Livestock farming is destroying the environment, and it’s not going to fix itself. A new study calls for politicians to move towards plant-based diets in climate mitigation policy. Inaction from livestock producers would require massive greenhouse gas reductions from other sectors, “far beyond what is planned or realistic,” the study says.
For obvious reasons, we support the move from animal to plant-based proteins. What might not be so obvious is why this affects every single human and animal on the planet. The livestock industry is on track to emit 37-49% of the greenhouse gases budgeted under the 2030 climate targets.
Countries around the world are currently drafting their climate mitigation plans, called Nationally Determined Contributions, that will go into effect in 2020. But these climate mitigation plans need to be revised to include certain realities, like “peak livestock.”
According to the comprehensive, 52-source study published in Climate Policy, we have reached peak livestock. Politicians can recognize this by writing it into their climate mitigation plans for 2020. Then, and only then, will they move towards a strategy that will mitigate climate change.
Legislators need to include the shift from animal to plant protein in climate mitigation policy before it’s too late.
At an all-time high, the global livestock population just hit 28 billion animals. Not a single livestock animal’s population has decreased in size over the past 20 years. Furthermore, they will continue to grow to meet demand from a growing population if viable plant-based solutions don’t present themselves.
The recognition of peak livestock requires a new approach to climate mitigation, called the “worst first” replacement approach, which uses a “best available food” model.
The worst first replacement approach determines the worst and best food by its harm to the environment. In this case, livestock is the worst food. The best food is that which is a viable replacement for animal proteins and better for the environment. So, for the sake of reason, we should all get ready to accept that beans are the best. Beans produce 46 times fewer greenhouse gases than beef per gram of protein.
Politicians, listen up. This is why you need to start writing more plant-based policy. Substituting beans for beef on a national scale could meet up to 75% of the United State’s greenhouse gas reduction target with no loss of protein or calories to the food system, according to university scientists from around the world.
The big problem with the global food system
Helen Harwatt/Climate Policy
The big problem with the global food system is that we rely on animals for protein. Experts from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expect emission from the livestock industry to increase 60% by 2030. Here’s a glimpse of how much damage the livestock industry is doing to the planet.
- Methane gas production. Livestock animals produce a lot of methane gas. Experts predict methane gas will be 85 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide over the next 20 years.
- Livestock industry growth. The livestock industry is growing—cattle by 200 million animals in the past 20 years, sheep by 200 million, ducks by 300 million, goats by 300 million, pigs by 200 million, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations—along with America’s appetite for meat.
- Developing countries. Developing countries will require substantial sources of protein in the coming years, pushing livestock well past what we now consider their “peak.” As a result, the global appetite for meat is completely unrealistic. That is if we want to have any hope at keeping the global temperature within 2℃ of pre-industrial levels (which we don’t).
- Policy changes. If legislators don’t include the shift from animal to plant protein in climate mitigation policy, livestock emissions could occupy 50% of the greenhouse gas emission cap by 2030.
Not all livestock is created equal. According to the “worst first” climate mitigation approach, the food system’s largest emitter, cattle, would be addressed first. But the problem of animal agriculture is entrenched. So it will require action from more than one sector. Plant-based foods are one potential solution. So is clean meat. Early education about health and wellness is another.
What’s to gain from more plant-based policy?
Food production will be easier for us and easier on the environment. As it stands, one calorie of beef is equivalent to 37 calories of plants, in terms of the environmental cost of production. The energy required to produce one calorie of pork makes 12 calories of plants. One calorie of chicken makes nine plant calories, and one calorie of eggs and dairy each make six calories from plants. Animal agriculture is extremely inefficient. Here’s what’s to gain from more plant-based policy.
- Food security. More plant-based policy could increase the global protein supply. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume there’s just not enough plant-based protein to go around, but there is. Consequently, moving away from feed crops towards crops grown for human consumption (most of the corn we grow is fed to animals) could feed an additional 350 million Americans.
- Land use. In order to grow enough food for animals, house them, and let them graze, animal agriculture represents 65% of global land use since 1960. In the United State, that number is closer to 41%, making animal agriculture the single largest occupant of U.S. soil. Note: growing food and vegetables is much more land efficient, especially with new technologies like vertical farming and new food preservatives that help reduce food waste.
- Biodiversity. Farm animals produce a lot of waste, which gets pumped into our water supply, creating massive dead zones where nothing can live. Heavily polluted with manure and chemical fertilizers, these literal cesspools will be one of the first things to go with more plant-based policy.
- Health. This much (we hope) is obvious. Because meat is linked to higher rates of deadly disease, namely heart disease, and cancer, eating less of it will only help your health.
What’s to lose? Inefficiency, environmental destruction, systems built to subjugate animals to lives of cruelty. There’s plenty more on the livestock industry’s problem with animal welfare here. Above all, the science presented above should speak for itself. Politicians need to start writing more plant-based policy.
Matt is an award-winning independent journalist. His reporting has been featured in USA Today, The Washington Post, HuffPost, Vox, PBS, and NPR, among others.