Overview

Global warming is one of the greatest challenges facing the world and Australia is particularly vulnerable having exceptional sensitivity to climate change ~ Garnaut Climate Change Review

Polar bear emaciated due to climate change

Today humans eat more meat and animal products than ever. This increasing appetite, and increasing population is putting enormous pressure on the environment.  A June 2010 report by the United Nations1 (Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production) identified animal agriculture and food consumption as significant drivers of the environmental pressures and climate change.  They conclude that ‘a substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a worldwide diet change away from animal products1.

A large body of scientific work consistently shows that a system based on plant food agriculture is far less harmful to the environment than the current system which exploits and kills billions of land animals and over 1 trillion fish every year.  The key relevant facts are:

  • A hectare of land can produce up to 29  times more plant based food than meat or other animal products. To learn more on this and about the environmental impacts of eating meat click here.
  • Around the world 150 to 200 species go extinct every day. This rate is 1000 times the natural background rate.  In Australia the species extinction rate is faster than any other country (except America). A major contributing factor to this dramatic situation is the clearing of forests and bush land for pasture and feed crops.
  • Feeding grain and other crops to animals raised for meat is inherently inefficient.  Read more about the efficiency of feeding grain to animals here.
  • The 2006 United Nations report“Livestock’s long shadow”, found that 18% of all man made greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to animal agriculture. A  follow up report3, by Worldwatch Institute, “Livestock and Climate Change” identified many overlooked issues and assumptions in the UN report, and concluded the correct figure is at least 51%.
  • In these reports red meat is highlighted as particularly problematic largely due to the potent greenhouse gas, methane, produced in the digestion process. The other significant factors noted are animal feed production, manure, meat processing, transportation and waste management4.
  • Animal products industries use a disproportionately large amount of our limited fresh water.
  • The standard Australian diet which includes meat, dairy and fish uses more than 3.5 times the water of a plant based diet. Read more about the use of water by animal agriculture here.
  • Dairy is a huge user of fresh water and land.  Dairy farming is the third biggest user of irrigated water in Australian agriculture, after livestock/grains and cotton growing.  To learn more about dairy and the environmental issues click here.
  • The vast majority of meat is from animals raised in factory farms, with the trend towards more and more factory farms.  These farms generate large quantities of waste and toxic pollutants as do slaughterhouses4.
  • A person who follows a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th the oil, 1/13th the water, and 1/18th of the land compared to a meat-lover for their food.  Read more on this and related facts here.
  • We currently produce enough edible grain to easily feed the entire human population. Much of this grain is currently fed to farm animals for a very inefficient conversion to meat. All of this grain is grown on land that could be used to grow food for direct consumption. To learn more about the studies behind these figures click here.
  •  75% of all agricultural land is used for animal products production.
  • More than a third of global calories and half of global protein is used as animal feed. To learn more about the impact of using crops to feed animals click here.
  • Pasture fed beef, sometimes lauded as a more ethical and environmentally friendly meat option appears likely to be no better (or even worse) than factory farmed meat.  The key factors are that animals fed on pasture have slower animal growth rates , produce more  methane and result in more related habitat destruction. Read more about pasture fed versus grain fed debate here.
  • Many believe that beef cattle can be grown on arid land that is not useful for other purposes. While this superficially correct, deeper analysis shows this is not a practical solution. To read more on this topic click here

This section evaluates the environmental issues associated with each of the main animal products.


Links & Resources

vegan resources

World Watch Institute report ‘Is meat sustainable?’

Sustainable table 

UN report – Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production

World Watch Institute report “Livestock and Climate Change”

UN report: “Livestock’s Long Shadow”

Cowspiracy facts page

Australian Dairy facts sustainable table

Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) – Land use: Agriculture and Forestry

Research paper on a vegan agricultural system in Australia

Meateaters guide: Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of food.

 


References

[1] United Nations Environment Program. 2010. Assessing the environmental impacts of consumption and production. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.unep.fr/shared/publications/pdf/DTIx1262xPA-PriorityProductsAndMaterials_Report.pdf

[2] 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.

[3] World Watch Institute. 2009. Livestock and Climate Change. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf.

[4] World Watch Institute. 2016. Is meat sustainable. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.worldwatch.org/node/549. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/549