Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to produce feed for livestock. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing ~ Livestock’s Long Shadow –Environmental Issues and Options1
Australia is now the highest consumer per capita of meat (beef, pork, chicken and lamb) in the world. In 2014 this figure was at 90 kg per person per year. Pork and Chicken are the fastest growing and beef and lamb are on the decline. In 2014, the breakdown of meat consumption in Australia was approximately 45% Chicken, 22.5% beef, 22.5 % Pork and 10% lamb2.
According to the 2006 report1 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization called Livestock’s Long Shadow, 18% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions are from animal agriculture. The report also adds that this sector is a major source of land and water degradation. While 18% is a very large proportion, exceeding the emissions from the entire transport sector, according to the more recent follow up report3 by the Worldwatch Institute titled, “Livestock and Climate Change”, the UN report was too conservative. They report the figure is at least 51%. Read the full report here. It is clear from this that any genuine attempt to mitigate the major global threat of climate change, must have animal agriculture and our consumption of animal products at the top of the list.
Grain feeding of cattle (and other animals) is known to be very resource intensive and environmentally destructive. This is due the inefficiency of cycling plant food through animals and that the crops have to be grown and often transported long distances to keep up with the demand. This prompts many to think Australia’s agriculture is less damaging, believing first that our meat is largely pasture fed and secondly that this method of agriculture is more environmentally friendly. The facts suggest otherwise as follows:
- Sheep and cattle emit large amounts of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane as part of their digestion process as well as from their manure. These methane emissions are well known as a major factor that makes meat a highly damaging food choice. Further, ruminants raised on grass emit more methane (triple) than those fed only on grain. Read more about grass-fed livestock here
- Pasture raised animals tend to grow more slowly than grain fed, so take longer to reach slaughter weight (an average of 25 percent slower according to one recent study by Gurian- Sherman in 2011). While this means the cattle are allowed to live a bit longer before being slaughtered, it also means longer duration and higher rate of production of methane. To learn more about the production of methane from pasture raised animals click here.
- Most pasture in Australia is grown on cleared land. Land clearing and resultant habitat destruction is a leading cause of massive and accelerating species extinction. Read more about the environmental impacts of eating meat here.
- Meat claiming to be pasture fed is often from cattle “finished” on grain in feedlots prior to slaughter. Beef from feedlots makes up 40% of beef supply in Australia and up to 80% of beef sold in our supermarkets. In 2009/2010, 4 million grain fed cattle were marketed in Australia, making up 1/3 of the cattle slaughtered. There are up to 700 accredited feedlots in Australia with the larger ones holding up to 40,000 cattle. Read more about the environmental impacts of eating meat here.
- Factory farmed pork and chicken are on the rise and represent the majority of meat consumed in Australia. These are mostly factory farmed animals fed on grain2.
Australian land use reports
The following summarizes the important findings of the Beyond Zero Emissions report4 on land use in Australia, and the draft research study into the practical considerations of a fully vegan agricultural system in Australia , conducted by Vegan Australia:
- Almost 60% of Australia’s entire land area is used to graze animals (beef, sheep and dairy) or to grow grain and fodder that is fed to farmed animals.
- 3% of Australia’s land area is used to grow plant foods for direct human consumption (for both domestic consumption and export).
- While the reports acknowledge that large parts of the continent are arid or semi-arid and generally not considered suitable for cropping it points out that the contribution to food production from these arid areas is very small compared to that from farming in the more fertile areas of eastern and south Western Australia.
- The productive land used for animal grazing and crops in Australia is mostly on land that has been cleared, (originally native forest/habitat). It is noted that regular re-clearing and burning is also often required to maintain this land suitable for grazing. For example, the BZE report notes that in a 20 year period, about 9 million hectares (Mha) of land in Queensland was cleared, 90% of which was to establish pasture for growing livestock.
- Large amounts of fertile land are currently used to grow food crops to feed to animals. Without animal agriculture, this land could be used to grow edible food for direct human consumption.
- Two-thirds of all crop production in Australia for domestic markets, are consumed as animal feed.
- About a quarter of Australian beef cattle are ‘finished’ in feedlots for about 50 – 120 days.
- About 30% of feed for dairy cattle comes from crops.
- Up to 90% of the food given to farmed chickens and pigs are grains.
- Some of the grains fed to animals, such as wheat and barley, are suitable for direct human consumption. Others are grown on land that could be used to grow food crops suitable for direct human consumption.
- Reducing the number of farm animals from our landscape would have a large positive environmental impact, including the re-vegetation of much of the land which provides habitat restoration as well as sequestering carbon dioxide (a potentially good revenue source for farmers).
- Planting alternative crops could be used to generate green manure in place of animal manure.
- Some proponents of animal use, point to the practicality of using “marginal land “for grazing. This is land which cannot be used for other production. This is misleading since this land is only a small minority of land used for grazing in Australia and accordingly produces only a small contribution to food production. Read more about land use for grazing here.
- The Beyond Zero Emissions report4 shows that a zero carbon agricultural sector can be achieved with only a 20% reduction in ruminant animals.With an eventual reduction of 100%, the agriculture would become a clean green positive sector, offsetting emissions from other sectors such as power generation and transport.
Other environmental benefits from reducing animal agriculture, noted in these two reports are:
- Land currently used for both cropping and grazing should be used solely for food crops.
- Land would be freed up for extra forestry for timber logging.
- Expanded carbon farming (sequestering carbon dioxide) by regrowing vegetation and enriching the soil.
- Biochar production from tree crops (charcoal made from plant matter), used to improve soil fertility. The process captures CO2.
- Restoration of rangelands and habitats capturing more CO2, providing native habitat for endangered species, increase biodiversity, etc.
Links & Resources
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. 2006. Livestock’s long shadow. [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.
 OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2015 – Books – OECD iLibrary . 2016. OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2015 – Books – OECD iLibrary . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/agriculture-and-food/oecd-fao-agricultural-outlook-2015_agr_outlook-2015-en
 World Watch Institute. 2009. Livestock and Climate Change. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf.
 Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne. 2014. Zero Carbon Australia LAND USE: AGRICULTURE AND FORESTRY. [ONLINE] Available at: http://media.bze.org.au/lur/BZE%20Zero%20Carbon%20Australia%20Land%20Use%20report.pdf.