Environmental Impact

“You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period.
Kid yourself if you want, if you want to feed your addiction, so be it.
But don’t call yourself an environmentalist” – Howard Lyman in the film COWSPIRACY: The Sustainability Secret.

Our food choices may impact the environment more than anything else we do.
In comparison to growing food crops for human consumption, the production of livestock has a heavy environmental footprint including greater greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, land degradation and deforestation.

In 2006 the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN released a report, Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options, in which it estimated that 18% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions were attributable to livestock production. This is greater than our transport emissions. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang have recently recalculated livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Robert Goodland said that in re-working the estimate they were conservative in their assumptions but came up with a new estimate that livestock production contributes 51% of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Other organizations have since made their own calculations and have come up with similar ball park figures of 40-50%. In a 2013 video presentation, Goodland said that according to the IPCC and the International Energy Agency the concentration of greenhouse gas in our atmosphere may reach irreversible tipping points by 2017, or no later than 2020, if nothing is done to change course. He said that phasing out coal could not be done quickly enough. We note that our nation is planning to increase coal production well into the 2020’s. He said that “A change in your diet, a rather modest change, is possibly the only way to prevent climate change catastrophe“. On a worldwide basis, the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change by 2017 is to replace 25% of today’s livestock with plant based alternatives. This would achieve a target of a 13% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Robert Goodland talking about Livestock’s long shadow (September 2013):

In the long term the choice may be to become plant based voluntarily or have a plant-derived diet forced upon you by global economics and policy. Bill Gates says that “food is ripe for innovation” and he is supporting moves to replace animal products with “virtual” meat, dairy and eggs made entirely from plant materials ( see The Future of Food). He notes that this will reduce natural resources and energy use, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cruelty and that such innovation will make cheaper healthier products. He expects such products to become mainstream by 2017. We consider that whole plant foods will always be the healthier alternative but recognise that imitation animal products are a step in the right direction.

The world is running out of water for agriculture. Conflicts are looming over access to water. Underground aquifers are being depleted and record breaking droughts are occurring more often. The vast non-irrigated grain fields of Southern Australia belie the fact that agriculture is a water intensive activity. Every orange, tomato and broccoli head requires a surprising quantity of water. But the most water extravagant foods we produce are animal products such as beef and dairy (see Meat makes the planet thirsty). Much of the water consumption attributable to livestock is due the large amount of irrigated feed crop that needs to be consumed to produce a small amount of meat. Grass-fed meat and dairy also contribute to higher water usage. Dairy cows generally graze on pastures which are either irrigated or naturally rich and ideal for crop production. The worlds grass-fed beef operations are increasingly using alfalfa, one of the most water hungry crops, as a supplement to pasture grass.

Factory farming produces large amounts of nutrient rich effluent which pollutes waterways. Grass fed animals can also contribute through their waste and the damage they do to river banks. It is estimated that the 4.8 million beef and dairy cattle in Victoria contribute 4800 tonnes of manure per day to our creeks and rivers (The Age, 9 March 2014).

Replacing other meats with fish is not a sustainable solution. Ocean fish stocks are already severely depleted. Farmed fish are little better as they have to be fed and this means catching an even greater weight of smaller fish. This shift towards harvesting smaller fish and even krill threatens to pull the base out from under the entire ocean food chain. Much of the smaller fish and other marine animals harvested are used to produce feed for land animals.

It’s difficult to consider the increased land and feed crops needed for livestock without also considering the impact of this on world food security. The direct link between some people eating more livestock and other people starving is conveniently hidden from view. The next time there is a food crisis in parts of Africa, it will be attributed to drought and high international grain prices. The role of livestock in raising world grain prices will remain conveniently hidden.

Many Australian nutrition experts continue to recommend a high animal protein diet. Even if those promoting protein rich diets were right from a health perspective, they are wrong from an environmental perspective.

We need government policies that encourage a shift away from livestock production, which is currently increasing. Carbon pricing schemes must include agriculture (Australia’s did not). It is time for governments to stop subsidising and promoting the consumption of meat and dairy foods. But we should not rely on governments alone – we are fortunate that the internet and social networking has given new power to organizations such as: Australia’s crowd funded Climate Council, the Meatless Monday campaign in the USA, and the Whole Foods Plant Based movement. At an international level, climate policy must become part of agricultural policy. It is no longer tenable for the Food and Agricultural Organization to project a doubling of livestock production by 2050, nor is it appropriate for them to promote meat and milk production. The FAO’s new partnerships with the International Meat Secretariat and International Dairy Federation creates a potential conflict of interest.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that people who eat a more plant based diet are healthier than meat eaters. Therefore the dietary changes that will support the environment are entirely consistent with those that will support individual and community health. We can all leverage our personal environmental efforts by influencing others in our social networks to eat a more plant based diet, and do so with a clear conscience, knowing that such changes will bring them better health. Health professionals can leverage their environmental efforts and act in the best interest of their patients by encouraging them to eat a more plant based diet. While any shift in the direction of a plant based diet will help the environment, the most profound health benefits come from shifting to a whole foods plant based diet. The health benefits and practicalities of a whole foods plant based diet are the focus of this website.

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Page last updated 5 February 2015