off fossil fuels.”
The consequences for failing to do so are dire. “We are,” says A/Prof McGregor, “literally eating up the planet.”
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Image by Bea Crespo (The Ilustration Room).