Good for the Palate, Bad for the Environment

As consumers, we are increasingly alienated from the food on our tables. When we shop, we rarely wonder about the origins of the delicious steak or fish filet we are buying. However, our basic need for nutrition has now major ethical and political implications. Recent studies carried out by the international scientific community have shed light on the influence and damage to the environment that comes from the animal food industry. In fact, meat and fish generate the greatest harm due to the intensive industrial activity that is necessary to maintain production. The shift to a diet largely based on animal proteins, and the concomitant burgeoning of demand have proven to be incompatible with the rate of regeneration of the terrestrial resources and are having a dramatic impact on the biological equilibrium of the planet. With respect to the production of fruits and vegetables, for example, livestock operations produce from 2 to 30 more kg of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of product. The negative environmental impacts of the animal food industry relate to how the animals are raised, captured (in the case of fish) or fed, and to the amount of area covered by these activities. A combination of multiple factors is behind the boom of the livestock industry: the increase of the growth rate of the world population; the global rise in wages; and urbanization. Projections see the annual consumption of meat increasing from the 218 million tons in 1997-1999 to 376 million tons in 2030 (WHO).


“A kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home” New Scientist, 2007

“Producing 1 kg of beef leads to the emission of greenhouse gases equivalent to 36.4 kg of carbon dioxide […] This equals the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by an average European car every 250 km” Slow Food

These catchy examples are useful to make it easier for our brains to picture what is happening. The increasing appetite for meat is one of the driving forces behind every category of environmental damage that is now determining the future of the human race: deforestation, erosion, scarcity of water resources, air and water pollution, climate change, loss of biodiversity. Global warming is driven by our consumption of energy, particularly the one derived from fossil fuels. The production and distribution of meat has generated an exponential increase in the use of these fuels. Furthermore, the animals also release great quantities of methane into the atmosphere as a by-product of their digestive process. FAO (2012) estimated that up to 15% of the global methane emissions – the worst greenhouse gas in determining climate change – come from the phase of animal production. Methane release is directly related to how, and how much, livestock is fed. Animals raised in traditional farms emit less methane than those raised in large-scale industrial livestock operations. Various studies, considering the entire production cycle (from deforestation to create pastures to the production of forage, etc.), have shown that meat is responsible for 18-25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The high ecological footprint of meat derives from the emissions generated both before and after the meat leaves the farm. It include the use of pesticides and fertilizers in producing animal feed; the processes associated with the growth cycle of the livestock; the processing of the meat; transportation; household cooking; and finally the disposal of food wastes.

Scientific American.

During their growing phase, the animals are fed with enormous quantities of fodder. Overall, almost a third of the 14 billion hectares of cultivated land in the world is used to produce cereals and legumes that will be used to feed livestock animals (Friends of the Earth, 2014). Livestock in feedlots is fed on soybeans, maize, wheat and other cereals. Wheat in particular requires massive amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, fuels, land and water. In the United States alone, over 60 million hectares of land, 76 million kilograms of pesticides and 7.7 billion kilograms of nitrogen-based fertilizers are used to produce animal feed (EWG, 2011). Since feed production has become a separate industry with respect to livestock operations themselves, it has to be transported on great distances to reach livestock farms, even from one continent to another. Argentina for instance, is one of the global major soy producers: in 2012, it accounted for 24% of the worlds’ soy export (Friends of the Earth, 2014). The larger part of emissions however, come from the production phase, which generates a bulk of environmental pollutants. The mills discharge millions of kilograms of toxic substances, principally nitrogen, into watercourses. Nitrates are a powerful contaminant of water and cause massive fish die-off and ‘dead’ or hypoxic zones where no marine life can survive (EWG, 2011). But the animals themselves emit methane directly in the air, as a side effect of their digestion: this process is called enteric fermentation. When large portions of feed are given to cattle, the digestive process create the so-called fermentation in the ‘second stomach’ (rumen) of the animals, thus generating the expulsion of flatulencies with climate-altering gases.

Fishery Products

Fish consumption has reached unprecedented levels. According to FAO (2012), annual per capita global consumption has increased from an average of 9.9 kg in the 1960s, to 18.4 kg in 2009. The fishing industry requires enormous quantities of fuel, and the European fleets are among the world’s main users of oil, thereby generating the corresponding huge amounts of CO2. It was calculated that each ton of captured fish results in the emission of 1.7 tons of CO2 (Seas at Risk). Furthermore, because of the current over-exploitation of fish stocks, the fleets have to travel further offshore to find the fish, generating an increasing amount of emissions.

The tuna market. Tuna are apex predators in the marine food chain and thereby essential to maintain equilibrium within the ecosystem. Tuna is also of fundamental importance as a source of sustenance for millions of people living on the islands and coastal areas of the planet. The economic value is a central factor, given that tuna is imported and sold all over the world to meet the growing consumer demand. The catches have increased exponentially from the 600.000 tons in 1950, to 3.1 million tons in 1992 and 4.2 million tons in 2008, leaving some species at risk of extinction (UNEP, 2012). An emblematic case regards the Atlantic bluefin tuna: once a dominant species, its population has been reduced by 90%; in 2003 alone, 9.5 million were caught, amounting to one tenth of the world annual fish catch. Greenpeace (2013) reports that the population of yellowfin tuna has shrunk by approximately 45% in the last 10 years. The strong expansion of large-scale processing facilities and industrial fishing vessels are causing a steep decline in populations of this species, which is further exacerbated by pirate fleets. If the Pacific tuna stocks continue to decline, it will bring immeasurable economic and environmental impacts and critical losses of food resources for these regions.

Canopy of a mangrove forest, mushroom corals, and juvenile fish. (Ethan Daniels photography)

Farming prawns. The creation of artificial ponds to raise prawns for the western market has led to the destruction of thousands of hectares of mangrove forests. These forests grow in the saline coastal habitats of many tropical and sub-tropical islands, acting as a buffer zone between the terrestrial and the marine environments. These forests are extremely important for a number of reasons. They are extremely productive ecosystems, providing habitat for many organisms in the food web, providing nutrients for coral, fish, prawns and molluscs. These have become essential resources of food for coastal communities throughout the world. For example, in Fiji and India, 60% of the commercially important species live in or are directly connected to mangrove forests (Greenpeace 2008). These forests also play a crucial role in capturing and holding sediments, stabilizing and protecting the islands and coastal areas from erosion and the impact of storms and tidal waves (WWF). Prior to the creation of the prawn farms, mangrove forests covered 75% of tropical coastlines; in 2005 this figure had been reduced to less than 50% (Earth Island, 2005). The remaining mangrove forests are already in bad or deteriorating health conditions as a result of water pollution from livestock operations and the use of chemical products and industrial animal feed. Local farmers, overwhelmed by the residues and sludge accumulating in the swamps, collected it and deposited it on the banks, forming ideal environments for the development of pathogens and toxins. This not only contaminated the local prawn farms, but the diffusion of the pollution throughout the region contaminated other forests and caused the die-off of surrounding coral reefs. In the Philippines, for example, it is estimated that the destruction of the 60% of the mangrove forests has been caused by aquaculture, principally prawn operations (Greenpeace, 2008). In Honduras, the annual take of 3.3 billion prawns has resulted in the destruction of 15-20 billion fry of other species. Supply of groundwater to prawn ponds and the consequent salinization of some aquifers has caused water shortages for coastal communities.