The environmental impact of animal farming


Two arguments are advanced in favor of veganism and vegetarianism. One is the moral one, that the animals we eat are sentient beings that are similar to humans and that it is wrong for us to kill and eat them, even if we eliminate the cruelty of factory farming. The second is an economic and environmental argument, that animals are a highly inefficient source of protein, requiring the expenditure of a vast amount of resources. The rough rule of thumb is that as we go up the food chain, we lose 90% of the energy at each stage. In other words, by feeding grain to animals for the meat, we get only 10% of the energy that was initially stored in the grain. If the animals are fed a diet of animal protein, then we lose another 90%, leaving us with only 1% of the initial energy. This is highly wasteful.

But this article suggests that the second argument against meat may not be as strong as once thought and that certain types of animal husbandry can be better than growing plants for food, since so many food crops plants are grown in an industrial manner similar to that used for animal and have similar downsides.

Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing. We should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, while demonising sustainable forms of livestock farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

The author describes what happened when they took their 3,500 acres of land whose soil had been depleted by years of crop farming and made it free-range grazing land for cattle, pigs, deer, and ponies that could wander about as they pleased.

Twenty years ago, our soils at the farm – severely degraded after decades of ploughing and chemical inputs – were almost biologically dead. Now we have fruiting fungi and orchids appearing in our former arable fields: an indication that subterranean networks of mycorrhizal fungi are spreading. We have 19 types of earthworm – keystone species responsible for aerating, rotavating, fertilising, hydrating and even detoxifying the soil. We’ve found 23 species of dung beetle in a single cowpat, one of which – the violet dor beetle – hasn’t been seen in Sussex for 50 years. Birds that feed on insects attracted by this nutritious dung are rocketing. The rootling of the pigs provides opportunities for native flora and shrubs to germinate, including sallow, and this has given rise to the biggest colony of purple emperors in Britain, one of our rarest butterflies, which lays its eggs on sallow leaves.

Not only does this system of natural grazing aid the environment in terms of soil restoration, biodiversity, pollinating insects, water quality and flood mitigation – but it also it guarantees healthy lives for the animals, and they in turn produce meat that is healthy for us. In direct contrast to grain-fed and grain-finished meat from intensive systems, wholly pasture-fed meat is high in beta carotene, calcium, selenium, magnesium and potassium and vitamins E and B, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – a powerful anti-carcinogen. It is also high in the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is vital for human brain development but extremely difficult for vegans to obtain.

The powerful moral arguments against eating meat and the use of industrial farming practices remain intact. But the author argues that the economic and environmental questions surrounding animal farming are more complex.

There’s no question we should all be eating far less meat, and calls for an end to high-carbon, polluting, unethical, intensive forms of grain-fed meat production are commendable. But if your concerns as a vegan are the environment, animal welfare and your own health, then it’s no longer possible to pretend that these are all met simply by giving up meat and dairy. Counterintuitive as it may seem, adding the occasional organic, pasture-fed steak to your diet could be the right way to square the circle.

Comments

  1. kestrel says

    Interesting. One thing I’ll point out is that an awful lot of livestock on Earth does *not* eat grain. For example, llamas and alpacas in the highlands of the Andes, reindeer in Europe and yaks in Tibet, are not fed grain. What these animals are doing is taking something that people can not digest (cellulose) and turning it into something that humans can digest: protein. My own farm is marginal and won’t produce crops unless you consider weeds and sticks a crop… my goats however can eat the weeds and sticks and convert them into milk for me. In richer and more developed countries animals are indeed fed grain but not exclusively and even here in the US, cattle are generally raised on grasses and forbs up on the forest or in pastures. They may be sent to a feed lot for “finishing” for the final months of their lives where they are fed a diet high in grains, to get mottling of fat in the meat which is highly prized (by some – I don’t care for it). But the cattle are not bred and raised in feed lots; they are bred and raised elsewhere on pastures and so on.

    It seems that trying to raise a monoculture, whether of cattle or soybeans, is not the best idea.

  2. jazzlet says

    A lot of sheep are reared on land that couldn’t be used for crops, in the UK at least.

  3. consciousness razor says

    Two arguments are advanced in favor of veganism and vegetarianism.

    A third is that it is healthier (for humans). That is to say it’s advanced regularly, but given the state of our knowledge about medicine/nutrition/etc. (or at least mine), I definitely can’t vouch for its accuracy.

    One is the moral one, that the animals we eat are sentient beings that are similar to humans and that it is wrong for us to kill and eat them, even if we eliminate the cruelty of factory farming.

