Is Animal Agriculture As Bad As Burning Fossil Fuels?

Pretty much, yes.

by Aaron Bastani

1 June 2022

Between two and six billion animals are killed each day for food. Neil Hall/Reuters

Over the last 30 years, a remarkable consensus has emerged around decarbonising how we eat, move, make and live. While action has invariably been inadequate or deferred, opposition to the burning of fossil fuels has only grown with each passing year. 

Now, as agreement is reached on the need to hit peak emissions by the end of this decade, a new idea has begun to stalk our collective imagination. I’ve encountered it interviewing climate and animal rights activists, but it’s an increasingly perceptible part of the wider culture – embraced by the likes of Novak Djokovic and Lewis Hamilton, and the topic of Oscar-winning acceptance speeches. For now, it sounds as outlandish as zero carbon would have half a century ago. Yet for many, it’s every bit as necessary. I’m talking about calling time on animal agriculture.

Farming gave us everything. 12,000 years ago, as our ancestors began to use large mammals for labour and learned how to breed certain features in and out of crops and animals, they created something without precedent: a social surplus. Thus began the neolithic revolution, and from agriculture emerged cities, writing, astronomy and mathematics. Now, the argument goes, we need to reconfigure our relationship to nature once more. But while dependence on fossil fuels touches every aspect of our lives, this has only been the case for a few centuries. Animal farming, by contrast, is something we’ve done for the whole of recorded history. 

While proscribing certain animal products is nothing new – strictures of various kinds can be found in almost every faith – contemporary arguments for abstention, from Leo Tolstoy to Mary Midgley, have focused on animal welfare. Now this is shifting, with criticisms of livestock farming focusing on its impact on the climate. While this precedes 2020, Covid-19 presaged the ecological aspect of animal agriculture, making it clear that an age of pandemics awaits if we continue to destroy the planet’s natural habitats.

It’s rarely mentioned, but a host of pathogens resulted from the birth of animal agriculture after 10,000BC. Flu likely came from the domestication of ducks, leprosy from water buffalo and smallpox probably jumped from gerbils to camels to humans around the time the pyramids were built. The history of animal husbandry may be one of cities and mathematics, but it’s also one of epidemics. As urbanisation continues to accelerate and we destroy the natural world ever more ferociously, it’s clear pandemics like Covid-19 will move from ‘once-in-a-century’ events to those requiring permanent forms of crisis management. For some, the best thing to do would simply be to end livestock agriculture altogether. 

When fish are included, between two and six billion animals are killed each day for food. Measured by biomass, humans, their pets and livestock account for 96% of all mammals on the planet. Were an alien race to encounter us, they would conclude that we’ve already subsumed the entirety of the Earth to feed ourselves and our furry flunkeys.

All of this is resource intensive, not least because eating meat, cheese, eggs and milk requires growing crops for other animals to consume. Just 55% of the world’s crop calories are eaten by people, while 36% is animal feed (9% is for biofuels.) This already appalling statistic is actually inverted across the Global North, Russia and Brazil, with 62% of cereals grown in the EU consumed by livestock. Despite the absurd argument about vegans being equally complicit in climate breakdown, 77% of the world’s soy is grown to feed animals (just 7% is for human food). In fact, in South America 200 times more land is given over to soy production today than in 1961. The Amazon isn’t being destroyed purely for cattle, but for crops to feed them.

Such demands on land mean a staggering loss of biodiversity. Rather than just an ethical or aesthetic issue – with forest and savannah being nice things to have – biodiversity is also a key front in the fight against climate change. Restoration of frugivores such as tapirs and Asian elephants could increase the carbon sequestration of tropical forests, while the return of wolves to historic levels in Canada, which prey on moose which in turn eat tree shoots, would lead to healthier boreal forest. This ‘predator effect’ even extends to sea otters, which eat sea urchins, thus allowing for the flourishing of carbon-absorbing kelp. 

So while food production only makes up a third of all emissions – and switching to vegan diets would only reduce food emissions by 60% – arguments for ending animal agriculture wouldn’t just reduce greenhouse gases in the immediate term. Rainforest, destroyed to make way for cattle and soy, can sequester between 200 and 650 tonnes of carbon per hectare. Mangrove forests, destroyed for shrimp farming, currently store the equivalent of 21 gigatons of carbon, and restoring them could lead to the sequestration of an additional 1.3 gigatons of carbon. But rather than expanding these vital ecosystems, we continue to destroy them.

It’s not only land use which is an issue. A pound of US beef requires around 1,800 gallons of water, while a pound of chicken requires 500 gallons. Animal agriculture also contaminates rivers, streams and lakes; in fact, while attention has focused on private water companies dumping sewage into Britain’s rivers, animal farming is the leading cause of pollution for the country’s waterways. The River Wye, until recently a place where locals could swim, has become an “open sewer”, according to the writer George Monbiot. The main reason? Around 20 million chickens live nearby.

Although some accept the downsides of factory farming, they insist there are alternatives – like organic farming. And yet from an ecological standpoint, the opposite is true: while organic beef meets higher welfare standards, its carbon footprint is also greater. What’s more, ‘shopping local’ for meat and cheese might be plausible in the Cotswolds, but in the global megacities of the 21st century – from London to Mumbai – it’s a fairytale.

While hitting peak carbon emissions before 2030 is a widely lauded target, achieving something similar with livestock is just as pressing. And yet unlike national decarbonisation targets, meat consumption is generally ignored – something especially troubling given that it’s expected to rise by 76% between 2012 and 2050. The ‘right’ to eat as much meat as we want is incompatible with the right of future generations to a liveable planet. It’s time we had that conversation.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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