Animals have been farmed for some 12,000 years, dragging humankind out of the Stone Age and kick-starting the Neolithic Revolution. During this time, the question of eating meat has, until recently, remained more or less unperturbed in the West. However, in more recent decades, more and more people are beginning to challenge whether or not it is ethical, sustainable or healthy to include meat in our diets. A poll carried out by the Vegan Society and Vegan Life Magazine this year showed that the number of vegans in Britain has increased by more than 360% in the last ten years, and up to 11% of the adult population are now vegetarian.
The motivations to adopt a meat-free diet are often cited as being for health reasons, or concerns for animal welfare and the environmental impact of livestock farming. There is, however, a lot of rebuttal from people who claim that eating meat is necessary for a balanced diet in order to obtain sufficient protein. However, in a world where, according to the FAO, the livestock industry produces 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions (higher than the GHG emissions from cars and planes combined), is there a way livestock can be farmed sustainably? A way that benefits the environment or at least is benign? There has been much debate over this, and many people disagree.
According to the FAO, about 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used from grazing animals. Many people advocate that, when properly managed, livestock can not only have little negative impact, but actually enhance its environment. According to the FAO and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the benefits of livestock farming include:
- Improving the diversity of plants by dispersing seeds with hooves, manure and fur.
- Breaking up the soil and stimulating growth by trampling.
- Building organic matter from animal waste.
- Enhancing mineral availability by increasing nutrient cycling and the amount of nitrogen available to plants.
- Converting useful product resources that would otherwise be wasted.
- Proving livelihood for a large number of people in arid areas and other zones.
According to Allan Savory- a biologist and a farmer, farming animals can help save the planet through a concept he calls “holistic management”. In a recent article in the guardian, Savory explains that grazing livestock can reverse desertification and restore carbon to the soil through carbon sequestration, enhancing its biodiversity and countering climate change.
This is due to the fact that the world’s grassland ecosystems have co-evolved with pre-industrial grazing practices over thousands of years to develop the capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. This is backed up by soil microbiologist Dr Elaine Ingham, who says that the healthy soil that has supported civilisations in the past have been the direct result of the interaction between grazing animals and soil microbiology.
Nevertheless, there are inevitably many people who disagree with these claims and support the idea that, in the whole, livestock grazing is an environmentally detrimental activity. It can cause soil compaction and erosion, decrease the soil fertility and water filtration, as well as causing a loss in organic matter content. The practices of conventional livestock farming cause the soil to become stripped of its nutrients, meaning that farmers often resort to harmful, expensive chemicals to repair it.
The holistic management approach in particular has received its fair share of criticism from skeptics, including George Monbiot, who describes it as a false miracle technique that allows us to reconcile our insatiable demand for meat with the need to protect the living planet. He highlights the lack of scientific rigor and peer-reviewed research in the claims of holistic management, whose proof of success remains largely anecdotal.
Monbiot also refutes Savoy’s claims that livestock grazing can reverse the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as this would require the carbon uptake of all the world’s vegetation tripling. Rather than reversing carbon emissions, it is more likely that livestock reduces carbon storage.
However, the majority of policies and institutions remain for the consumption of meat. In the EU the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan advocates that we need to produce and eat more meat and has designated an extra €15 million more a year of funding to achieve this. Meanwhile, the FAO remain largely protective of the case for livestock grazing, and rather than decreasing the amount of meat we produce and consume, propose a need to ‘identify the policies, institutions and technologies which will enhance the positive and mitigate the negative effects of grazing’. Part of their justification for this is the claim that the meat and dairy industry could reduce its emissions by up to 30% in another guardian article.
But before discussing further problems with livestock farming, I want to discuss the possibility of reducing emissions in the industry itself. Firstly, in order to reach that reduction in the first place would require a huge amount of cooperation on a global scale to increase efficiency and reduce waste. As our recent history of environmental policy and negotiation has shown, we are not all that good at implementing such measures on a global scale, and it remains seemingly impossible to get people to keep to their commitments. Secondly, is 30% enough when we consider that the level of milk and meat consumption is set to increase by 70% before 2050? This means that current emissions from the industry are evidently more likely to sky-rocket rather than show any signs of subsiding.
However, the question of sustainability obviously goes far beyond mere GHG emissions. When taking a holistic approach to sustainability, there are a multitude of other factors to take into account when assessing the sustainability of keeping livestock which ultimately dwarf the assertions that livestock grazing can be beneficial to the soil.
As far as ecological impacts go, it is no secret that livestock farming has had a hugely detrimental impact on deforestation. According to the FAO, since 1950, 200 million hectares of rainforest has been lost due to livestock grazing. This clearly has knock-on effects on biodiversity of these areas, and the corporate stewardship manager for WWF-UK has claimed that about 30% of global biodiversity loss can be attributed to livestock production. Over-grazing has caused huge amounts of desertification in semi-arid and sub-humid zones, rendering what was once fertile farmland into a wasteland. It has caused the depletion of water resources and contributes to the pollution of ecosystems.
Then there are the more social and ethical issues. The livestock industry causes a huge amount of grain crops and plant protein that could be used to feed the world’s hungry people to be instead directed towards feeding livestock farmed for wealthier populations. Animal welfare is another key element to take into account, and conventional animal farming is well known to have terrible impacts on animal quality of life.
To top it all off, there is the question of economic sustainability. The livestock industry relies on huge subsidies in order to make it viable as an activity. This means that small-scale farms are unable to compete with the larger subsidised farms, and are therefore ‘squeezed out’ of their livelihood.
I am skeptical that there will be a large volume of people and corporations out there whose interest is that the livestock industry continues to flourish. Whilst I am not advocating a purist approach of completely banning the consumption of animal products on account of their environmental impacts, I do think that if we want to continue to eat meat and dairy, we need to drastically reduce the amount we consume. Beyond this, we need to make sure that we know the story behind where these products are coming from. It matters how and where the livestock is being farmed. For the moment, I enjoy eating cheese and other dairy products, and I will buy meat occasionally from the local butchers down the road. Whether or not I reduce this further, or completely, as I become more aware about the ramifications of this is yet to be discovered. But given the information that I already know, it is unjustifiable for people to continue eating the quantity and quality of meat that they currently do. The hidden costs of such a diet may become more apparent sooner than we think.