    A bit of a strawman…. Some people can and do argue that we should at least eliminate any unnecessary cruelty, given that they are sentient. It would at least be more acceptable, by virtue of reducing their suffering, even if that falls short of totally abstaining from killing livestock for food. (Consider this as just a more conciliatory or incrementalist type of argument from sentience, if you like.)

    The second is an economic and environmental argument, that animals are a highly inefficient source of protein, requiring the expenditure of a vast amount of resources.

    Call it what you will, but this is also a moral argument. It’s not as if it fails to have moral implications; there are a whole lot of them in fact. It just isn’t directly concerned with claims about what non-human animals can feel.

    Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing.

    Why is it assumed to be “industrial” when they are plants, but it is “sustainable” when they are meat/dairy? That’s simply not an either/or kind of thing where the author can legitimately claim it’s one choice “rather than” another. That kind of sloppiness should raise some alarms.

    It’s also weird that vegans/vegetarians are treated like adversaries, or like they’re the ones causing the bulk of problems the author (at least ostensibly) wants to address. There is at least some recognition that we should eat less meat, which means we have a whole lot of common ground to start with. Presumably, if we do eat less meat, we will consequently eat more of something else that has the appropriate nutritional content…. I don’t know what one might do other than seduce people with exhortations, but the result will be that you get some kind of message from the author that tells you the same things, just with less seductiveness or urgency or whatever.

    Feeding everybody on the planet with that kind of yield (assuming their farm isn’t too much of an outlier), particularly those who aren’t fortunate enough to own 3500 idyllic acres of land in the UK (i.e., basically everybody), does not sound like it would be feasible. But I have a feeling that class is not even on the radar here….

    There’s also the fact that nothing about this affects the validity of your (rough) figures at the beginning of the post, that raising livestock is significantly less efficient. I don’t get why you might think otherwise. The situation’s much more complicated than one quantity, obviously, but I doubt that’s really what you believed to begin with.

    We should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, while demonising sustainable forms of livestock farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

    It’s not obvious to me that the overall effect would be to drive up demand. If we were not using so many of these crops to feed livestock, the demand for those would go down accordingly.

    The talk about “demonising” is strange. Saying “it seems like we could do better than that” is hardly demonizing. Again, if the author wants to target groups of people who are causing lots of trouble, aiming at vegans/vegetarians is an awfully weird choice. Maybe they’d prefer it if they didn’t get any pressure from that direction, but what is there to say? You can’t always get what you want.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    cr @3:

    Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing.

    Why is it assumed to be “industrial” when they are plants, but it is “sustainable” when they are meat/dairy? That’s simply not an either/or kind of thing where the author can legitimately claim it’s one choice “rather than” another. That kind of sloppiness should raise some alarms.

    I’m not sure why you’re so confused about a simple sentence. We grow crops industrially. That’s not an assumption, and those methods are not sustainable. The author favours sustainable methods. The meat/dairy is sustainable with her methods because the plant management systems (crop rotation, etc) used to feed the animals are sustainable.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    cr @3:

    Feeding everybody on the planet with that kind of yield (assuming their farm isn’t too much of an outlier), particularly those who aren’t fortunate enough to own 3500 idyllic acres of land in the UK (i.e., basically everybody), does not sound like it would be feasible.

    If people ate 1 kg meat (pre-cooked weight) per week, her output would supply 1,500 people. 5,000 farms with the same output (maybe more or less acreage, more or less idyllic) would supply everybody. Doesn’t sound horribly unfeasible to me at first look.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    OMG, major maths fail on my part. Never mind. What’s three orders of magnitude between friends?

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Rob Grigjanis @ # 6: What’s three orders of magnitude between friends?

    Considering we’re talking about Brits, not even a comma.

  8. says

    And in other news, water is wet.

    I remember reading something to this effect years ago and I was saying this for just as long.

    As someone who lives in an area where economicaly nonproductive fields were converted into pastures, it is nothing new to me to read that pastures have higher biodiversity than regularly ploughed fields. I see that when I peek out of my window.

  9. anat says

    Rob, currently 32-36 million square km is the estimate for total area used to grow livestock. 5 million farms of the size described in the article are 70 million square km.

  10. mnb0 says

    “The powerful moral arguments against eating meat”
    About as powerful as god-arguments for believers.
    It’s “we should all be eating far less meat, and calls for an end to ….” that was powerful enough to make me radically reduce my meat consumption.

  11. anat says

    What we really need to look into is what methods of food production and what patterns of food consumption will allow reverting more land not into pasture but truly wild land, not used to support the feeding of humans or their livestock in any way. I have hopes for vertical farming and mostly plant-based diets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *