The Environmental Concerns of the Livestock Industry

The United States leads the way in a global trend toward increased meat consumption. The averageAmerican consumes almost twice his or her own body weight in meat every year. World meat production hassurged nearly fivefold in the last fifty years, from 44 millions tons in 1950, to 211 million tons in 1997. Thisgrowing manufacturing of meat for food is creating new pressures on land and water resources, contributing towater pollution, and intensifying global warming (Worldwatch Institute).The media places emphasis on the environmental damage caused by oil spills, pollutants emitted frommotor vehicles, ozone depletion, and acid rain. The environmental concerns associated with the manufacturing ofnuclear power and paper products are widely-known. Commonly overlooked are the hazardous effects of raisinganimals for food. The livestock industry has many negative effects on the environment, including pollution of theair, land, and water resources. The improvement of management practices in the livestock industry can lead to thereduction of harmful effects on the environment, and at the same time, increase profits. The Ruminant LivestockEfficiency Program and the Global Livestock Group are programs concerned with cleaning up the air. TheEnvironmental Quality Incentive Program targets the cleanup of livestock waste, and the reduction of meatconsumption is a method of preserving land and water resources. The implementation of more efficientmanagement strategies in livestock production can lead to maximized environmental and economic benefits.

Methane Emissions

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the world's livestock herds account for approximately25 percent of human-induced emissions of methane (CH4), a colorless and odorless, but potent, greenhouse gas thatcontributes to climate change (Worldwatch Institute).

Methane is one of the principal greenhouse gases, secondonly to carbon dioxide (CO2), and with a global warming potential twenty-one times greater. Methane made anestimated contribution of 18 percent to the radiative forcing of the climate in 1990. A potential effect of climatechange includes increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as floods, drought, and severe storms.Changes in precipitation and temperature patterns could jeopardize current agricultural practices, and tropicaldiseases and pests could increase their range. In addition, raised sea levels could threaten vulnerable coastlinesaround the world (Environmental Protection Agency).Domesticated ruminant (cud-chewing) animals, with an ever-increasing population, constitute the largestsource of anthropogenic methane emissions. Ruminants, such as cattle, sheep, and goats, have a unique, fourchambered stomach. In the large chamber of the stomach called the rumen, microbial fermentation in the animal'sdigestive system breaks down food into soluble products that the animal can utilize. Ruminant animals are uniquebecause their special digestive system allows them to convert otherwise unusable plant materials into nutritiousfood and fiber. However, this microbial fermentation process, referred to as enteric fermentation, producesmethane gas as a by-product, which is exhaled by the animal (Center for International Earth Science InformationNetwork).The production rate and amount of methane created is affected by factors such as quality and quantity offood, body weight, age, and exercise. Inefficient feed utilization leads to high exhaled methane emissions, andruminants on low quality feeds produce more than 75 percent of the total livestock methane emissions. In manyemerging market countries, animal diets consist mainly of low quality feed such as rice straw and sugarcane topsthat lack the daily nutrients necessary for efficient digestion (Global Livestock Group). Of the annual globalproduction of 400 to 600 million tons of methane, ruminant livestock produce about 80 millions tons, or 22percent. An adult cow may emit only eighty to 120 kilograms of methane, but with about 100 million cattle in theUnited States and twelve billion large ruminants worldwide, it is easy to see why ruminants are one of the largestmethane sources (Environmental Protection Agency).

Besides the methane production of the digestive process, thestagnant waste lagoons of factory-farm operations emit an additional 5 percent of human-induced methane(Worldwatch Institute).In addition to methane, animal agriculture also leads to the emission of other greenhouse gases into theair. The production of feed and heating of livestock housing uses fossil fuels which emit carbon dioxide, and thegrowing of livestock feed requires intense use of synthetic fertilizer, releasing nitrous oxide. These gases, alongwith methane, have significant impact on the earth's atmosphere, and are major contributing factors to globalwarming (Vegan Outreach).

Land Destruction

The production of beef depends heavily on rangelands. These areas are too arid or too steeply sloped to beplowed, so meat production is the only option for generating food from these ecosystems. As overgrazing becomesthe norm in much of the world, rangelands are being pushed to their limits and beyond. Improper grazing hascaused extensive environmental damage and rangeland degradation. The fragile state of the world's rangelands isof serious concern because these lands are the source of almost one-quarter of the world's meat. In addition, insome parts of the world, the escalating demands of the world's rangelands are threatening the livelihood of herderpopulations and cultures, which revolve around animal husbandry (Worldwatch Institute).Topsoil erosion is also a serious problem. Topsoil is lost at a rate of one inch every sixteen years and themeat industry is directly responsible for 85 percent of all soil erosion in the United States. This is because so muchgrain is needed to feed animals being raised for food. Growing feed for utilization by the livestock industrychanges land use, therefore harming biological diversity through habitat loss and ecosystem damage (VeganOutreach).Vast ecosystems have been altered in order to support livestock populations. This includes forestdestruction for ranching, suppression of native predators and competitors, and the introduction of invasive foragespecies. Of all agricultural land in the United States, 87 percent is used to raise animals for human consumption.About 260 million acres of forest in our country have been cleared to create cropland to support the livestock industry, and another acre of trees disappears every eight seconds (Tax Meat). In addition, the greatest loss oftropical rainforests in the world is to make space for cattle grazing. Fifty-five square feet of rainforest may bewiped out to produce just one quarter-pound burger. The soil is virtually useless once the rainforests have beendestroyed, and the land will sustain pasture for only four or five short years (country CONNECTIONS).Livestock herds do not only occupy the land and feed off it. They pollute it as well. Animal waste isspread upon the land, giving off ammonia, which is a major cause of acid rain. In addition, the waste is full of theheavy metals that are added to feed, which then accumulate in the soil in serious proportions and lead to waterpollution (Animal Rights Resource Site).

Water Contamination

The huge quantities of waste produced by livestock threaten the world's water resources. The meatindustry is the single greatest polluter of our waters. Rivers and streams are carrying ever-larger volumes ofnutrient pollution, the biggest single source of which is livestock waste. The waste enters fresh waters eitherdirectly or as runoff from the land and is very effective at depleting natural waters of their oxygen. It can alsoaffect the microbial quality of fresh waters (Environment Agency).

Livestock wastes are implicated in waterwaypollution, toxic algal blooms, and massive fish kills. In the United States, waste generated by livestock amounts to130 times that produced by humans. Livestock farms are getting larger throughout the world, and one 50,000 acre farm can produce more waste than the entire city of Los Angeles (Worldwatch Institute). Livestock waste is thebiggest single cause of declining fish populations in 60,000 miles of polluted waterways in the United States, andanother 113,000 miles of waterways are seriously affected. Pollution from factory farms harms more miles of U.S.rivers than all other industry sources and municipal sewers combined (country CONNECTIONS).Polluted waters foster the growth of pathogenic microorganisms that can be fatal to fish and causesickness in humans. Pfiesteria is a microscopic organism that kills fish and can cause lesions, memory loss,dizziness, fatigue, and asthmatic problems in humans. This organism is most at home and multiplies at atremendous rate in polluted, over-enriched waters. Most of our nation's 127 estuaries show symptoms of nutrientoverload. This can also spawn algae blooms that strip the waters of oxygen as they decompose, proving fatal formany fish (EarthSave International). Other potential and actual pressures on the environment from the productionof livestock arise from the use of fertilizers, veterinary medicines, and other chemicals. Any excessive use ofnutrients and inexpert use of pesticides can place severe pressures on the quality of both surface and ground waters.Drinking water can become contaminated if these substances leach into underground water bodies, and pesticidesthat enter surface waters are toxic to fish and other aquatic life (Environment Agency).One of the principal ways of handling waste from factory farms is the use of lagoons. Waste is stored inthese massage earthen pits until it decomposes. Leakage from waste-disposal lagoons makes its way to waterways,killing huge numbers of fish, and contaminating drink water (EarthSave International).In addition to water contamination, meat production has a growing impact on nations facing water scarcity. Raising animals for food requires more than half the water used in the United States each year (TaxMeat).

