The New Scientist December 12, 2006


Cows, pigs and sheep: Environment's greatest threats?

By Catherine Brahic


Cows, pigs, sheep and poultry have been awarded the dubious honour of

being among the world's greatest environmental threats, according to

the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).


The report, entitled Livestock's long shadow, says the livestock

industry is degrading land, contributing to the greenhouse effect,

polluting water resources, and destroying biodiversity. In summary,

the sector is "one of the top two or three most significant

contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every



The authors say the demand for meat is expected to more than double

by 2050 and therefore the environmental impact of production must be

halved in order to avoid worsening the harmful impacts of the



Perhaps the report's most striking finding is that the livestock

sector accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions - more

than transport, which emits 13.5%.


Entire cycle


The FAO's estimate of livestock emissions surpasses previous ones

because this time researchers looked at the entire production cycle.

This includes emissions generated by fertiliser and feed production,

deforestation to open up pastures, manure management, and emissions

from the livestock themselves and from transporting them and their



Livestock require a lot of land, occupying 26% of Earth's ice-free

land. Their pastures account for 70% of deforested areas in the

Amazon, and their feed occupies one-third of global cropland.


Not only does deforestation increase greenhouse gas emissions by

releasing carbon previously stored in trees, it is also a major

driver in the loss of biodiversity. The report goes so far as to say

that the livestock sector, which accounts for about 20% of

terrestrial animal biomass, "may be a leading player in the reduction

of biodiversity".


Livelihoods in livestock


Encouraging the global population to become vegans is not a viable

solution, however. For starters, says the lead author of the FAO

report, Henning Steinfeld, it is quite simply not an option for many

of the one billion people whose livelihoods rely on livestock



Moreover, vegetable production is not devoid of environmental

problems either. And recent studies have shown that global fish

stocks are not sustainable at current levels of exploitation.


Steinfeld says the crux of the livestock problem is the sheer bulk of

land the sector occupies: "We need to discourage indiscriminate

deforestation for pasture, a large part of which takes place because

of land speculation."


Convenient occupation


In the Amazon, where governments struggle to enforce legal systems,

settlers occupy swathes of "no-man's land" and wait 15 years, after

which time practice, though not law, dictates that they own the land.

Using the land for pasture is simply a convenient tool to occupy the

land, explains Steinfeld.


Ultimately, the authors argue, environmental services such as

sustainably managed land and clean water, need to be given a price.

"Most frequently, natural resources are free or underpriced, which

leads to overexploitation and pollution," write the authors,

concluding that "a top priority is to achieve prices and fees that

reflect the full economic and environmental costs".


Steinfeld says negotiations of the next step of the Kyoto Protocol

might be a good opportunity to do this.


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