Monday, September 8, 2008

Foods That Cost the Earth

It is time to throw some facts out about climate change and environmental degradation that most of us simply never get to hear about. While governments focus on petrol-guzzling vehicles and coal-fired power plants our food choices are the driving force warming our planet to extinction.

Animal production is at the heart of almost every environmental catastrophe confronting the planet today - deforestation, spreading deserts, loss of fresh and marine water habitats, air and water pollution, acid rain, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. Here are 10 facts about the destructive nature of animal derived food production to feed your thoughts.

1. Energy Costs

Transportation is a mere drop in the carbon bucket compared with consumption of beef, dairy and fish. Meat production requires 10 to 20 times more energy per edible tonne than grain production. Producing 1kg of beef results in more CO2 emissions than a three-hour drive while leaving all the lights on at home, equivalent to 36.4kg of CO2 released into the atmosphere. The emissions are equivalent to the amount of CO2 released by an average car every 260 km, and the energy consumption is equal to a 100W bulb being left on for 20 days. Farm animals are transported at various points in their life cycle usually over very long distances. Over two-thirds of the energy is spent on producing and moving cattle feed. Half of Australia’s ecological footprint is caused producing sheep and beef exports. Transport related emissions for milk are high due to large milk volumes. Large amounts of energy are used in pasteurisation and production cheese and milk powder. The diary sector is responsible for the second highest CO2 food processing emissions.

Furthermore, animal housing in windowless sheds requires energy for artificial ventilation, conveyor belts and lighting. Slaughterhouses, meat and dairy processing plants packaging, and refrigeration require immense quantities of electricity. In contrast, most vegetables, fruit, grains and tubers require no refrigeration and little or no processing.

Researchers at the University of Chicago found that the average meat-based diet results in an annual production of an extra 1.5 tonnes of CO2 compared to a vegan diet. Cars emit 1.9 to 4.7 tonnes of CO2, and a switch to a hybrid reduces annual CO2 emissions by roughly 1 tonne a year. A simple dietary change is therefore far more powerful than a trade in.

2. Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Livestock production is responsible for 18 % or one fifth of greenhouse-gas emissions (FAO). This includes 9 % of all CO2 emissions, 37 % of methane, and 65 % of nitrous oxide. Altogether, that's more than the emissions caused by transportation.

Methane (CH4) is responsible for 17.3% of climate change as it is 21 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2 over a 1000 year period. The number one source of CH4 worldwide is animal agriculture. CH4 released from 28 million cattle and 100 million sheep in Australia is staggering. Animal belching and flatulence accounts for 18% of total global CH4 emissions, and factory farm waste lagoons account for a further 7% contributing a 4.3% total to climate change. Anaerobic decomposition of livestock manure releases 10 million tonnes of CH4 per year. Pig production contributes the most followed by dairy.

Nitrous Oxide (N2O) accounts for 5.4% of climate change and has risen by 16% since the Industrial Revolution. Atmospheric N2O concentrations are small, but it is 296 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat persisting in the atmosphere for 150 years. Additionally N2O causes destruction of the ozone layer. About 70% of N2O emissions are due use of nitrogen-based fertilisers. N2O forms acid rain damaging crops, forests, lakes and streams.

Ammonia (NH3) is the main cause of atmospheric acidity and is mainly produced by livestock excrement. NH3concentrations have increased by 150% since preindustrial time. Annual emissions form 18.8 million tonnes at the end of 19th century to 56.7 million tonnes by the early 1990s and are projected to rise to 116 million by 2050. Around 50 million tonnes NH3 per year escapes from soils into the atmosphere; 23 million are produced by livestock, 3 million by wild animals and 2 million by humans.

3. Land and Water Costs

30% of all land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production. Livestock demand 70% of the planet's agricultural land. A meat-based diet requires 7 times more land than a plant-based diet. Some 65% of Australia is listed as agricultural land and 95% of that is devoted to meat production. Sheep and cattle grazing occupies 50% of Australia. In the US 90% of land is used to grow food for animals and in the UK, over 80%. In the US, 56 million acres are utilised for hay and grain production fed directly to livestock while only 4 million acres are used to produce plants for human consumption.

