Polluting the environment
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, reports that the UN’s livestock production accounts for 18% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The livestock sector is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”. Livestock production, mostly factory farming, is expected to double across the globe by 2050.
How livestock production contributes to 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions
Source: McMichael et al. (2007) Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health. The Lancet, 370(9594), 1253-1263
In addition, 64% of ammonia emissions originate in livestock production and contribute to air, soil and water pollution, acid rain and damage to the ozone. The US Environmental Protection Agency considers the key factors in growth of nitrous oxide and methane emissions to be “the growth in livestock populations… and the trend toward larger, more commercialised livestock management operations.”
One-third of the world’s total cultivable land is dedicated to growing cereal and soya to feed livestock, while a further 7% is used for grazing animals. 97% of the world’s soya beans and 60% of its maize and barley are grown for livestock feed.
Much of this land is acquired by destroying forests; thus, removing the earth’s natural CO2 sinks, and significantly contributing to global warming and loss of biodiversity. Between 2004 and 2005 around 1.2 million hectares of rainforest were cut down as a result of soya expansion, almost entirely for animal feed and livestock pastures.
In Latin America the land devoted to soya crops doubled between 1994 and 2004, and deforestation, particularly of the Amazon rainforest, now accounts for around 75% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The Atlantic Rainforest (extending from Brazil’s Atlantic coast, inland to Paraguay and into Argentina) is one of the worlds most biodiverse ecosystems and now covers 7% of its original area. Soya expansion into this area could destroy another 1.5 million hectares by 2020.
Soya cultivation is intensive and depletes the soils nutrients. Water supplies in soya producing areas are contaminated with mineral fertilizers and pesticide residues.
The soils found on soya plantations are exposed and vulnerable to erosion. Brazil loses 55 millions tonnes of soil through erosion each year.
Europe imports 18 million tonnes of soya beans and meal from Brazil annually. Three US-based agricultural commodities giants – Cargill, ADM and Bunge – are responsible for about 60% of the total financing of soya production in Brazil. Together, these three companies control more than 75% of the soya-crushing capacity in Europe that supplies soya meal and oil to the animal feed market fuelling Europe’s intensive meat and dairy production.
Genetically modified soya accounts for 98%  of the soya harvest for Argentina and 90% for Paraguay. Much is grown from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM seed for use with Roundup herbicide, prompting growers to use even more intensive methods to combat herbicide tolerant weeds.
Around 9% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are from livestock. Animals’ digestive systems and their manure create 37% of the world’s atmospheric methane emissions from human activity. Animal manure and the mineral fertiliser used to grow livestock feed are responsible for 65% of all atmospheric nitrous oxide emissions from human activity. A factory farm with 5,000 pigs produces about 25 tons of raw faecal waste every day. In the US and much of Europe this is disposed of in huge open lagoons or sprayed directly onto fields.
In the UK effluent is generally enclosed in tanks with controls on how it is used on the land. Denmark and the Netherlands also have tighter regulations than the rest of Europe.
In most factory systems the pigs are closely confined in buildings with slatted floors, which allow their faeces to drop through to collect on concrete slabs below. From there, the manure, containing high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, is pumped into nearby open-air lagoons or tanks. In Europe and the US, excess faeces may be sprayed onto nearby fields as well. This has polluted the environment and harmed both human and ecological health.
Lagoons can leak or overflow, releasing tens of thousands of gallons nitrates and phosphorus into rivers, streams and coastal waters each year, killing fish and causing pfisteria outbreaks. The untreated animal excrement is often over-applied to the farmland allowing it to run off the fields and pollute watercourses. The faecal lagoons give off large amounts of ammonia and methane, gases dangerous to both workers and local residents.
- FAO, 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options
- Compassion in World Farming, 2008. Global Warming: climate change and farm animal welfare
- FAO, n.d. Livestock’s role in deforestation
- UNEP, 2011. Atlantic Forest South East Reserves Sao Paulo and Parana, Brazil
- WWF, 2006. Facts about soy production and the Basel Criteria
- GMO Compass, 2006. Soy is Everywhere
- Greenpeace. 2006. Eating Up The Amazon
- GMO Compass, 2008. Soybeans
- Dutch Soy Coalition, 2009. Soy in Paraguay
- FAO, n.d. Climate Change: Livestock
- Climate Chaos: Boycott Genetically Engineered and Factory Farmed Food (Organic Consumers Association, 2013)
- Prime cuts: valuing the meat we eat (WWF, 2013)
This aims to explore the scope of what ‘less but better’ meat consumption could mean, to identify potential win-wins, trade-offs and evidence gaps, and to make recommendations for next steps.
- Feeding China’s Pigs (IATP, 2011)
Implications for the Environment, China’s Smallholder Farmers and Food Security
- Feeding the animals that feed us (Soil Association, 2010)
- What’s feeding our food? (Friends of the Earth, 2008)
The environment and social impacts of the livestock sector
- Hoofprints (Friends of the Earth, 2008)
Livestock and its environmental impacts
- Global Warming: Climate Change & Farm Animal Welfare (CIWF, 2008)
- Briefing Food and Climate Change (Friends of the Earth, 2007)
- Livestock’s long shadow (FAO, 2006)
Environmental issues and options
- Eating up the Amazon (Greenpeace, 2006)
- Eating our future (WSPA)
The environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture
- Concentrating on Clean Water (Carol Hodne, The Iowa Policy Project, April 2005)
The challenge of concentrated animal feeding operations
- Cesspools of shame (NRDC, 2001)
How factory farm lagoons and spray-fields threaten environmental and public health