4 Reasons Why We Need to Rethink Industrial Meat Production
It’s a big world out there. On second thought, it feels like the world is getting smaller.
Trends point toward a planet that will be even more crowded and tightly bound than ever as the population soars from seven to nine billion and prosperity rises for hundreds of millions by 2050. Such global forecasts have led to vigorous discussions about resource constraints over the last few years. For instance, projections from the Alternative Worlds report by the National Intelligence Council posits that the world will need 35 percent more water, 40 percent more energy and 50 percent more food by 2030. In short, more basic nexus resources will be stretched by more people. Throw in the wild card of climate variability and in creeps that uncertain feeling about global prospects.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
The way things are going, feeding the world could become even more precarious than it already is. One of the biggest questions around global food security is whether the current industrialized meat production system (the CAFO [confined animal feeding operation] model) can meet growing future demand. The resource intensity of meat production can’t be ignored as neighbors in developing countries emulate the meat-heavy Western diet. The symbol for global economic development—often thought of as a car in every driveway—is more aptly imagined as a steak on every plate. Concern about water for meat production is as essential as it is immense, yet it is just one massive wave in the sea of resources necessary to keep global meat consumption afloat.
We know meat production takes many resources, but do we have any idea what the limits of all those resources are?
One useful analytical framework for potential limitations to meat production is the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s Planetary Boundaries project. The Planetary Boundaries are a set of nine quantified environmental thresholds that if overstepped, could lead to serious human and environmental change and disruption. (Read here for a counterpoint to the Planetary Boundaries.) Below are four of these boundaries that relate to industrialized meat production, all of which, besides phosphorus loading, have been transgressed in the project’s determination.
The United Nations projects that by 2030 water scarcity could affect nearly half the world’s population with demand surpassing supply by 40 percent. One 2012 World Water Week study made waves when it suggested a largely vegetarian diet option—reducing the percentage of animal protein in our diet from the average of 20 to five—to feed the growing global population, since a meat-centered diet can require five to 10 times the water of a vegetarian diet. As we obtain more global water data from sources like NASA’s GRACE Satellite (no relation) that highlight certain agriculturally sensitive and dry parts of the world like the Middle East, northern India and the U.S. High Plains—all of which are losing stored water—sustainable water management becomes absolutely critical. This is especially true as local, competing demands between agriculture, the power industry and public drinking water increase.
Nutrient Overload (Nitrogen and Phosphorous):
Nitrogen and phosphorus prove the point that too much of a good thing can be very bad. These two fertilizers are applied to the point of becoming pollutants. There are two ways this happens through industrial meat production. The first is through synthetic production of fertilizers, especially those that are nitrogen based, that get applied in excess onto fields that grow feed crops for CAFO-raised or finished animals. The second pathway is through accumulation of enormous amounts of manure that is produced by large numbers of animals concentrated in a given location. While some fraction of nutrient-rich fertilizers are taken up by plants, the excess eventually enters waterways which cause large algae blooms that that kill aquatic life through oxygen depletion and cause widespread “dead zones.” The infamous Gulf of Mexico dead zone is a prime example: too much fertilizer and manure from the US Midwest ends up in the Mississippi River and eventually in the Gulf of Mexico.
The change in land-use from forest, wetlands and grassland to agricultural fields has harmed biodiversity and impaired “ecosystem services,” or the ability of the natural environment to provide a natural buffer in things like water systems and nutrient and carbon cycles. There is the possibility of reaching “peak farmland” where almost all of the arable (farmable) land on Earth is in use, which can lead to social tension and land grabs from external countries. Land grabs are becoming more common and those living near CAFOs experience these neighboring factories as unhealthy and a nuisance. Interestingly, most land-use concerns happen at the local or regional level.
No environmental issue is more planetary than climate change brought about by the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions in a shared atmosphere. Recent United Nation-led reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reaffirm the dramatic effects climate change will have on livestock production, particularly those systems that rely heavily on grain and soy to fill the feeding troughs of CAFO-raised animals. Among the challenges to be faced by both farmers and livestock are increasing average temperatures and shifting climactic zones, the greater likelihood of crop loss and damage from “drought and deluge” and commodity feed price volatility. There is a feedback loop in play here—as illuminated by the FAO report—because livestock production contributes 14.5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. (Note that some estimates of meat production’s greenhouse gas emissions range much higher to 51 percent).
Unfortunately, “business as usual” for increased meat production means the CAFO model, which was created and perfected in the U.S. and is being exported worldwide. The model has succeeded in terms of profiting a small number of large, industrialized livestock producers that control the meat market, providing deceptively “cheap meat” that hides the true costs of all the numerous problems associated with industrial livestock production. Despite the harmful nature of this form of meat production, the trend of globalized CAFO meat production is accurate if the recent Smithfield Foods merger is any indication. Limits be damned!
Of course, no one wants to live beside a CAFO because of the terrible costs to community livability and human health, but the reality is that no one knows how these trends, production methods or planetary boundaries will play out. Many communities are powerless to stop them from moving in once they’ve gotten a foothold. The good news is that there are alternatives to meat production and consumption that are taking root, whether it’s through a return to pasture raised-meat, reducing meat consumption a la Meatless Mondays or even test tube meat (please, no). In the end, humanity has to figure out new and sustainable ways to feed ourselves. We can depart from the industrial food path and eat meat; we can ensure that everyone is fed and raise livestock in a more sustainable and humane way. It is incumbent upon to us explore those alternative paths before our planet—big or small—becomes less liveable.
Visit EcoWatch’s FACTORY FARMING page for more related news on this topic.
Typhoon Molave is expected to make landfall in Vietnam on Wednesday with 90 mph winds and heavy rainfall that could lead to flooding and landslides, according to the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. To prepare for the powerful storm that already tore through the Philippines, Vietnam is making plans to evacuate nearly 1.3 million people along the central coast, as Reuters reported.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
How does your burrito impact the environment? If you ordered it from Chipotle, there is now a way to find out.
- Food's Environmental Impact Varies Greatly Between Producers ... ›
- Panera Bread Becomes First Chain to Use Climate-Friendly Label ... ›
Are you noticing your shirts becoming too tight fitting to wear? Have you been regularly visiting a gym, yet it seems like your effort is not enough? It's okay to get disappointed, but not to lose hope.
By Sarah Steffen
A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
- 8 World Cities That Could Be Underwater as Oceans Rise - EcoWatch ›
- Endangered Migratory Birds on Collision Course with New Airport ... ›
- How Is Climate Change Affecting the Philippines? - EcoWatch ›
A pair of studies released Monday confirmed not only the presence of water and ice on the moon, but that it is more abundant than scientists previously thought. Those twin discoveries boost the prospect of a sustainable lunar base that could harvest the moon's resources to help sustain itself, according to the BBC.
- Scientists Find Rust on the Moon 'Puzzling' - EcoWatch ›
- Historic NASA/SpaceX Mission Could Pave the Way for Space ... ›
- NASA Study of Increasingly Dire Global Water Shortages Finds ›
- Groundbreaking NASA Announcement: Evidence of Liquid Water on ... ›