Dear Friends and Colleagues
Industrial Meat and Dairy Production Driving Deforestation and Climate Change
The industrial food system is responsible for up to 30% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The most important source within this is meat and dairy consumption, driven primarily by the rich countries. Industrial meat and dairy production accounts for 14.5% of global GHG emissions and is one of the highest contributors to forest loss (Item 1) and climate change (Item 2). Two recent reports address this issue.
Some facts highlighted in the reports include the following:
Both reports agree that moving from industrial production to agroecology will enable farmers, pastoralists and ranchers to capture carbon back into mistreated soils and improve food production over the long term. Among the recommendations they make are the following:
With best wishes,
Third World Network
WHAT'S AT STEAK? THE REAL COST OF MEAT
Global Forest Coalition
This report aims to expose the many ways in which industrial livestock farming is impacting our lives and environment, and to argue that—precisely because it does cause so many problems—transforming the industrial livestock sector should be a key objective not only the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, but also of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Put simply, changing the way we produce meat and dairy products, and how much of them we eat, could provide relatively easy to achieve but far-reaching win-win-win impacts—for people, including farmers and women, for forests and biodiversity, for animals and for our climate.
This is because the industrial livestock industry is a major contributor to forest and biodiversity loss and to climate change, as well as posing a threat to the world’s smallscale food producers, and the availability of healthy and nutritious food for all. For example, the livestock sector as a whole already contributes an estimated 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. So far these impacts have received little attention, but concern is growing. We aim to help turn the spotlight onto this overlooked sector, looking at what’s happening on the ground in five countries: Bolivia, Brazil, India, Paraguay, and Russia.
This is an urgent matter, because livestock production (for grazing and feedcrops) already accounts for the majority of agricultural land use across the world. In anticipation, without corrective measures, global demand for livestock products is expected to increase by 70% by 2050. Demand for meat in developing countries is spiraling, and urbanisation is changing people’s eating habits. This in turn threatens to drive up demand for cropland, and to increase the use of fertilisers, tropical forest loss and greenhouse gas emissions.
Beef is a particular concern. Figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that beef and cattle milk production are the worst offenders as far as climate change is concerned, accounting for 41% and 20% of the livestock sector’s emissions respectively. This is partly because cattle ranching is a significant driver of forest and biodiversity loss, especially in Latin America, where much of the world’s deforestation takes place. It has been estimated that emissions from cattle raising may be responsible for half of all Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Our case studies show that Bolivia and Paraguay are similarly impacted. Another important trend is the fact that small family farms are rapidly giving way to large-scale, factory farms, and this is particularly prevalent in the livestock industry. In Paraguay, for example, the problem of land being grabbed from small farmers and Indigenous Peoples for cattle-ranching and soy production remains a key preoccupation, including because it is systematically undermining the country’s capacity to produce food for local consumption.
In India household backyard poultry production—mostly by women for their own families’ consumption and for additional income—used to be ubiquitous, but has now been almost totally replaced by a vertically integrated industrial model where farmers work under contract with large agribusiness corporations.
Millions of animals are being raised in inhumane, unsanitary and polluting industrial conditions, including in Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs) such as mega-dairies. This intensive approach to livestock is associated with numerous health issues. In many countries animals are treated with hormones and antibiotics to promote growth. The unnecessary use of antibiotics is also leading to drug-resistant bacteria and the spread of untreatable bacterial infections. The industrial production of livestock—in India’s poultry sector for example, and to produce pesticide-sprayed soya in Paraguay—also creates significant public health dangers, and water availability and quality is a particular concern. Overall, consumers eating food products may be consuming a cocktail of pesticides, hormones, parasites and/or bacteria.
Many impacts relating to livestock production are quantity-related as well, so the number of animals is an important factor in the sustainability of any livestock production system. Due to the relatively high ecological footprint of farm animals, smallscale and extensive systems like pastoralism and family farms have significantly less negative environmental and social impacts, and health and animal welfare impacts, than CAFOs and other systems where thousands of animals are farmed. Limiting demand for livestock products like meat and dairy is essential.
Nevertheless governments are seeking to expand industrial agriculture, including by boosting international trade. The inclusion of agriculture in the then newly established World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 was a major coup for large agribusinesses: Bringing agriculture into the WTO meant that WTO members and new applicants had to negotiate to open up their agricultural markets to imports, creating new business opportunities for companies big enough to trade internationally.
Russia demonstrates the policy problems that can arise as a result, because of the conflict created between its WTO obligation to open its markets and its desire to ensure food self-sufficiency. A similar tension is evident in Bolivia, where incoming Brazilian investors have taken advantage of the low cost of land and free trade ‘tariff preferences’ under the Andean Community (CAN).
