It is quite alarming to note that climate change, an issue of utmost importance, continues to receive negligible coverage by mainstream media around the world. To understand the link between agribusiness and climate change, one must understand the meaning of both the terms individually. Agribusiness can be defined as carrying out factory farming, animal agriculture and raising livestock at a large commercial scale. It involves the usage of agrichemicals such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on crops and antibiotics and hormones on livestock to protect them from diseases and to increase yield.
Human intervention in the natural processes of the planet has resulted in permanent damage to the environment. The list of such activities include – increased greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and reckless disposal of non-biodegradable waste among others. So how does commercialised agriculture and cattle rearing factor in ? Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, than transportation, according to a new United Nations report released thirteen years ago. Yet, all major environment related campaigns are aimed at reducing fossil fuel emissions and keeping plastic out of the ocean.
While the latter are important in and of itself, they aren’t nearly as high up on the list of priorities that we should be following when it comes to climate change and here are some reasons why. Methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of Carbon Dioxide on a 20 year time frame. Further, animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation which is 13 percent. What this essentially means is that on a scale of 1 – 10, threat from fossil fuel emissions is a 6, while that from greenhouse gases produced by livestock is 11. Furthermore, livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and which stays in the atmosphere for more than a hundred years.
This means that even if every single person on the planet stopped using all means of fossil fuel powered transportation immediately, we would still exceed the safe limit of 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide within eleven years, all from raising animals for consumption. So far we’ve established the harms of raising animals for meat consumption but the dairy industry isn’t far behind. It takes 3700 litres of water to produce 3 litres of milk. The water footprint of dairy is enormous while there is no actual proof that not drinking milk can have any effect on a person’s health.
With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes. The livestock sector is growing faster than any other sub-sector of agriculture and provides livelihoods to about 1.3 billion people around the world. For many poor farmers in developing countries livestock are also a source of renewable energy for draft and an essential source of organic fertilizer for their crops.
Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. At the same time it is a well known fact that herds cause wide-scale land degradation, with about 20 percent of pastures considered degraded through overgrazing, loss of porosity in soil and erosion. This figure is even higher in the drylands where inappropriate policies and inadequate livestock management contribute to advancing desertification. The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides used to spray feed crops.
Therefore, after thousands of years after transitioning to cattle rearing and spending decades perfecting modern animal husbandry techniques, it has now become unsustainable for the foreseeable future. Several people choose to believe that a shift to producing meat organically might be an apt solution. However, the supply of meat from organic farming will not be enough to meet the demands of a growing population. Hence, unsustainability continues to be a roadblock in the way of identifying suitable mitigation techniques and vegetarianism along with veganism turn out to be the most sustainable for the planet.
Despite several studies and intensive research, corporations continue to run this industry with the support of governments around the world. One of the reasons could be that these corporations hold a lot of capital which is used to fund political campaigns. Thus, passing laws that are in favour of the environment but pose a problem for harmful trade practices might not be taken well by the business class. Kip Anderson, Keeghan Kuhn, Howard Lyman and Will Potter are a few notable names who have created an impressive body of work with regards to this matter.
Kip and Keeghan are the directors of a popular documentary called ‘Cowspiracy’ that talks about the harmful impact of factory farms and animal agriculture. An interesting phenomenon that this documentary helps bring to light is that several NGOs and environmental organisations working on the cause of climate change continue to conveniently work their way around the issue as no one wants to directly invite trouble from the meat industry. It’s hard to believe that in this era of information and technology, the masses continue to be uninformed to this extent.
Howard Lyman, now a vegan and animal rights activist, was actively engaged in animal and grain production during the 1970’s. In 1979 he was diagnosed with a tumor in his spine. Faced with the prospect of paralysis, he vowed to return to non-chemical means of farming if he beat the cancer. He survived an operation to remove the tumor and set out to transform his land into an organic farm. In April 1996 he came to national attention during an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Lyman’s remarks about the meat industry led to Winfrey renouncing hamburgers. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association sued Lyman and Winfrey although both were found not guilty later on.
Will Potter is a journalist and author of the book ‘Green Is the New Red’. He talks about how the meat industry is one of the most powerful industries on the planet and that their influence is more far reaching than the common man could imagine. He also reveals that animal rights and environmental activists are the number one domestic terrorism threat to national security according to national security agencies in America. This just further goes on to show how politics is intertwined with money and corporate agendas even when the price paid in return is the destruction of the planet. And how that has resulted in one of the largest industries on the planet, with the largest environmental impact, has succeeded in trying to keep us in the dark about how it’s actually operating.
Evidently then, what is required right now is an increased awareness about the pressing reality of animal husbandry and the livestock industry, the primarily non-vegetarian lifestyle of global consumers and the effect this has on our rapidly degrading environment. Like many other things, we turn our backs to the detrimental impact such agribusiness has on the climate simply because right now we can afford to do so. But we must make no mistake, there can and will be a time when it’s too late.
Picture Courtesy- Inhabitat