27% of calories consumed daily in the United States come from animal products including meat, eggs, and dairy. This is above the global average of 17% (“What the World Eats”). Producing these animal products is incredibly resource intensive, and their production puts a strain on valuable food, water, and land resources. It is important to address the inefficiencies of livestock production with respect to these resources.

Food

Raising livestock requires a large percentage of available food supplies; 70% of all food crops in the U.S. go to feeding livestock (Culinary Schools). Feeding large percentages of food crops to livestock is a problem around the globe. China feeds 33% of their crops, including 77% of their corn to livestock, while 79% of Brazil’s plant protein goes into livestock (Cassidy et al, 2013).  Worldwide, the numbers tally to 80% of the soybean crop and over 50% of the corn (Koneswaran, 2008).

Water

Livestock consumption requires far more water than consumption of crops directly.  Raising one beef cow to full size requires all of the water that grew the cow’s feed, as well as the water that the cow drinks itself.  Producing one pound of beef requires roughly 50-100 times more water than producing one pound of crops to be consumed by humans, as is shown in Table 1 below.  Because of this, meat production is incredibly strenuous on water resources and diverts water from other forms of agriculture.

Food Gallons of Water Per Pound Produced.
Beef 2,400
Apples 49
Carrots 33
Potatoes 24
Tomatos 23

 

Table 1. Gallons of water used to produce one pound of various foods (Earthsave).

Besides the water used directly for livestock, water is also lost through pollution due to manure; US factory farms contributed the most pollutants to water supplies, degrading 1,785 bodies of water in 1993 alone (EarthSave).

Land

Land use must also be carefully considered when optimizing food production.  To create land for husbandry, 70% of the forests in Panama and Costa Rica have been cut down, and the beef industry of Central and South America continues to cut 5 million acres of rainforest to clear land for agriculture (EarthSave).  This has a deleterious effect on the environment and agricultural prospects because forests help to stabilize the soil, prevent erosion, enhance the land’s capacity to store water, and moderate air and soil temperatures (“Forests, Trees and Food”). The world has a limited amount of arable farmland, and a careful balance must be reached between developed land and wilderness.

Furthermore, land used by livestock is not viable for crop production. Grazers, like cattle, pull plants up by their roots.  Without the roots as anchors, fertile topsoil is susceptible to being carried away by wind or water.  This degradation leads to desertification, a process in which land becomes unsuitable for agriculture.

On average, 35 pounds of topsoil are lost when producing one pound of beef.

60% of developed farmland has already been damaged by overgrazing, and this figure is expected to reach 85% if practices are not changed (EarthSave).

Climate

The greater flux there is in weather patterns as climate changes, the less predictable yields become for farmers.  Livestock is a top contributor of greenhouse gasses and pollutants, accounting for

  • 35-40% of methane emissions, 25% of which comes from waste products,
  • 18% of carbon dioxide emissions including 102.4 million metric tons per annum due to desertification and deforestation, which deprives the world of plants which take in carbon dioxide.
  • 65% of nitrous oxide from waste products

(Steinfeld et al, 2006)

Reducing the Impact of Livestock on Food Production and the Environment

Increasing Production Per Acre

When humans eat animals, only about 12% of the calories and nutrients fed to livestock will end up being absorbed into the human body  (Cassidy et al, 2013). This is because most of the calories that the animals are fed are not turned into edible meat. If the crops fed to livestock were instead fed to humans directly, roughly 70% of all calories produced would be consumed by humans (Cassidy et al, 2013).

Looking at food production in China, an average of 8.4 people can be fed with what is produced on 100 square meters of farmland, based on the current diet. If people shifted their diets away from meat, it is estimated that that number would rise to 13.5 people per 100 square meters of farmland (Cassidy et al, 2013). Without eliminating animal food sources, shifting meat production from beef to chicken or pork would increase available food by 6%, while a vegetarian diet would increase it by 14% (Cassidy et al, 2013). By eliminating livestock entirely, and by finding alternatives to biofuels, it’s estimated that 4 billion additional people could be fed off the land currently farmed (Cassidy et al, 2013).

It is clear that reducing or eliminating the use of animal products as food would have a positive effect on global food security, however, changing people’s diets is a delicate process. Any legislative efforts to change global eating habits, such as outlawing the consumption of beef,  would likely be met with strong resistance. Because of this, consumption of animal products can be best managed through the elimination of subsidies in the livestock industry, and through educating the public of the environmental impact of livestock farming.

