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The food sector, and in particular animal farming, is the most impactful on the environment when it comes to all domains: air, water and land. The amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which can be linked directly with the production of food ranges between 18% and 51% (Steinfeld et al., 2006; Goodland and Anhang, 2009), making this sector the most impactful in this regard. Food production also affects global water use and according to the Water Footprint Network that on average as much as 92% of daily personal water use can be linked to food (Hoekstra and Mekonnen, 2012). This is the result of accounting for the “virtual water”, which is the water necessary for all stages of production. In the case of food, this includes the water used for farming, processing and distribution of the food. Despite being invisible, such water is still embedded in the food we eat and the amount is therefore much higher than the water used directly for, for example, doing household chores or personal hygiene. Furthermore, the effect on water resources can also be seen in the so-called “ocean dead zones”, which are the result of large scale animal farming, often referred to as Concentrated Automated Feeding Operations – CAFOs (Imhoff, 2010). Such farming operations result in animal waste becoming excessive runoff which ends up polluting water streams, which in turn heavily pollute the ocean where they are discharged.
Another very important environmental impact is the one related to land use. This has many forms, with the most straightforward being direct pollution of arable areas with, for example fertilizers and antibiotics, or through an excessive discharge of animal waste. Currently, as much as 80% of the available cropland worldwide is used for animal farming either to grow animal feed ingredients or as pasture (Steinfeld et al., 2006).
When analyzing meat consumption data, it can be highlighted how different regions of the world are developing towards similar patterns. Globally, while the amount of land required to produce animal products is decreasing, the average amount of meat consumption and the amount of animals slaughtered are increasing. In the analysis included in the PhD “Meat consumption as a wicked problem: evidence from data and policies.” all countries of the world were assessed on the basis of the values of three indicators describing respectively cattle, pig and poultry meat consumption, the amount of land required to produce animals products and the number of animals slaughtered per capita on the time-frame 1962-2009.
The results of the convergence assessment showed that, while some of the richest regions (for example Northern America and Oceania, as well as Northern Europe) have been decreasing their consumption levels during the last decade, globally the amount of meat consumption has increased steadily since the 60s, due also to the 10-fold increase in consumption levels in Eastern Asia. According to the data available for the last year of the series analyzed, over 10 animals are slaughtered per capita per year as a global average, resulting in about 63 billion animals slaughtered in total.
Apart from the environmental impacts described earlier, such trends affect negatively also the changes in land use. The location where this is most evident is the Amazon forest: here, the conversion of virgin forest to pastures or to grow soy for animal feeds is the main driver. When looking more specifically into the local situation in one major biodiversity hotspot, the Madre de Dios region in Peru, the analysis highlighted how close is the connection between the increased demand for meat and local deforestation. This is true especially in areas close to roads, including the inter-oceanic highway.
When considering both the environmental impacts and the rising global average income, which leads to an increase in the demand for animal products, it becomes evident that addressing sustainable food production should be a priority. In particular, promoting sustainable diets with a lower intake of animal products is an issue that should be more widely addressed in the current political agenda. However, governmental bodies seem to be still scarcely equipped to handle the complexity of the current food system’s challenges. When reviewing the food policies and dietary guidelines worldwide, what becomes evident is an overall absence of support and information on the reduction of meat consumption. Only few countries (including Finland, Sweden, Qatar and Brazil) include (sometimes vague) recommendations in this sense.
Such lack on the policy side may also hinder a greater awareness in the civil society towards the connection of meat consumption with climate change and other environmental issues.
Through the consultation of a wide range of experts (such as economists, sociologists, animal welfare and environmental scientists) and academics, it would be possible to develop dietary guidelines which are more effective in health, environmental and ethical terms. Stakeholders need to cooperate and keep the dialogue open in order to reach solutions at the policy making level which account for all these aspects.
In this sense, universities hold both responsibilities and opportunities to set a model for the rest of society: they can shape students’ values and consumption behaviors, as well as implement innovative projects (for example farm-to-college projects; here a good example from Emory University in the US https://oxford.emory.edu/offices-and-services/organic-farm.html) and policies. Academia can also act as an incubator of principles and ideas, which can be disseminated through engagement with local communities, as well as through students and researchers implementing these values in their lives outside the universities. Communication and dialogue should thus be implemented between researchers, managers, educators, farmers, and policy makers. Creating change starts from providing consumers with clear and comprehensive information, combined with a level of food education which enables as many people as possible to be fully aware of the consequences of their food choices.
Dr. Francesca Allievi
The writer is an expert on food sustainability issues, with a focus on sustainable agriculture. She holds a PhD from University of Turku and is keen on continuing to increase awareness in civil society and create a momentum for a new wave of education which promotes the skills necessary for the transition to a more sustainable food system.
1. Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., and de Haan, C. (2006). Livestock’s long shadow. FAO, Rome; Goodland, R. and Anhang, J. (2009). Livestock and Climate Change. What if the key actors in climate change were pigs, chickens and cows? Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 10–19.
2. Hoekstra, A. and Mekonnen, M. (2012). The water footprint of humanity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of United States of America, 109 (9), 3232–3237.
3. Imhoff, D. (2010). The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. Watershed Media, USA.
4. Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., and de Haan, C. (2006). Livestock’s long shadow. FAO, Rome