Governments in countries such as India, Brazil and Paraguay are actively encouraging corporate concentration in the livestock sector. For example, Brazil, has a so-called ‘national champions’ policy which favours large companies who are expected to advance the country’s interests as they prosper. This has put many small slaughterhouses out of business, and made life much harder for small cattle breeders, who have become captive to the big slaughterhouses, who pay them lower prices and grab their profits.
India’s poultry sector exemplifies ‘Tysonisation’: the introduction of a vertical integration model in which the company (originally Tyson in the US) controls all aspects of production. In practice this means that it owns each of its millions of chickens from before they hatch to the day they are slaughtered, taking on contracted farmers to do most of the work and also shoulder most of the risk if things go wrong.
This corporate concentration dynamic is playing out on a global scale now, as industrial agriculture is conducted through ‘global value chains’ that account for some 80% of global trade. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that WTO negotiations failed to stop largescale farms being subsidised in the US and the EU. This has created the double challenge of unsubsidised farmers in developing countries having to compete with products from large industrial farmers elsewhere in the world, who are already operating to economies of scale and supported financially by their governments.
Given the industrial livestock sector’s many negative impacts it is ironic that the livestock sector is promoting the further ‘sustainable intensification’ of its operations as a solution to problems like climate change and hunger. However, a growing body of research shows that the changes proposed cannot possibly counter the predicted scale of demand for meat and dairy products. Similarly, proposals to address livestock emissions through carbon accounting or even carbon markets will fail to address the many social impacts of unsustainable livestock production, and its impacts on water, biodiversity and animal welfare.
These approaches also ignore the very essence of sustainable agriculture: maintaining the balance between producing food, crops, and pasture for grazing, and regenerating soil, preserving ecosystems, and coexisting with forests.
There are many practical alternatives already in existence, including agroecology, agroforestry, traditional pastoralist practices that enhance forest conservation, and the restoration of traditional livestock breeding lands and farming with native breeds. This means that we can rapidly transition to ways of producing and consuming diverse and healthy foods that work for families and communities, create livelihoods and employment, and are in harmony with our environment. Reforming livestock production and consumption has the potential to generate really significant and far reaching benefits for us and for our planet, and with relative ease. With respect to climate change. switching to healthier diets with less meat, combined with a reduction in food waste, and improvements in livestock production, could result in emissions from livestock production almost halving by 2050.
Other measures are needed as well though, to address the many other significant social, environmental, health, and animal welfare problems caused by the corporate take-over of the livestock sector. Fiscal reforms should support sustainable livestock production and consumption. These should include redirecting subsidies and other forms of economic support to more sustainable livestock production methods in line with the Aichi targets of the Convention on Biodiversity. It is particularly important to eliminate perverse legal, fiscal and other incentives for commodity chains like unsustainably produced beef and animal fodder, which are major drivers of forest loss.
Government support for policies that build awareness and capacity in relation to sustainable livestock practices, and facilitate alternative models of production—such as farmer cooperatives and collectives in India—is critical. These should uphold small farmers’ rights, and provide better support for existing and new small-scale food producers, with a specific focus on gender issues.
Reforming other governance and trade practices and policies is also essential. This should include developing and implementing strict legislation prohibiting livestock practices that involve environmental pollution, weak labour standards, increasing the gender gap, land grabbing, health risks and the maltreatment of animals. CAFOs should be prohibited, and livestock related pollution standards, including strict regulations on the use of antibiotics, should be introduced, strengthened and/or effectively enforced.
In general, it is essential that we change the way in which soils and productive resources are being used, recovering land and traditional patterns of land management, with a view to managing agricultural and pasture land judiciously for the benefit of the whole population, distributing productive resources fairly for the primary purpose of food security, food sovereignty and sound nutrition.
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.
Would cutting meat consumption really make a dent in climate change?
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. 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.
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.
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”.
When it comes to cattle, the bias towards industrialisation is made worse by the fact that scientists and policymakers often do not take into account the carbon storing capacity of natural grasslands in their calculations. For example, in its 2013 report on livestock and climate, the FAO admits that it cannot estimate changes in soil carbon stocks under permanent grasslands “because of the lack of global databases and models”. Yet it underscores the fact that the capacity of well-managed grasslands to absorb carbon from the atmosphere can be significant, especially in the tropics where permanent pastures are common and carbon sequestration is high.
