Mia MacDonald

Brighter Green

As delegates from the world’s governments, scientists, advisors and advocates gather in Doha for COP18, they’ll no doubt be aware that 2012 is on track to be the hottest year on record, and extreme weather has been rife. In the US, there’s been a severe drought and ‘Superstorm’, Sandy, which wreaked havoc across the Caribbean and the US eastern coast.

Many attendees will look to the fossil fuel consumption of transportation, industrial activity, and energy inefficiency as the culprit. Unfortunately, too few recognise the negative effect of the industrial food system – particularly intensive animal agriculture – on our climate.

Since the 1970s, world meat production has increased nearly three times, and by a fifth since 2000. Development of industrial livestock production over the past half century has made it possible to raise large numbers of animals in extreme confinement in indoor facilities. These factory farms and feedlots are now central to US – and increasingly the global – agriculture. Each year, nearly 70 billion land animals are used in food production around the world (nearly 10 billion in the US).

A generation ago, for example, India’s poultry sector was largely comprised of small-scale production, mostly controlled by women. Today, 90% of the more than two billion chickens that come to market each year in India have lived their entire lives in industrial-style facilities. Moreover, India, where ethical vegetarianism has a long history, is now the world’s fifth biggest producer of poultry meat. China raises and slaughters more than half a billion pigs a year and factory farms are expanding rapidly. The Chinese now eat more meat than any other country, about twice as much as the US.

If current trends continue, by 2050 the global livestock population could exceed 100 billion –more than ten times the number of people alive then. Though the current global food system, “could feed 8 billion [people], maybe 9 billion,” according to UN Population Fund advisor Michael Herrmann, “a large share of the food we produce does not actually end up as food on our plates.” Instead it’s used as animal feed.

Intensification of animal agriculture means that “the livestock sector enters into more, and direct competition for scarce land, water, and other natural resources,” according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This has a significant impact on the prospects for ensuring equity and sustainability globally, along with broad-based prosperity for the world’s people. A study released in August 2012, at an international water conference, included a stark warning: “There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in western nations.” The scientists suggested that at most 5% of total calories from animal-based foods might be realistic, if certain conditions were also met.

Because of its use of water and the loss of forested land needed to grow food grains, and all animals’ digestive processes, between 18% (according to the FAO) and 51% (a more recent estimate by current and former World Bank environmental specialists) of all human-caused greenhouse gases can be traced to the global livestock sector.

We need to start talking seriously about what choices we must make to create a sustainable, equitable, humane, and climate-compatible food system. The Scientific Body for Scientific and Technological Advice discussion this week is a good start.

We have to protect our ecosystems, price our food choices properly by not externalising meat production’s costs on our ecology, and seek viable alternatives to the industrial agricultural system that would be better for the climate, the environment, family farmers, and food and income equality.

It will be necessary to cultivate foods with key nutrients, like leafy greens and pulses, that require less water than food grains, are better able to withstand climate shifts and allow broad access to them. We must also educate our leaders and ourselves to encourage healthier, more sustainable patterns of eating, based on traditional, largely plant-based regional and national cuisines.

The global climate requires no less.


Mia MacDonald is the executive director of the public policy action tank, Brighter Green. This article is an adaptation of a blog she wrote for the Worldwatch Institute (www.worldwatch.org), of which she is a senior fellow.