Growing crops for farm animals requires nearly half of the US water supply. Meat production uses twice as much water as rice production. In Australia 77% of agricultural water use is spent on pasture for grazing and hay production. 50 000 - 100,000 litres of water are required to produce the 1kg of grain-fed beef. Canon Hill Abattoir uses 580 million L of water per year. Dairy production requires the most amount of water out of all the animal industries in Australia. In Victoria the dairy industry, uses 5.5 times more water than Melbourne city each year. A person on the standard Australian diet (SAD) therefore consumes 4 times as much water as a person on a vegan diet.

4. Pollution, Soil Erosion and Loss of Biodiversity

Animals raised for food produce approximately 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population - 40,000 kilograms per second. Pig farms with 100,000 animals produce the waste of a city of a quarter-million people. Abattoir and piggery effluent is some of the most highly polluted water, requiring extensive treatment before release or reuse. On most farms there are no wastewater treatment systems and the waste runs off to ecosystems killing the wildlife within them. Manure is contaminated with antibiotics, hormones, pesticides and fertilisers adding further pressure on the environment. Leather tanning produces waste containing formaldehyde, mercury, chromium IV and other toxic chemicals.

5. Deforestation

Twenty million hectares of tropical forest in Latin America have been cut down for livestock production since 1970. Central America lost one-third of its forests since the early 1960s, while pasture land has increased by 50%. At least 13% of climate change is due to cutting down or burning of forests, most cleared for agriculture. In Australia beef and wool production account for 92-93% of forest clearance and land degradation. Land clearance impacts weather patterns and is the prime cause of salinity.

6. Desertification

In dry land regions, cattle often overgraze perennial grasses, allowing weeds to proliferate. Weeds lack extensive root systems to guard soil against erosion. Animal grazing causes soil erosion, compaction and acidification, destroys native bio-systems, introduces pest species and attracts parasites. Livestock occupies 2/3 of the global dry land area and the rate of desertification under pasture is 3.2 million hectares per year in contrast with 2.5 from crop land production. Animal hooves seriously damage the top-soil contributing to desertification.

7. Economic Un-sustainability

Animals raised for food in the U.S. consume 90% of the soy crop, 80% of the corn crop, and 70% of its grain. Farm animals consume much more food energy than they provide in food. In 1993 US farm animals were fed 192.7 million tonnes of feed concentrates, to produce 31.2 million tonnes of product resulting in a ratio of 6.2 to 1. In terms of feed utilization, broiler chickens require 5-11kg of feed for every kg of weight gain. Pigs are the least efficient, with a feed to meat ratio of 8.4 to 1. Eggs production has a ratio of 3.8 to 1 whereas cheese 7.9 to 1. About two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock compared with direct grain consumption. It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef. It takes 21 kg of protein fed to a calf to produce 1kg of meat. In other words 10 acres will support 60 people growing soy beans or 2 people growing cattle.

Nitrogen is a limiting nutrient in soils but essential for plant growth. Synthetic fertilisers provide 40% of N supplied to crops. 20-25% of 80 million tonnes of N fertiliser production is used on crops for animal feed. Animal production utilises N only at a 50% efficiency. In mid 1990s livestock excreted 75 million tonnes of N, 12 million tonnes remained in livestock products resulting in the assimilation efficiency of only 14%. The retention of N in animal products ranges from 5-20% of total N intake. Global N efficiency or protein conversion efficiency has been estimated at 20% for pigs, 34% for poultry, 40% for dairy and only 5% for beef.

8. Overfishing and Ocean Destruction

Levels of fish consumption have risen dramatically worldwide since mid century from less than 9 kg/person in 1950 to more than 19kg by 1989. Commercial Fishing has wiped out 90% of the world’s large fish populations in the last 50 years. Current seafood harvest levels are straining marine ecosystems in many areas. 25% of the 200 top marine fish resources were already fully exploited in 1994 and about 35% were in decline. Current fish and seafood species are all predicted to collapse by 2048.

By-catch are all the unwanted animals including finfish, sea turtles, marine mammals and birds. Typically by-catch in commercial fishing is 40-50% of the entire catch - sometimes higher. Around 27 million tonnes of fish are wasted per year because they are the wrong kind or size. Shrimp boats that drag the bottom are the most wasteful, scooping up 10kg of other marine life for every kg of shrimp.

