Red and white—and far from green
Environmental cost of producing meat is unsustainable because of industrial farming
The 21st century has been marked by concern about the impact of livestock on the environment, a concern that grew sharper in the wake of the 2006 report by fao, Livestock’s long shadow, which said the livestock industry is directly or indirectly responsible for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions (ghgs) — a figure higher than that for the entire transport sector.
It brought into focus, the role of livestock in environmental degradation by driving deforestation and degradation, agricultural intensification and industrialisation, and as a sector that competes for natural resources.But grabbing attention was its impact on climate change, water and biodiversity. Last year, however,it revised downwards the figure of emissions to 14.5 per cent of ghgs but emphasised that livestock plays an important role in climate change.
The 2013 report, titled Tackling Climate Change through Livestock, says cattle used in both milk production and beef account for the majority of emissions, respectively contributing 41 and 20 per cent of the sector’s emissions.Pig and poultry meat along with eggs add nine and eight per cent respectively. “The strong projected growth of this production will result in higher emission shares and volumes over time,”it warns.Already, global meat production is at a new peak of 308.5 million tonnes in 2013 and is set to rise further with developing countries producing and consuming more meat.
The quest for cheap and plentiful meat has resulted in factory farms where more and more animals are squeezed into smaller lots in cruel and shocking conditions. Such practices have resulted in many of the world’s health pandemics such as the avian flu. “Worldwide, livestock are increasingly raised in cruel, cramped conditions, where animals spend their short lives under artificial light, pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, until the day they are slaughtered,” notes Meat Atlas, a far from edifying report on the state of meat production. The report brought out by Heinrich Boll Stiftung and Friends of the Earth Europe is subtitled Facts and figures about the animals we eat and highlights the problems that arise from a complex set of issues related to prosperity, health and sustainability.
Water usage is one of the gnawing worries. Worldwatch Institute points out that a major strain on the environment is the water-intensive nature of meat production, especially beef. It calculates that an estimated 15,000 litres is needed for every kilogram of beef compared with 3,400 litres for rice, 3,300 litres for eggs and 255 litres for a kg of potatoes.
At the root of the problem is the transformation of production systems. The small farmer and the local butcher shop are now a distant memory in the developed world where ruthless efficiency is the order of the day as consolidation of the meat industry reaches epic proportions.For instance,in the US,feedlots for 100,000 head of cattle are now in operation. Such staggering economies of scale are necessary to bring down costs in an industry where profit margins are thin.
To highlight the scale of operations, Meat Atlas gives the example of jbs sa, a beef company based in Brazil, which is the world’s top food and beverage company with sales of $38.7 billion dollars in 2012. A relatively unknown name,jbs’s has global capacities to slaughter 85,000 head of cattle, 70,000 pigs, and 12 million birds daily. This meat is distributed in 150 countries as soon as the carcasses are “disassembled”.
But in Asia and Africa,it is completely the reverse. Small farmers are the backbone of the meat industry and their methods of production do not damage the environment because ruminants are grazed on pasture which binds their emissions into the soil.But change is taking place—in chicken production in India and pork in China where factory methods are becoming the norm. For those who dream of a meatfree world,it is important to remember that livestock production accounts for 1.4 percent of the world’s gdp and provides livelihood to 1.3 billion people,most of whom (987 million) are the poor.
Full story on www.downtoearth.org.in