Diet Shift Through Subsidies

From the information above, it is clear that shifting away from our current animal-heavy diet is a necessary step in increasing the  global food supply, but it is difficult to legally require people to change their diet within a short time period. Although 85% of the beef industry is owned by 4 companies (Schlosser), the industry as a whole employs 482,100 people in packing and processing directly, and 6.2 million work in any capacity from supply chain to marketing (“The United States Meat Industry at a Glance”).  Downscaling the meat industry would give rise to new sustainable agriculture on land which was previously used to farm livestock. Turning the land from pasture to farmland and finding crops suitable for growing on the new cropland would require manpower.  Nevertheless, the transition would have to occur gradually to avoid an sharp rise in unemployment.

The shift away from livestock production can be catalyzed by manipulating subsidies in the livestock industry. From 1995 to 2009, the United States spent 3.5 billion USD in subsidies on meat production, and 4.8 billion USD in subsidies for dairy production (Physicians Comittee on Responsible Medicine). In 2014, animal feed alone was subsidized for $2.84 billion (US Department of Agriculture). These subsidies make the consumption of meat and other animal products much more inexpensive and widespread, but make it so that meat prices do not accurately reflect the intense amount of resources required for its production. By adjusting the amount of subsidies granted  to the livestock industry, it is possible to affect the market price of meat and other animal products in order to affect their consumption by the principle of price elasticity.

Price elasticity refers to how much people’s behavior changes in relation to changes in price.  With a 10% change in price of meat, the sales of beef, pork, and poultry will go up or down 7.5%, 7.2% and 6.8%, respectively (Andreyeva, 2010).  Price shifts in dairy products will elicit a similar response, with about a 6.5% increase or decrease in consumption with the same 10% price change.  Eggs have a price elasticity of about 2.7% (Andreyeva, 2010).

Reducing subsidies for industries involved in livestock production could drastically reduce the consumption of animal products. Cutting subsidies altogether is not uncharted territory; in 1984, New Zealand stopped all meat industry subsidies, and found that production shifted towards the true market demand (Miao, 2014). We propose cutting subsidies for the meat, dairy, and egg industries, while keeping subsidies for other agricultural products, thus creating a market directed towards sustainable eating. From their price elasticities, it is predicted that the consumption of meat and diary will decrease significantly in response to raised prices, while eggs will still be in high demand.

By eliminating subsidies for animal products consumer demand will decrease.  In order to prevent sudden jumps in prices for consumers and to allow farmers to adjust their practices (including the number and types of animals that they raise) gradually, it is proposed that livestock subsidies are cut 10 ten percentage points each year for 10 years, with an end goal of achieving an unsubsidized livestock industry. The money that was once used for livestock related subsidies could then be reallocated to programs to help sustainable foods become more available. Based on data for the amount of money that has been spent on livestock subsidies since 1995, it is expected that this will amount to 200- 400 million USD annually in the United States (“United States Livestock Subsidies”).

Educating the Public

In addition to eliminating livestock subsidies, it is important to educate the population on the environmental impact of the foods that they are eating. There are many “go green” initiatives in the United States, but the Environmental Protection Agency, a government agency whose mission is to “protect human health and the environment” (“About EPA”), makes little mention of the harmful effects that raising livestock has on the environment.

We propose that environmental agencies promote initiatives to cut back on animal product consumption in their “go green” campaigns. This can include simple programs such as “Meatless Mondays,” where people are encouraged to abstain from eating meat one day a week. If widespread awareness can be raised, the population will be forced to consider how animal product consumption impacts the environment.

Controlling Pollution Caused by the Livestock Industry

The environmental impact of the livestock industry should not only be taken seriously by individuals, it should be reflected in environmental policy. Common environmental policies aimed at reducing pollution in businesses and industries include a carbon cap policy, a policy which sets an upper limit on the amount of pollution that can be released per year and applies to all major sources of pollution, and carbon taxes, taxes on businesses and industries that produce large amount of carbon. At the present, both methods of reducing greenhouse gas emissions focus primarily on producers of electricity and purchasers of fuel, but do not address the greenhouse gasses that are created as a result of livestock production. The carbon cap method is part of a larger plan called “cap and trade,” in which industries can “buy” shares of the carbon budget from companies who produce less pollution (Kury, Theodore J, Parmesano, Hethie). Because of this leeway, the greatest decrease in pollutants output by industries can be seen through the imposition of a carbon tax, which puts a price on units of carbon output by a company, and does not allow any bargaining. In the present, carbon taxes have only been used in fifteen countries to a measurable extent, and is unprecedented in the use of meat production (World Bank). We propose that a carbon tax be implemented in order to discourage pollution in the livestock industry.

Summary

Through education and subsidy elimination, it is possible to reduce animal product production and consumption.  Implementing a carbon tax  on the livestock industry will serve to reduce its negative impact on the environment. Through these methods, described in greater depth in earlier sections, the goal of reducing animal product production and consumption by at least 50%, while decreasing the industry’s environmental impact, can be met in the next 20 years.

Related Articles

Works Cited

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