August 18, 2018 by Cláudia
Even though Cowspiracy shed some light on the connection between livestock and greenhouse gas emissions, and increasingly livestock is regarded as one of the leading causes of climate change, it is still an issue that remains little-known and underdeveloped, especially compared to the contribution of fossil fuel industries. This is not to say that one is more important or urgent than the other. Climate change is a global challenge that will mean a thorough reconsideration of how our society works and it is such a big challenge that we need to tackle from every possible front.
So answering the question: What does eating meat have to do with climate change?
First of all, greenhouse gases are gases that trap the heat and stay in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Greenhouse gases are methane, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, all of them can be found in livestock production.
Methane is a really important GHG (greenhouse gas) which is released during ruminants’ digestive process. I say methane is a really important GHG because it plays a central role in climate change: it is far more potent than CO2, absorbing 23 times more heat than CO2. However, methane gets eliminated from the atmosphere much quicker than any other GHG, persisting in the atmosphere for only 8-12 years, compared to 115 of nitrogen and unlimited time for carbon dioxide (if it is not captured) (see Henning, 2011, “Standing in livestock’s long shadow).
This means that mitigation of climate change through the livestock sector offers very promising possibilities: methane emissions reduction would mean a faster and sharper cooling of the atmosphere while reducing CO2 emissions, even if drastically, will not prevent the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere from trapping heat. We are running against time when it comes to climate change and methane emissions reduction is an opportunity to buy some time while we are working on reconversion of our energetic system towards renewable energy.
Another important issue regarding livestock and climate change is land-use, specifically, change in land-use that involves deforestation. Livestock production requires large amounts of land for pasture and for crops to feed the animals, which is only possible by cutting forests and using the land for soy and corn crops, used to feed the animals. As we can see, livestock production is highly unsustainable because instead of using the cultivated land to feed humans, we are using absurd amounts of food to feed animals, thus wasting calories in the process (See: We already grow enough food for 10 billion people… and still can’t end hunger). While at first, this may seem like a marginal problem, the fact is that livestock is responsible for 80% of the deforestation worldwide and 70% of the Amazon deforestation. Forests are absolutely crucial elements in regulating our climate and can capture and store great amounts of CO2. We should be investing in reforestation, yet deforestation is growing at a fulminant rate.
As for nitrogen, it is less spoken of in scientific research, but it largely comes from manure management, also connected to livestock production.
Therefore, livestock production is largely responsible for the emission of the three main GHG.
Climate change is a global challenge that will need the reassessment of old beliefs and the need to eat meat every meal (and every day) is one of them.
Scientists and policymakers acknowledge the importance of livestock in climate change but refuse to question this belief. Instead, they propose measures to intensify the production: growth stimulants, more antibiotics, methane vaccines etc. So we can rethink the way we eat (in a way that is beneficial to us, the planet and even the animals) or we can let livestock production be even more intensified making these animals’ lives even more unbearable and the meat we eat even less healthy.
Our society’s growing addiction to meat is nonsensical. We do not need to eat meat every day, much less meat every meal. We are compromising our health and wellbeing while doing something that is destructive to the world we live in and making it unsustainable for future generations.
Although I do encourage people to transition themselves for a more plant-based diet, that is not nearly enough. If we hope to make a global transition that actually has a real impact in our climate, it is urgent that Governments encourage a transition towards a more plant-based diet and stop facilitating intensive livestock’s destructive activities. Farmers should be helped with reconversion to more sustainable practices and big livestock corporations should have carbon taxes on their activity to counter the externalization of costs.
We need to eat less meat and, for those who do eat meat, better meat. The truth about the consequences of livestock production should be rendered more salient in the media. Eating meat is no longer a personal decision because it is jeopardising our whole existence and survival.
Although I do promote veganism (for the animals’ well-being and their dignity), I am not saying that every single person in the world has to transition to veganism in order for us to survive. What I am saying is that intensive livestock is unsustainable and incompatible with our survival. We simply cannot feed a growing population with meat without an overwhelming change in land-use, therefore destroying our forests beyond repair.
The good news is that a diet that involves little or no meat can be extremely healthy, energizing, tasting and exciting. But we will eventually come to a point where we have to make a decision: do we want to keep living on this planet but change the way we eat or do we want to change our diet and save the planet?
Even though old beliefs are hard to break, I truly believe we can face this challenge together and build a more sustainable food system. But we need to question our habits and be brave enough to change them.
Resources: Get more information about livestock and climate change and scientific research!
- Standing in Livestock’s long shadow
- Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters
- Greedy or needy Land use and climate impacts of food in 2050 under different livestock futures
- Help the climate, change your diet
- Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key actors in climate change are… cows, pigs, and chickens?