Ruminant Livestock Efficiency

ProgramA fresh approach to the way the world thinks about food and farming is needed in order to control thelong-term hazardous effects the livestock industry is having on the environment. Factory farming needs to becomeenvironmentally, economically, and socially responsible (Earth Save International). Improving livestockmanagement practice is not only profitable, but can also decrease the threat of global climate change. The U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) have joined together topromote the important link between profitable livestock production and healthy environment. Through theRuminant Livestock Efficiency Program (RLEP), the two groups encourage the adoption of voluntary practices thatbenefit both the producers and the environment (Environmental Protection Agency).The mission of RLEP is to help ruminant livestock producers voluntarily reduce emissions of methane andother greenhouse gases. These emissions can be cut through management strategies that improve productionefficiency and result in lower emissions per unit of meat produced.

Some of the most effective managementstrategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions include improving grazing management, soil testing includingthe addition of proper amendments and fertilizers, supplementing cattle diets with needed nutrients, developingpreventive herd health programs, providing appropriate water sources and protecting water quality, and improvinggenetics and reproductive efficiency. The particular practices utilized by a livestock producer depend on theindividual circumstances of the operation, including the goals to be achieved and the natural, financial, and laborresources available. The bottom line is that improved livestock management is good for both the environment andprofits (Environmental Protection Agency).There are also additional benefits associated with using improved management practices. Efficiencyimprovements can reduce nitrous oxide emissions from livestock waste. Management strategies can also reduceatmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide by storing carbon in the soil as organic matter. While more researchis needed in both of these areas to identify specific practices for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases, somebenefits can currently be realized (Environmental Protection Agency).

Global Livestock Group

The Global Livestock Group (GLG) is an organization that is striving to maximize environmental andeconomic benefits of improved livestock efficiency. The GLG is at the forefront in the design and implementationof ruminant livestock emission reduction projects. The GLG offers business advisory services designed to achievewidespread methane reduction. In the effort to promote clean air through economic growth, the GLG bringstogether crucial technological, business, financial, and marketing skills to form projects that help farmers accesscost-effective and proven technologies to maximize gain and income from their animals and limited resources.

The GLG uses comprehensive marketing and business growth strategies that are based in part on test marketresearch, use of existing distribution and supply networks, and full financial risk analyses. The GLG also assistslocal partners with business management, financial training, and business plan development to help themsuccessfully navigate their often challenging commercial environments (Global Livestock Group).The GLG also develops and implements technological innovations designed to reduce methaneproduction. An innovative feed supplement manufacturing process allows utilization of a wide assortment oflocal by-products for high-quality feed composition. Reliable, high-quality feeds improve digestive efficiency inruminants and result in lower methane production. Techniques for the economical and rapid transition of localherds to improved quality stock give local livestock producers access to better quality animals at affordable prices(Global Livestock Group).The GLG's ruminant methane technologies provide host-country livestock producers with reliable accessto affordable feed supplements and better quality animals, which has a positive impact by increasing householdincome. In addition, a healthy rural economy is promoted as GLG assists local entrepreneurs to implementbusiness plans and marketing strategies for commercially viable feed supplement manufacturing and distributingcompanies, or breeding stock multiplication operations. GLG also invigorates national economy as hundreds ofthousands of consumers benefit from improvements in their own livestock industry, thus raising the value of thatindustry and the national economy (Global Livestock Group).The Global Livestock Group projects can bring about high volume reductions in methane emissions, anddirect scientific measurement and verifications are used for all of the group's greenhouse gas reductions.

Through collaborative research with the Ruminant Livestock Efficiency Program and Washington State University, the GLGestablished the first ruminant methane monitoring and verification labs in emerging market areas. Leadership inthe development and continued refinement of computer modeling techniques has allowed GLG projects togenerally exceed international standards for ruminant methane estimations (Global Livestock Group).

