In the last few decades food companies have filled our shelves with meat, chocolate, cheese and eggs, which has resulted in an explosion of livestock numbers – especially cows, pigs and chickens. There are now so many that an estimated 60% of all mammals on the planet are livestock, while just 4% are wild (the other 36% is us). Farmed poultry account for an incredible 70% of all birds.
This rapid growth in meat and dairy production has been driven by profit-hungry companies and has led to drastic consequences for our planet. All these animals need a lot of food and vast areas of forests, grasslands and wetlands have been destroyed to feed livestock. Giant chunks of the Amazon rainforest and other South American forests and savannas have been replaced with fields of soya, wiping out the wildlife they support.
This is a disaster for the climate. Agriculture and deforestation contribute a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and animal farming is responsible for 60% of the emissions from agriculture. These emissions come from a variety of sources. Converting forests and other landscapes into fields for animal feed releases greenhouse gases, and removes trees that help suck up and store carbon dioxide in the first place. Artificial fertilisers use a lot of energy to produce and they release another greenhouse gas – nitrous oxide – which traps much more heat than carbon dioxide. And cows produce a lot of methane – it’s no laughing matter that farts from billions of cows are warming our planet.
Chicken is often seen as a more environmentally friendly choice compared to beef, but global chicken consumption has almost doubled since 1990. Producing chicken at that scale comes with a host of problems – notably vast amounts of animal feed.
Animal agriculture is a really inefficient way to produce enough food for everyone on the planet. For every 100 calories of crops fed to animals, we get 40 calories in the form of milk, 12 calories of chicken, and just 3 calories of beef. Instead, that grain could be used to feed people directly and would help ensure everyone has enough food.
Industrial farming also comes with a host of other serious problems. Converting land for agriculture can disrupt water supplies and lead to soil erosion, while fertilisers escape the fields to pollute rivers and oceans. Animals in factory farms are kept in brutal conditions and bred to maximise meat production at the expense of their own welfare. And eating more meat and dairy is increasingly being linked to a host of health impacts such as obesity, diabetes and various cancers, jeopardising our own health.
There’s still time to stop the damage, but we need to radically change the way we think about food. The best advice comes from writer Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” As he suggests, we can eat less meat and dairy, not just as individuals but at a global level. To keep global temperature increases below 1.5ºC, we need to reduce the amount of meat and dairy we’re eating by more than half by 2030. That means big companies need to start producing tasty, healthy plant-based meals – and reduce the amount of meat and dairy products too. What meat we do eat has to be produced ecologically, respecting both the environmental impacts and the welfare of the animals themselves.
We also need to hold governments and companies accountable for the damage food production is causing and demand a more responsible approach. In this way, we can stop destroying forests to rear animals and grow crops to feed them. In 2006, Greenpeace pioneered a collective agreement between soya growers, traders and food companies to protect the Amazon from further destruction, which is still in place today.
A better attitude towards meat and dairy means we’ll be healthier, the animals we farm will be healthier, and our planet will be healthier.