By Megan Tardif-Woolgar, Opinions Contributor
Humans are consuming more meat. The climate is changing. Is there a connection?
The beefy fact is that unsustainable agricultural practices used to meet the ever-increasing demand for animal products have been identified as one of the greatest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
According to the 2006 report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the livestock sector alone generates more greenhouse gas emissions (equated to carbon dioxide) than transportation over the entire planet.
First, let’s look at land use. When you eat meat, you require more land to produce your food than a vegetarian who eats no meat, and a vegan who eats no animal products. In fact, it takes an average of 10 grams of vegetable protein to generate one gram of animal protein.
This extra land required to grow this livestock feed-grain, usually soybeans, is often generated from clearing rainforest in Brazil.
According to the FAO, the livestock sector is by far the single largest human-generated user of land, accounting for 70 per cent of all agricultural land and 30 per cent of the land surface of the planet.
Once this land has been deforested, it is stripped of most of its carbon sequestering abilities (the ability to store atmospheric carbon or act as a carbon ‘sink’). Valuable habitat is also lost to species that aren’t soybeans. In addition, livestock production can cause erosion, degraded riparian zones, desertification, sedimentation and nutrient loading of watercourses. All of these issues contribute either directly or indirectly to human-induced climate change.
Poor land use is not the only way livestock racks up the unsustainable points.
The Global Warming Potential (GWP) of a greenhouse gas is a way to quantify how much a specific gas contributes to global warming. The GWP of carbon dioxide, the gas most of us associate with climate change, is one. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the livestock sector accounts for nine per cent of human-related emissions from land use issues.
Let’s compare this to the nitrous oxide that comes from manure. Nitrous oxide has a GWP 296 times that of carbon dioxide, and the livestock sector accounts for 65 per cent of human related nitrous oxide emissions. It also accounts for 37 per cent of the methane (with a GWP 23 times that of carbon dioxide). That’s right: cow burps and farts are playing a role in our changing climate.
While a diet rich in beast-flesh is helping our climate get nice and toasty, livestock is also a huge drain on our fresh water resources. To produce one kilogram of beef, it takes about 43 times more water than producing one kilogram of grain. How? Producing one kilogram of beef requires about 13 kilograms of grain and 30 kilograms of forage (animal feed) – and that grain and forage needs water to grow, and the cows need water to survive. That means less fresh water.
So what can you do to reduce the environmental impacts of livestock?
I am not suggesting that you become a level five vegan: not eating anything that casts a shadow. Small reductions in meat consumption can have a huge impact. For example, if every Canadian replaced chicken with a vegetarian meal once a week for a year, it would equal approximately the same reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as taking 55,000 medium sized cars off the road.
Along with reducing your overall animal product consumption, you can support less environmentally degrading agricultural practices by buying locally produced meat. The farther the meat travels, the more carbon dioxide gets emitted into the atmosphere due to transportation and you can also help out the local economy. Buying organic meat is also helpful since herbicides and pesticides applied to feed can have detrimental effects on the environment.
The world’s population is on the rise. To be able to feed a growing population, we as a society need to look at the best land- and water-use practices so that we are not faced with future shortages. Going vegetarian (if only for one day a week) will allow you to literally put your money where your mouth is, supporting the environment by making informed choices.
Megan Tardif-Woolgar is a member of Campus Action on Food.