Environmental Quality Incentive

ProgramLivestock waste, particularly waste lagoons, is the source of serious environmental concerns. Congressrecently adopted a bill in the 1996 Farm Act that addresses the livestock waste problem. The bill, known as theEnvironmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), provides technical assistance with waste cleanup to livestockoperators. This assistance includes incentive payments to keep farmers from spraying liquid waste from lagoonsonto stream banks, and cost-share assistance for building livestock waste facilities. Farmers are eligible to receiveas much as $10,000 a year, with a cap of $50,000 (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences).EQIP enjoys overwhelming support from the EPA, Congress, and several environmental groups. The onlycontroversy is over whether there should be a limit on the size of farms that are eligible to receive cost-share funds.Some livestock operations can have more than 100,000 beef cattle, 10,000 hogs, and 400,000 chickens, and thequestion being asked is whether operations of this large size should be eligible for financial assistance to build animal waste management facilities. Some parties feel that EQIP is an environmental bill, not a structure bill, andthat the numbers are irrelevant. Others support the idea that it is a structure issue, and that big factory farmsshould be able to call on investors to pay for waste management facilities (National Institute of EnvironmentalHealth Sciences)Another question about EQIP is the fundamental issue of whether or not waste lagoons are safe for theenvironment. While some parties feel that waste lagoons are adequate when managed properly and not overfilled,others feel that the lagoons are not safe even when properly managed. Some farmers are of the opinion thatinstead of helping with the construction of waste lagoons, the federal government should develop and encouragealternative methods of managing livestock waste. Existing alternative methods include dry bedding, whichinvolves keeping the animals on straw and then composting the waste-laden straw (National Institute ofEnvironmental Health Sciences).

Reducing Meat Consumption

Reducing worldwide meat consumption, even slightly, offers solutions to a range of pressing globalproblems. If each American reduced his or her meat consumption by just 5 percent (the equivalent of eating oneless meat dish per week), 7.5 million tons of grain would be saved, which is enough to feed twenty-five millionpeople, the approximate number that go hungry in the United States each day. Currently, 36 percent of the world'sgrain goes to feed livestock and poultry. Each kilo of meat produced for human consumption represents severalkilos of grain that could be consumed directly by humans, going a long way to solve our hunger problem(Worldwatch Institute).Decreasing meat consumption would not only free up massive quantities of grain, but also would reducepressure on the land, allowing the agricultural resource base to rejuvenate. In addition, consuming less meat, andtherefore using less land, could lead to the use of fewer pesticides and fertilizers, make more land available towildlife, and would help reduce pollutants in our drinking waters (Animal Rights Resource Site).

Consequences and Solutions

The production of livestock is an essential enterprise, and the raising of livestock places stress on theenvironment in various ways. The livestock industry is damaging the world's atmosphere, land, and waterresources. Meat consumption is increasing, and thus is the demand for livestock production. The process ofmanufacturing meat for human consumption leads to global warming, ecosystem destruction, and contaminatedwater resources. Improved management strategies are essential in reducing environmental concerns. Programssuch as the Ruminant Livestock Efficiency Program, Global Livestock Group projects, and the EnvironmentalQuality Incentive Program are making significant advances in the area of livestock management practices. Theseprojects can not only lessen hazardous effects on the environment, but also promote economic growth. In addition,the simply policy of decreasing meat consumption can aid in the rejuvenation of our natural resources.The issues associated with the production of meat are not widely known. A food source that is socommonly relied upon and taken for granted is doing serious damage to our environment, and many of us are noteven aware of it. People enjoy meat as a principal part of their diets, never stopping to consider the consequencesof eating that tender Porterhouse steak or juicy char-broiled hamburger. Global warming, land destruction, andcontaminated water are serious and scary issues, but it seems as though the simple reduction of meat consumptionis a very unrealistic method of solving the environmental concerns. Improved management strategies at theproduction level will be key in the quest to protect our environment. The people of the world are not going tosuddenly stop eating meat. So it is up to the livestock industry to take responsibility for the harm being caused,and take measures to ensure that our love for meat does not destroy our environment.