UN continues to fault livestock production

Mar 19, 2010
by WLJ

A new report published by a team of scientists working cooperatively heaped more blame for the world’s problems on the doorstep of the livestock industry earlier this month. The book, "Livestock in a Changing Landscape," was written by Harold Mooney, a professor of biology at Woods Institute for the Environment. He was also a collaborator with other scientists in another report, published by the United Nations’ (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which came to similar conclusions in 2008.

The author of "Livestock in a Changing Landscape" determined that increasing livestock and meat production could have drastic consequences for human health, the environment and the economy if growth isn’t accomplished in an orderly and highly-regulated manner. The three-fold expansion of livestock production in the past three decades has already taken a toll in many of those same areas and the consequences are likely to build if livestock continues to grow as expected between now and 2050, by which time the UN expects current production levels to double.

"The livestock industry is massive and growing," said Mooney, "This is the first time that we’ve looked at the social, economic, health and environmental impacts of livestock in an integrated way and presented solutions for reducing the detrimental effects of the industry and enhancing its positive attributes."

The researchers who conducted the study determined that there are currently 1.7 billion animals in the livestock production industry worldwide, utilizing a quarter of the land on earth. Feed production for those animals consumes one-third of the earth’s arable surface. The combined greenhouse gas emissions of the entire industry makes up about 18 percent of worldwide emissions.

The report’s authors determined that approximately 20 percent of the land being used for livestock production is being degraded by grazing, with 70 percent of the degradation occurring in arid areas. They also found that livestock production results in the pollution and depletion of water systems, leading to unsustainable use.

Sadly, few positives were identified by the authors, however, they did find that the production of livestock accounts for 40 percent of agricultural gross domestic product worldwide. The raising of livestock in many nations around the world employs nearly 1 billion people and provides subsistence and income for many in areas where poverty is rampant, a fact that is only briefly acknowledged by the report’s authors. Instead, they focus on the fact that industrialization of livestock operations has deprived individuals of a living on smaller farms, particularly in developing nations such as China and India.

"In rapidly growing and developed economies, market barriers and economies of scale will continue to push smallholders out of production, thus alternative livelihoods need to be sought in other sectors," the report found.

However, Mooney and the other researchers did admit in their findings that protein consumption plays an important role in the diets of people in developing countries, particularly if their populations are to be successful. However, he cautioned that too much meat consumption can also pose a problem.

"Too much animal-based protein is not good for human diets, while too little is a problem for those on a protein-starved diet, as happens in many developing countries," Mooney reported.
While over-consumption of animal-source foods—particularly meat, milk and eggs—has been linked to heart disease and other chronic conditions, these foods remain a vital source of protein and nutrient nutrition throughout the developing world, the report said. The authors cited a recent study of Kenyan children that found a positive association between meat intake and physical growth, cognitive function and school performance.

Likewise, the authors of the report found that there are environmental consequences of the increased livestock production, particularly in third-world nations where land is being cleared to accommodate cropland and livestock production such as has been the case in parts of Africa and South America. "The livestock sector is a major environmental polluter," the authors said, noting that much of the world’s pastureland has been degraded by grazing or feed production, and that many forests have been clear-cut to make way for additional farmland. Feed production also requires intensive use of water, fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels, added co-editor Henning Steinfeld of the FAO.

The beef, pork and poultry industries also emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, Steinfeld said, adding that climate change issues related to livestock remain largely unaddressed.

"Without a change in current practices, the intensive increases in projected livestock production systems will double the current environmental burden and will contribute to large-scale ecosystem degradation unless appropriate measures are taken," he said.

Given the prior findings of the UN and its scientists, the report’s conclusions are of little surprise to most in the agriculture industry. In fact, many of the findings included in the book had been previously published by FAO near the end of 2008 in a policy brief of the same title. The UN also collaborated on Livestock’s Long Shadow, a report which included similar condemnation of the industry in 2006 when it was presented in Rome.

However, despite the findings, FAO acknowledges that if population growth projections are accurate, food production will have to double in the next 50 years if mass starvation is to be avoided, leaving the FAO and UN in a difficult position. If agricultural producers are to prevent starvation, particularly in the developing world, agriculture must necessarily become both larger and more efficient in its methods.

Mooney, however, seems to believe that the small producers of the world must be protected, and was highly critical of industrial agriculture in his findings.

"We want to protect those on the margins who are dependent on a handful of livestock for their livelihood," Mooney said. "On the other side, we want people engaged in the livestock industry to look closely at the report and determine what improvements they can make."

He said policies and incentives for more conservation and tighter controls on chemicals were critical. Ultimately, Mooney admits that it comes down to the consumer. If production practices are to change, it will be the result of demands from the marketplace rather than an autonomous shift on the part of the industry itself, either in the U.S. or abroad. — John Robinson, WLJ Editor