The relationship between food and energy is complex: while food provides energy and nutrients to humans, it also requires energy for its production. The implications of this dynamic are such that an equilibrium between two basic necessities for survival —food and a sustainable supply chain— must be reached.
Growing demand of meat and dairy products is adding more pressure to livestock-based food production, one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions. While meat consumption has steadily risen since the 1960s in western countries, demand in some developing countries such as China has skyrocketed by 630%, thus increasing the scope of the problem (CMF, 2018: 10-11). In addition, such growth in demand has in turn driven up intensive production systems, which encourage increasingly greater chemical inputs of several kinds.
Notwithstanding, experts have identified possible solutions to this existential threat, namely technologically innovative agriculture which increases productivity, technical mitigation, a more sustainable food supply chain and, on the demand side, policies aimed at shifting consumer habits. In this article, I will present an overview of the major problems that livestock-based food products present and possible policy solutions.
Key facts about the environmental impact of livestock production
Environmental concerns related to livestock-based food production can be classified into five categories:
- Greenhouse-effect emissions: livestock production is estimated to contribute around 15% of total greenhouse-effect emissions. It also emits nitrogen oxides, a type of gases that contribute to tropospheric ozone formation, which damages vegetation thus reducing carbon sequestration (Leip et al., 2015: 2).
- Air quality: ammonia and nitrogen oxides emmissions, which are particularly high in livestock production, account for approximately 5-15% of total fine particulate matter, and the loss of life expectancy because of such fine particles is estimated at 6 to 12 months in Europe (Leip et al., 2015: 2).
- Soil quality: emissions related to ammonia (linked to stables and manure storages) contribute to acid deposition and eutrophication, which in turn can lead to a deterioration of soil quality (EEA, 2019). Grazing can also reduce soil quality, particularly in the case of cattle and horse grazing (Alkemade et al., 2013: 20900).
- Biodiversity: land-use factors related to livestock-based food production can damage terrestrial biodiversity. Managed grassland and arable land, for instance, have a low biodiversity (Leip et al., 2015: 2; Alkemade et al., 2013: 20900). Furthermore, ammonia and reactive nitrogen emissions can contribute to acidification and eutrophication, which in turn lead to a loss of biodiversity (EEA, 2019).
- Water quality: emissions related to livestock production can impact the quality of water as well. A high concentration of nitrate in drinking water, for instance, can increase the incidence of colon cancer by 3%, and an excess of nitrogen and phosphorus can lead to eutrophication (Leip et al., 2015: 2). Indeed, livestock-based food production is the main source of water pollution by nutrient overabundance (Eshel et al., 2014: 11996).
This data includes in livestock trade, feed production and trade, and some side effects of land-use changes linked to livestock production such as deforestation, which is necessary in order to include in the analysis the whole supply chain and not just the final part of it.
Key differences to take into account
Despite the broad picture, it is crucial to distinguish among different livestock categories, since their environmental impacts are different. In the next figure, we can appreciate the differences among dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), beef (cows, veals), poultry (chickens, turkeys), pork and eggs.
As can be seen in Figure 1, beef meat has the worst environmental performance in all factors: required land, irrigated water, emission of greenhouse gases and emission of reactive nitrogen. The reason behind these differences, among others, is the different way of converting feed to meat: «[c]onservative estimates are that cattle require 7 kg of grain to create 1 kg of beef, compared with about 4 kg for pork and just over 2 kg for chicken» (Horrigan et al., 2002: 448). As can be seen, another key factor when it comes to land use is the need of pasturing for cattle, which leads to a higher impact on land use for beef and dairy products.
Moreover, it is crucial to lay out the key differences among production systems. Big agribusiness companies (where the majority of livestock is produced) overuse antibiotics and hormones for livestock and pesticides for plants, emit higher amounts of toxic residues such as heavy metals, overapply manure producing the pollution of water, air and soil, and congregate large populations of livestock requiring thus a high amount of external inputs (Horrigan et al., 2002; CMF, 2018: 10). In addition, intensive production uses more energy for heating, air-conditioning and mechanization (Horrigan et al., 2002; CMF, 2018: 10) and is more likely to require extensive transportation, since large regions specialize in specific crops, creating thus a disconnection and a greater need for transport (Lassaletta et al., 2014: 226).
Small-scale farmers, instead, tend to source natural and local feed, use antibiotics less often, are less likely to use commercial fertilizers and other chemicals, and congregate less animals per land —thus softening some of the environmental impacts related to high-density farms (Horrigan et al., 2002; CMF, 2018: 51). Actually, an emerging trend in this sector is aiming to produce livestock in closed local loops in which, for instance, animals are fed on local resources, and their waste is used locally as fertilizers, further reducing their environmental impacts.
How can these impacts be reduced?
According to Leip et al. (2015: 10), there are two main routes to reducing the environmental impacts of livestock production, one being technical measures, and the other being simply reducing production (either with demand-side measures or dietary shifts). Some technical measures would be fostering precision agriculture, increased nitrogen use efficiency, improved herd structures, a better manure management, soil carbon sequestration, or fat additives in ruminant feed to reduce methane production (Leip et al., 2015: 10; Hedenus et al.: 79-80). Another effective way to soften these detrimental effects is by reducing food waste —around 88 million tons of food are wasted in the EU every year (Scherhaufer et al., 2018). However, experts suggest that, while these measures could soften the detrimental impacts of livestock production, it is uncertain whether they would be enough: according to some experts, the global mitigation potential of such measures is rather small (Hedenus et al., 2014: 80).
