Harsh Realities for a Heating Planet

In the lead-up to the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development this month, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) released a lengthy report entitled “Global Environment Outlook-5: Environment for the future we want” that gives a comprehensive assessment aimed at keeping “governments and stakeholders informed of the state and trends of the global environment.” It calls attention to the relatively modest progress that has been made in terms of sustainability and environmental protection in spite of the some 500 environmental treaties and agreements that have been made since the creation of the UNEP at the 1972 the Stockholm Conference. Not surprisingly, the report expresses alarm over the ecological well-being of our planet, calling upon policy-makers to bridge the gap between empty rhetoric and the actual environmental policies necessary to create a new green economy and balance human activity within our Earth Systems.

Like many of us, the authors of the report want there to be some substantial outcomes from Rio, though if the history of environmental initiatives is any indicator of what is to come, than we can expect to be disappointed by the results the summit; leaders will meet, pontificate on the podium for the need to change this or that, pat themselves on the back, and then go home to business as usual.

The report does make multiple mentions of livestock and the environment, mentioning the word ‘meat’ no less than 56 times. It is quite impressive how far it goes in making the connection between diet and sustainability. Here are some excerpts:

“As regional economies continue to grow, so, too, does the consumption and production of of meat (Figure 1.6). Livestock production is the largest anthropogenic land use, accounting for  30 per cent of the land surface of the globe and 70 per cent of  all agricultural land; 33 per cent of total arable land is used for  producing animal feed (Steinfeld et al. 2006). Pelletier and Tyedmers  (2010) suggest that, by 2050, the livestock sector alone may  occupy the majority of, or significantly overshoot, recent estimates  of humanity’s biophysical limits within three environmental  areas: climate change, reactive nitrogen mobilization, and  appropriation of plant biomass at planetary scales.”

“approximately three-quarters of all human land  use is for meat and dairy production. Red meat is several times  more demanding of land and water than poultry or vegetarian  foods, and is also linked to cancer and heart disease. Policies  encouraging lower consumption of red meat would contribute to the MDGs related to human health and environmental sustainability”

” Historically, forests have been under pressure due to increasing demands for shelter, agricultural land, meat production, and fuel and timber extraction.”

“Growing demand for meat worldwide has been an important driver of  deforestation in South America, as forest is cleared to plant soy for livestock feed (Box 3.5). As meat production has grown, so has the area harvested for soybean crops, which expanded to 98.8 million hectares in 2009 from 74.3 million hectares in 2000, and 50.4 million hectares 30 years ago (FAO 2012). An increasing demand for meat has the potential to compound  rangeland degradation. Livestock production accounts for over 8 per cent of global freshwater use and is among the largest sources of water pollution leading to eutrophication, algal blooms, coral reef degradation, human health issues, antibiotic resistance and disruption of nutrient cycling  (Steinfeld et al. 2006). Considering the entire commodity chain,  including deforestation for grazing and forage production,  meat production accounts for 18–25 per cent of the world’s  greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than global transport  (UNEP 2009b; Fiala 2008; Steinfeld et al. 2006). Reducing meat  consumption in regions where it is relatively high could thus  bring a range of environmental benefits (Marlow et al. 2009).”

“Threats from livestock production to biodiversity are likely to grow as demand for meat and dairy increases, requiring more livestock feed and more water (Thornton 2010). The complex issue of ensuring a sustainable food supply for an expanding human population has been addressed in recent assessments (IAASTD 2009; Molden 2007), along with the biodiversity benefits that can be obtained by balancing food production with the supply of other ecosystem services. Pressures on land, water and biodiversity from agriculture and aquaculture could be reduced in some countries by reducing overconsumption of food, shifting towards diets comprising less meat/fish, and reducing crop losses and food waste (Godfray et al. 2010; WHO 2005).”

“Between 2000 and 2050, global cereal demand is projected to increase by 70–75 per cent while meat consumption is expected to double (Thornton 2010; IAASTD 2009a; FAO 2006b). Meeting these needs, while avoiding a large expansion of agricultural land and protecting biodiversity, will be a major challenge. Ensuring food security will also be an issue as world food markets are likely to be influenced by increasing resource scarcity.”

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2 thoughts on “Harsh Realities for a Heating Planet

  1. […] comes out to about 8 animals per each human per year excluding all marine life (see post below from May 28). If one believes that each individual animal is worthy of some ethical consideration, then the […]

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