Environmental impact of livestock

It has been warned for several years that livestock is even more damaging to the environment than transportation. And not only environmental groups say it; reports prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) confirm this. By 2006, the generation of greenhouse gases produced by this industry was 18% greater than that of the transportation sector.

But Livestock also causes damage to the soil, causing its degradation, and to water resources. However, it is not an easily solvable problem.

Environmental impact of livestock: meeting the «monster»

How much does “my hamburger” cost?

  • Let’s imagine that cows were a country; this country would occupy the third position in the emission of greenhouse gases. And the demand for meat continues to rise. FAO has projected a 76% increase until 2050.
  • Compared to other agricultural sectors, animal husbandry is the fastest growing and represents 40% of agricultural production. In contrast, seeing the human aspect, it is the livelihood of more than 1.3 billion people.
  • The impact on water is not only due to contamination, but also because of the demand it generates. To produce “my hamburger” almost 1,700 liters of water are required.
  • It also has a great impact on land use; it uses 30% of the planet’s surface. Animal husbandry occupies 80% of agricultural land; Of this percentage, 33% is dedicated to forage production. What’s more, the need for grasslands has come at the expense of deforestation of wide areas of forests. In the Amazon, 70% of the destroyed forests is used for extensive cattle ranching.
  • However, despite all the impact it is having on the planet, only contributes 18% to the world’s caloric supply.

Why is livestock so impacting the environment?

Use of water

It has been estimated that the livestock sector uses about 20% of the so-called «blue water» –or water available in courses or liquid water reserves– for the production of animal feed. What’s more, each high-performance dairy cow requires 150 liters of water per day to achieve optimal production. That is, the water footprint of livestock has two main aspects: feed production and hydration of animals.

For its calculation, the different production systems with different form of management of water resources. The scale –intensive or extensive–, the type of livestock and the cultural and social aspects associated with the type of livestock developed in different countries must also be considered.

But livestock has yet another impact on water and that is pollution. Chemicals, organic matter, waste, sediment and salts They reach ecosystems through wastewater, mainly from extensive livestock farming. Feed production also contributes to this contamination due to the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. For its part, intensive livestock farming has an important impact on traces of antibiotics and hormones that reach the water sources. Countries like China and the United States use a large amount of chemical fertilizers and the use of antibiotics – many of which end up in water – has grown alarmingly.

Land use

The impact produced by livestock activity due to land use begins with the trillions of tons of CO2 released by deforestation. Also, as collateral impact, the extinction of thousands of species. And it is that the land use by livestock starts with logging and road construction, sometimes for mining purposes. Commercial and subsistence farmers are also coming to farm on poor and fragile forest soils. The consequence? Its abandonment in a few years. The degraded and nutrient-depleted soil It is only capable of producing grass and is then used by livestock.

This effect is greater in countries with large forest masses, like many tropical countries in America, Asia and Africa. In them, during the period 2000-2010 there was a net loss of forest mass equivalent to 7 million hectares per year. Most seriously, the loss of forests for agricultural use occurred in low-income countries that depend on these practices for their livelihoods.

Emission of gases

Perhaps it is the impact that we have heard the most, due to the emission of methane gas that occurs from cattle feces. Methane is a greenhouse gas with a warming potential greater than that of CO2, although its proportion in the atmosphere is considerably lower. But the methane present in the atmosphere is not only due to the breakdown of stool, but also to digestive function of cattle. Even, in many cases, an inadequate diet contributes to increasing methane production. Its presence is also due to other sources not related to livestock. In the last decades, its increase has been 1% per year, which already contributes 15% to global warming. To continue at this rate, by the end of the 21st century its effect will exceed that of CO2.

Sustainable alternatives

In addition to the development of sustainable livestock practices that respect more the environment and the organisms involved, there are alternative proposals to the consumption of meat. Impossible Foods company has developed a plant-based meat, producing only one minimal fraction of damage to the environment. The proposal offers reduce the amount of water needed by producing some 60,000 veggie burgers using the water required to produce 312 traditional burgers. In addition, the company offers that you can reduce one equivalent to greenhouse gases produced by 12 million cars a year. How? Changing one of the three weekly burgers an average American eats for the veggie version. It should be noted that the study was endorsed by the University of Michigan.

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