Climate Change: How What We Eat Impacts The Environment
Climate change refers to the long-term alteration or change in temperature and normal weather patterns fueled by global warming. The increase in our planet’s overall temperature caused by emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) is referred to as global warming. Industrialized agriculture, burning of fossil fuel, and other anthropogenic (human-caused) actions are the main causes of the rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Image source Paddy O Sullivan
Over the past couple of years, climate change has become part of our conversations within our social circles. From sitting at a burger joint ordering beef burgers to grabbing a beer and enjoying our fish and chips, we all have shown our concerns and discussed or debated on the solutions. With climate change becoming a hot topic at our table, let’s look at our plates to start finding prominent solutions.
Animal agriculture and climate change
The agriculture sector is one of the biggest contributors to human-caused climate change. About 50 percent of the earth’s land (land that is ice-free, fertile, and livable) is used for agriculture. Out of this 50 percent, 77 percent of the agricultural land is used for raising animals for human consumption (animal agriculture) and in growing feed for animals.
As forest covers decrease, global temperatures rise. To give you a better perspective- the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is a vital carbon source that combats global warming. But deforestation in the Amazon has resulted in the destruction of a total of 11,088 sq km (4,281 sq miles) of rainforest space. This number reflects the deforestation from August 2019 to July 2020 and has seen a 9.5 percent increase in deforestation from the previous year.
Earth’s forests have fallen in favour of creating pastureland and for growing crops for animal agriculture. As more forest covers are burned to the ground to make way for pastureland, less carbon dioxide will be absorbed by these historically existing forests, resulting in devastating climate impact.
Image source: Our World in Data
Nearly 14 percent of all anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions- about seven gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emitted per year come from livestock or farmed animals. A common cause of these high stats is raising cattle for meat and dairy that contributes to 60 percent of total livestock emissions. Direct fishing activities and the energy exhausted in logistics and operations (transporting, processing, and refrigerating) amounted to an estimated 179 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2011. As the demand for seafood increases, this number is presumably going to rise. As of 2020, the livestock sector’s global greenhouse gas emission contribution stands at 37 percent.
It should be noted that this huge expenditure of resources and the direct impact animal agriculture has on our planet serves only 18 percent of the world’s population.
How we are all impacted by the decisions 18 percent of us make?
Increasing temperature and disrupted weather patterns have an adverse effect on plants. And nearly 82 percent of the world’s population depends on plants. Increased or decreased density of rainfall can result in drowning or parching of crops- causing grave danger to “staple” crops like coffee, corn, and wheat. Warmer temperatures also make plants susceptible to infestation and diseases which can kill the whole bunch of the produce. As a prevention method, farmers often end up spraying pesticides and herbicides on their crops which can cause a host of illnesses, including cancers, to farmers and surrounding communities. These herbicides and pesticides further make the soil less fertile resulting in far less productivity eventually. It then further contaminates our water bodies resulting in water pollution. As a result, aquatic life is disrupted and when we consume seafood- the very fish and chips at a bar while drinking beer and discussing climate change with our friends- we end up consuming the same cancerous substance and further risking ourselves and our loved ones.
As a result of climate change, wetlands are disappearing wiping out with them the wildlife that depends on these lands. If the earth’s flora and fauna continue to disappear, life on this planet will change forever. Plants, animals, insects help in maintaining the balance of our ecosystem and regulate carbon. There’s a need to make ourselves consciously aware of our impact on the surroundings and take proper actions immediately.
When we think about our water footprint, we assume that washing clothes, and dishes, cooking, and bathing are the highest contributors from our end. We also end up discounting the water footprint we leave behind us with what we choose to put on our plate- the biggest contributor to our water footprint. 70 percent of the water available- of the less than 1 percent fresh water available for human use- goes toward raising animals and growing food.
For example, it takes anywhere between 1,799 to 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef. An American beef eater is expected to consume over 200 pounds of beef and poultry each year- 5,000,00 gallons of water per person per year!
It doesn't matter whether your beef was bought locally or sourced from a farm far away, the location of procuring this meat doesn't impact the carbon footprint as much as the fact that it is beef. Focusing on what we eat is more important than whether it is produced locally or not.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and climate change
There’s a reason why CAFOs are called concentrated animal feeding operations. Inside a CAFO, animals are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions. They are forcefully bred, denied all their natural instincts and needs, and slaughtered for fulfilling consumer demands. Needless to say, these concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs embodies devastating suffering and traumatic experience for its workers, animals, and the communities around its location.
In 2019, a food processing company paid a fine of $8,060 after Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) discovered that the company was not complying with a notice for their Girgarre piggery. The company required environmental controls around diseased animals composting but instead was composting the carcasses of these animals on open ground with no controls to prevent pollution of stormwater or groundwater.
In general, too, CAFOs produce huge amounts of waste that gradually infiltrates groundwater or other surrounding water bodies. Our environment's entire marine ecosystem can be devastated due to algal blooms caused by water pollution from CAFOs.
But I only eat organic meat…
The term “organic” is the new talk of the town. From meat to vegetables, everyone wants something organic on their plate. But do we really understand what “organic” does to our climate? Is organic meat as good for the environment as marketed by companies?
Recent studies have shown that organic meat production damages the climate just as much as conventionally farmed meat. Organic meat and vegetable production requires more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional methods of farming- which isn’t good news for climate change.
The Guardian recently wrote how a research study estimated how the production of organic as well as conventional beef and lamb resulted in similar climate costs. They also found that organic chicken was the worst contributor to climate change than its conventional counterpart, while organic pork was slightly better than conventional pork. This research also estimated the greenhouse gas emissions from different types of food and calculated the total rise in prices that would be needed to cover the harm they cause to the climate.
Image source: Our World in Data
Organic meat, even if their packaging is loaded with green colors all around, is mostly a marketing gimmick. Organic livestock often produces less meat, and grow more slowly. They, therefore, emit more greenhouse gases compared to conventional animals in the livestock industry before slaughter.
Towards a solution
The immediate action should be an increase in the taxes on meat, as suggested by various researchers globally. Research conducted by Springman and colleagues in 2018 calculated that a tax of 20 percent extra than what it is now would be needed to cover the associated healthcare costs. For products like bacon, a 110 percent tax should be processed as such products tend to be more harmful.
It is not too late for us to take action against climate change, but we need to act now. The best-suggested solutions on a global level are the adoption of a plant-based diet.
Organic plants have half the climate costs of their conventional counterparts as they do not rely on chemical fertilizers. Even plants that have the worst climate impact have lower emissions than animal products.
By far, the most effective way to reduce our climate impact or to reduce the animal agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas footprint is to immediately reduce, and eventually eliminate animal agriculture. While this may sound extreme, there are farm transitions happening all around the world. This farm transition helps farmers who produce meat and dairy to move towards producing more plants or completely making a switch from animal agriculture to plant-based farming.
Moving away from the producers- as a consumer too, we need to take action now. We need to put our mouth where our words are- moving away from meat and dairy and towards a more plant-inclined diet. So that the next time we sit discussing climate change within our social circles, it isn’t around bacon or fish and chips, but around mock meats and veggie grills.