By Shar Fish, Green Teams Coordinator
Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, will be convening June 20-22. Approximately 50,000 leaders in sustainable development from the public, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors will come together to create initiatives aimed at environmental protection, poverty reduction, and promotion of social equity. Key Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture initiatives include land conservation, natural resource protection, expanding the information exchange of chemical pesticide risks, and waste reduction, among others. These were deemed key initiatives in similar conferences held between 1992-2002 and are now being revisited to assess progress.
Directly associated with these concerns but absent from the list is a discussion of the impacts of industrialized animal agriculture, as noted in an op-ed to The Washington Post co-authored by Peter Singer, godfather of our country’s animal welfare movement. Singer found that attendees will have access to catered organic food at Rio+20, but a focus on meatless meals is apparently absent.
Eliminating or reducing meat consumption, to me, appears to be “the last frontier” of the green movement, and I think Rio+20’s lack of direct focus on animal production and consumption is a highly illustrative example. At least in the U.S., diet is a highly personal choice, meat is king (meals center around it, bacon is actually trendy, Burger King is a household name) and there is a large agricultural industry with deep pockets that want the following highly inconvenient truths to go unnoticed.
Meat, egg, and milk production are responsible for approximately one-fifth of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Numerous studies have confirmed that choosing a diet free of animal products is an effective strategy for reducing these emissions. One study based on the U.S. diet shows that choosing vegetable-based meals over red meat and dairy just once a week is equivalent of driving 1160 miles less per year. A vegan diet, seven days a week? That saves 8,100 miles. And it helps reduce the 9%, 65%, and 35-40% of global anthropogenic CO2, nitrous oxide (NO2), and methane produced each year, respectively.
The world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050; researchers have acknowledged we must double our food production by 2050 in order to feed the world. But that doesn’t mean food business as usual. As author of “Feeding the World” Vaclav Smith has calculated, it is impossible for everyone on the planet to eat as people in the affluent world do now. It would require 67 percent more agricultural land than the Earth possesses. Efficiency is just one way to double our food production. There are numerous ways to calculate how many pounds of feed it takes to produce on pound of meat – Purdue University’s Agricultural Extension says “it depends” – but no matter the exact number, it is never efficient. Low estimates say it takes two pounds of grain to get one pound of beef, high estimates say twenty pounds of grain per pound of beef. Pigs and chickens share this propensity for inefficiency. Worldwide, more than 97% of soymeal and over 60% of corn and barley are used for animal consumption.
It takes fertilizer to grow these crops, and that takes the burning of fossil fuels. Indeed, the largest sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) from animal agriculture come not from the animals themselves, but from inputs and land-use changes necessary to maintain and feed them. Industrial agricultural relies on seed transported, fertilizer transported, feed harvested and transported, processed, and re-transported back to the animals. And then, of course, the animals at a large operation must be transported to the processing plant.
Raising animals, and the crops to feed them, also takes land. The farm animal production sector is the single largest anthropogenic use of land in the world. Animal agriculture’s role in rainforest deforestation in South America, which has converted forest to grassfed grazing land and cropland, is particularly notorious. It has turned land that used to be a direct sink for carbon into land that indirectly supports a carbon-producing system. Conversion of land has contributed to a loss in biodiversity. And even in water, where giant aquaculture pens enclose hundreds of thousands of farmed fish like salmon, biodiversity has been affected, and pesticides applied, and superbugs evolved.
Factory farms, also called CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) or AFOs pollute the air with foul odors and worse, and the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory reports that agriculture is the leading source of water quality impairment on rivers and lakes and the second largest for wetlands. “Dead zones”, such as that found in the Gulf of Mexico, are the result of excess nutrients associated with synthetic and manure fertilizers applied to croplands. Drinking water sources for an estimated 43% of the U.S. population have also suffered some level of pathogen contamination associated with CAFOs. It is also worth noting that the quantities of manure produced on factory farms exceeds the amount of land available to absorb it. To put it in perspective a bit, U.S. livestock production generates an estimated 500 million to 1 billion tons of manure per year; municipal wastewater treatment plants annually treat 18 million tons of human fecal material. Oh poo, indeed.
This is the reality, so what’s the alternative? As individuals, we have the chance to put our money where our mouths are, to vote with our food dollars, to eat a more sustainable meal. We can participate in Meatless Mondays or more, and check out the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Green Eating Guide. We can have the courage to talk with others about the choices we’ve made and explore “the last frontier” of environmentalism, whether at a big family get-together, a church potluck, or on a blog. If we want chickens and eggs, we can set up a coop in our backyard. Or, though this is not the course of action I would choose, we can hunt meat ourselves, or let those who hunt responsibly know they’re doing a lot more to preserve the earth for future generations than, say, the folks at Buffalo Wild Wings or McDonald’s.
What about the owners of factory farms, and what about policymakers? To date, most pollution mitigation and prevention has focused on technical solutions like increased efficiency in production and feed crop agriculture (there’s that efficiency idea again). A handful of large companies have turned select facilities into anaerobic digesters that isolate methane from manure and use it to power generators on-site. But these actions do not address all environmental consequences. The EPA, who controls the rules and regulations governing factory farms, has a set of non-compulsory best practices that AFO and CAFO managers can adopt, and is responsible for the regulation of these operations.
Making best management practices mandatory is a step in the right direction, but it still doesn’t make large-scale farming in its current form sustainable. The need for accurate pricing within the animal agriculture sector, by a redistribution of crop subsidies, selective taxing and/or fees for resource use, inputs, and waste could reward farers for environmental services like protecting forests and biodiversity. The prices of inputs for raising livestock are relatively low in the U.S., and the true costs associated with environmental degradation are not fully realized in your corner grocery’s meat and dairy aisle. The realist in me says that it seems like a long shot that I’ll be able to see this kind of policy change – which may be our best solution for moving toward a more sustainable agricultural system for those who still have an appetite for meat. But the optimist in me also keeps in mind that change is inevitable, and that we’re becoming increasingly aware of the importance of taking care of and taking responsibility for our planet, and that as we learn more we realize we can do better.