Several studies argue that European consumption of proteins is far above the maximum recommended level. Protein intake in EU27 is 70% higher than necessary according to WHO guidelines; in addition, saturated fat consumption is more than 40% higher than the maximum limit, and animal products amount to 80% of such saturated fats intakes (Westhoek et al., 2015: 27-28). This over-consumption of proteins and saturated fat is linked to the ever-growing problem of overweight and obesity, which represents one of the main challenges in public health in developed countries. See Figure 2 for the evolution of protein intake per product, compared to the recommended amount per day (dashed line).
All in all, that is why several experts consider that we should reduce the consumption of livestock-based food. According to Leip et al., «reducing the consumption of meat and eggs by 50% would lead to a decrease of Nr emissions by 40% and a reduction of GHG emissions by 25-40% with expected substantial health benefits» (2015: 10). Another study from 2016 suggested that by shifting towards a more plant-based diet we could harvest both environmental and healthcare benefits. According to their projections, emissions related to food would drop by 29-70%, mainly because of the decrease in red meat production (see Figure 3 below), and mortality could drop by 6-10%, compared to three different diet scenarios in 2050 —the first one based on guidelines on healthy eating and energy intake (displayed in Figure 3 as HGD), the second one based on a vegetarian diet (VGT), and the last one based on a vegan diet (VGN) (Springman et al., 2016: 4149).
Hedenus et al. (2014) published an article in which they estimated the impact of five different scenarios regarding meat and dairy production and consumption, as well as its environmental impacts. These scenarios were REF (Reference scenario), IP (Increased Productivity), TM (Technical Mitigation – which includes policies such as better manure management or soil carbon sequestration, commented before), CC (Climate Carnivore – which assumes a higher consumption of meat with a lower impact on the environment, such as poultry), and FL (Flexitarian – which assumes a drastic decrease in the consumption of all kinds of meat and dairy products). The results are displayed below.
However encouraging the data is, we should not rush to the conclusion that this issue must be tackled by drastically and suddenly cutting down livestock-based food consumption –even though decreasing meat intake must be part of the solution to some degree. As showed in this article, there are critical differences among different livestock products and different farming systems, which must be taken into account.
Livestock-based food, and especially red meat and dairy products, pose dramatic environmental threats which are not limited to the emission of greenhouse-effect gases, since their production has also increasingly led to an array of detrimental environmental and health effects which must be taken into consideration by citizens and policy-makers.
However, differences among livestock-based products and production systems must be taken into account. While according to most experts a reduction of meat and dairy products intake will be necessary in order to address our most pressing environmental challenges, the scope of such reduction could be dimmed by shifting towards a more “climate carnivore” diet low in beef and dairy products, by implementing closed-loop and local production systems, or by adopting technological innovations to enhance productivity and technical mitigation.
It is crucial to become aware and tackle this issue as soon as possible. Meat and dairy products production and trade is not decreasing —rather, it is increasing, especially because of the higher demand in developing countries such as China. In this sense, EU’s Farm to Fork strategy is an important step forward since it recognizes the scope of these problems and moves towards a comprehensive framework for food policy (Meredith et al., 2020). It is necessary for the EU to go beyond sheer eco-labelling and awareness campaigns, policies that have been proven insufficient (Pantzar and Suljada, 2020).
Finally, such challenges should be addressed while taking into consideration social conditions, in order for the transition towards a sustainable model to be fair. Therefore, policy-makers must not ignore that millions of people depend economically on the industry and enable thus a transition in which they can readapt to the changes in the productive system; but they should not ignore either the ever-growing evidence pointing to livestock-based food production as one of the main areas of environmental concern.
Alkemade, R., Reid, R. S., van den Berg, M., de Leeuw, J., & Jeuken, M. (2013). Assessing the impacts of livestock production on biodiversity in rangeland ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(52), 20900-20905.ISO 690
Changing Markets Foundation (CMF). (2018). Growing the good. The Case for Low-Carbon Transition in the Food Sector. Available online at: https://changingmarkets.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Growing_the_Good-The_Case_for_Low-Carbon_Transition_in_the_Food_Sector.pdf
Eshel, G., Shepon, A., Makov, T., & Milo, R. (2014). Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(33), 11996-12001.
European Environmental Agency (EEA). (2019). Ammonia emissions from agriculture continue to pose problems for Europe.
Hedenus, F., Wirsenius, S., & Johansson, D. J. (2014). The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets. Climatic change, 124(1-2), 79-91.
Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R. S., & Walker, P. (2002). How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental health perspectives, 110(5), 445-456.
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Lassaletta, L., Billen, G., Grizzetti, B., Garnier, J., Leach, A. M., & Galloway, J. N. (2014). Food and feed trade as a driver in the global nitrogen cycle: 50-year trends. Biogeochemistry, 118(1-3), 225-241
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Meredith, S., Allen, B., and Schefer, G. (2020). Farm to fork strategy: The first step towards an EU sustainable food and farming policy framework? Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP): Brussels.
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Scherhaufer, S., Moates, G., Hartikainen, H., Waldron, K., & Obersteiner, G. (2018). Environmental impacts of food waste in Europe. Waste management, 77, 98-113.
Springmann, M., Godfray, H. C. J., Rayner, M., & Scarborough, P. (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(15), 4146-4151.
Westhoek H., Lesschen J.P., Leip A., Rood T., Wagner S., De Marco A., Murphy-Bokern D., Pallière C., Howard C.M., Oenema O. & Sutton M.A. (2015) Nitrogen on the Table: The influence of food choices on nitrogen emissions and the European environment. Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Edinburgh, UK.