Fishing is no longer a random throw of a line into the ocean; there are 4 million vessels, and sonar targeting deep sea species of fish. Long line fishing consists of 150km of baited hooks, mainly used to catch tuna. The West Atlantic Bluefin Tuna population is critically endangered while the East Atlantic population is endangered. In Australian waters, up to 300,000 birds are killed each year. 17 species of albatross are in danger of extinction, because of the use of long lines.

Purse seine nets in the Eastern Tropical Pacific deliberately target dolphin schools, because tuna swim between them. Since 1959, an estimated 7 million dolphins have been killed, whales and whale sharks also fall victims. Drift nets can stretch over 60km killing enormous amounts of by-catch. An estimated 85% of animals caught in driftnets are thrown back into the sea, dead or dying.

Aquaculture is a net consumer of fish, not a producer. It takes 5 kg of ocean-caught fish to produce 1kg of farmed fish and between 8 and 11kg of fish to produce 1kg of Southern Bluefin Tuna. Even plant feeding fish are fed fish to fatten them up quicker. Fish farms raise millions of fish in netted cages in coastal waters causing extreme faecal contamination, spread of disease, pesticides and invasive species. Fish that escape often breed with wild stocks leading to wild species extinction. At least 140 distinct salmon stocks in British Columbia are already extinct. Fishing also causes some of the highest green house gas emissions as seafood undergoes energy-intensive, refrigerated or frozen, long-distance travel from ocean to market.

9. Overproduction and Overpopulation

The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tonnes in 1961 which rose to 284 million tonnes in 2007. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period and in the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years. Meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050. Between 1970 and 2002, annual per capita meat consumption in developing countries rose from 11kg to 29kg, the comparable figures for developed countries were 65kg and 80kg respectively.

By 1994, the combined weight of the world's 15 billion farm animals surpassed the weight of the human population by over one and a half times. Like us farm animals have needs for food, water, shelter, heating/cooling and transportation putting pressure on the earth's resources. Livestock animals account for 20% of terrestrial animal biomass or all living land creatures. Livestock biomass increased from 428 million tonnes in 1960 to 700 million tonnes in 2000. In United States, farm animal population outweighs human population by a factor of four to one, effectively making the US "population” balloon from 295 million to 1.2 billion.

10. Animal Suffering and World Hunger

Factory farms are horror houses where animals are given the minimal amount of space to live out their miserable lives. Most can’t turn around or lie down. Animals are mutilated by dehorning, de-beaking, tail docking and teeth pulling; all without the use of anaesthetics to ease their pain. The reality is that all animals including fish feel physical pain on a similar level as we do. A dairy cow suffers and cries each year her new born calf is taken away to become veal so we can suck her milk dry.

800 million people on the planet are chronically undernourished or starving to death while the majority of grains and legumes are fed to cattle, pigs and chickens. About 25,000 people die of starvation every day, a person dies every 3.6 seconds, most are children under 5. We grow enough human edible grain to provide 3600 calories per day per person for every person in the world, over 1.5 times the recommended amount. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to feed this food directly to the hungry people?


Eating low on the food chain is a powerful way to reduce your ecological footprint. By eliminating animal products from your diet you are saying NO to global warming, environmental destruction, world hunger and profound animal abuse. Australia can sustain a population of 10 million people eating the standard Australian diet, however it could sustain up to 30 million eating a vegan diet.

Plant based foods are healthy for the body as opposed to animal based foods which are the leading cause of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. A vast number of studies show that most disease can be eliminated through a vegan diet. We don't need to wait for governments to act on climate change; we can’t afford to wait. You can do something, and you can do it now by choosing what is on your plate.


Brad Knickerbocker, Humans' beef with livestock: a warmer planet,

Ewen Callaway, Food miles don't feed climate change - meat does, news service -

Food and the Environment 2008 Focus:

Ian Sample, Meat production 'beefs up emissions -

Mark Bittman, Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler

Steinfeld H., Gerber P., Wassenaar T., Castel V., Rosales M., de Haan C.,
Livestock’s long shadow, Environmental issues and options, FAO, (2006),

Tom Johnston, Study Links Beef Production To Global Warming,

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - Environmental effects of meat production

Vegetarianism and the Environment -

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