Grasslands currently cover a quarter of the earth’s surface and account for two thirds of our agricultural land, so the implications are enormous. Especially if one considers the ecological and climate consequences of ploughing them under to grow feed crops for industrial livestock. Between 2009 and 2015, 21 million hectares of grassland in the US alone were converted to crop production—much of which to feed industrial livestock—releasing enough carbon into the atmosphere to put 670 million extra cars on the road!
The larger issue is that the "emissions intensity" model of calculations, which is now being pushed by meat and dairy companies as the basis for national policies, completely sidesteps the connection between systems of production and levels of consumption, as well as the numerous environmental, social, health and animal welfare benefits of small-scale mixed farming and pastoralism. It favours technical tweaks to the status quo rather than the major shift away from industrial meat and dairy that is urgently needed. Finally, it unfairly places the burden of emissions reduction on small-scale livestock holders in poor countries who bear no responsibility for the climate crisis.
It’s time to take action!
If we wish to make a significant dent in climate change, we have to be clear that industrial meat and dairy are the real problem. While support for small-scale producers and pastoralists to move towards more sustainable methods where needed is important and welcome, the growth of industrial meat and dairy systems needs to be reversed first and foremost. The drive to cut meat and dairy consumption must be directed towards the big offenders: North America and Europe, plus a few countries in Latin America like Brazil. Some governments in these regions are starting to get on board and taking steps to get people to eat less meat, as is China, the country with the fastest growing meat consumption.
One common first step is to revise dietary guidelines to officially call for a reduction in meat consumption, at least red meat. Sometimes this step comes across road blocks from the industry. The US meat industry, for instance, recently spent $3 million lobbying to stop the US government from enacting dietary guidelines that recommended a reduction in meat consumption. The implications of such guidelines would have been that schools, hospitals, prisons, public offices and other work places cut their purchases of red meat, especially as educational campaigns and labelling initiatives roll out to support implementation.
Other governments are looking at a range of fiscal measures they can deploy to raise the price of meat and dairy in a responsible way and deter consumption, as they are doing with sugar, fats, fizzy drinks and tobacco. One measure is to eliminate the reduced value-added tax that many countries apply to meat to keep it artificially cheap. Another is to impose a tax on meat, especially beef. This gets controversial, as some worry it could disproportionately affect lower income households. Another risk is that it could drive people to consume industrial pork and chicken instead of beef, which may lessen climate impacts but would lead to other environmental and health problems.
So people are looking at how to make a socially positive tax, e.g. a differentiated tax just on industrial meat or a tax that is coupled with subsidies or other income redistribution measures to make locally and sustainably produced meat and non-meat alternatives available and affordable, especially in low income communities. Difficult debates over carbon taxes show that these discussions need to be participatory in order to be equitable and effective.
We also have to look at the deeper underlying causes of the overconsumption of cheap industrial meat and dairy. This means addressing the enormous subsidies behind this industry. In 2013, OECD countries dished out US$53 billion to livestock producers, with the EU paying US$731 million to its cattle industry alone. The same year, the US Department of Agriculture paid more than US$500 million to just 62 producers (starting with Tyson Foods) in order to get meat and dairy on school meal trays, compared to just a fraction of that to fruit and vegetable suppliers.
Indeed, almost two thirds of all US farm subsidies go to meat and dairy, much of it through animal feed. Instead of propping up agribusiness, support must be given to farmers to scale back and convert to agroecological livestock production methods as part of a broader shift in public finance and food policy.
Finally, on the trade and marketing side, we urgently need to reverse the push for global meat and dairy “value chains” as enshrined in big trade agreements between major trading blocks. These accords artificially prop up production and consumption by promoting the dumping of cheap meat and dairy into poor countries’ economies. This is not only killing local livelihoods, it is also killing our climate. We need to recognise this and redirect both investment and policy support to local, national and regional markets for sustainably produced livestock.
We can only solve the climate crisis if we take meaningful steps towards agroecology and food sovereignty. This would not only help stabilise our climate in a significant way, it would feed people better, healthier food, and treat animals more humanely. Moving from industrial production to agroecology will let farmers, pastoralists and ranchers capture carbon back into mistreated soils and improve food production over the long term. It will also help herders adapt to climate change. To achieve this, we need bold moves to disincentivise the production and consumption of cheap industrial meat and dairy. We also need to stop trade deals that prop up the massive international trade in meat and dairy products. Instead, small-scale, local and agroecological meat and dairy production and marketing should be supported.
In this process, livestock will once again become integrated into diversified farming systems, while meat and dairy regain their proper place in peoples’ diets. This is the approach that is needed to keep the world liveable for future generations. The task is daunting, but the stakes have never been higher.