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Animal Agriculture and Climate Change: The "steaks" are high!

September 22, 2021
Time to read: 4 minutes

Per gram of protein (a calorie), animal sources require significantly more resources and emissions than plant alternatives.

When we talk about climate change and other environmental issues, we often associate them with burning fossil fuels and plastic pollution. Yet, due to decades of conditioning, marketing, misinformation, and denial, we rarely draw links between these global challenges and the food we eat. While the burning of fossil fuels and plastic pollution both have severe environmental implications, our current agricultural-food system is a major driver of climate change, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and drought. 

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Reimagine Agriculture, a Toronto-based non-profit, is fighting to address inefficiencies and externalities within the Canadian agri-food system. Their campaigns focus on combating animal agriculture and food waste, as both are products of a highly inefficient system. As their Policy and Communications lead, I work on helping to bring the information around these issues to light.

The definition of inefficiency is the failure to make the best use of time or resources. In context to animal agriculture, inefficiencies arise in the form of leaky supply chains, food spoilage, fertilizer abuse, and the conventional production of animal-based proteins. 

Animal meat is exceptionally resource-intensive to produce. It requires vast quantities of land, water, and fertilizer to grow grain and grasses for animal consumption. It is estimated that replacing all animal-based proteins with plant-based alternatives would produce enough food to feed an additional 350 million people. This figure arises from the fact that plant-based alternatives can produce 20 times more nutritionally similar food per cropland than meat. Similarly, the inputs required to produce eggs can produce twice as much of a plant-based alternative. So, why are plants more sustainable?

It all boils down to how each product is produced. Per gram of protein (a calorie), animal sources require significantly more resources and emissions than plant alternatives. This is because animals require significant food inputs to grow and produce their meat. This contrasts with plant-based alternatives which only require water, sunlight and fertilizer. When factoring in the resources lost by feeding cattle, pigs, and chickens, these animals eat a lot more calories than they produce in their meat and eggs. Scientists call this concept opportunity food losses. These losses are approximately from 96% for beef, 90% for pork, 75% for dairy, 50% for poultry, and 40% for eggs. To put this in context, for every 100 calories you feed one of these animals, they only produce four to 60 calories for humans to consume via their meat, dairy, and eggs. This is a very inefficient system which we can rectify by feeding the crops we grow directly to humans. 

Unfortunately, the conventional production of animal protein is associated with many other externalities. For example, fertilizer use is essential to most farmlands as their soils run exhausted from decades of monocropping, erosion, and abuse. As a result, heavy doses of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus, or animal manure, are spread across croplands to boost yields and profits. Often, these chemicals are misused, applied in wet weather, or abundantly, which has stark effects on the surrounding environment. Local waterways suffer from algal blooms and mass fish kills, animals that rely on the water for habitat or hydration die. The collapse of food chains quickly follows, wreaking havoc across many species miles from the pollution source. 

Issues like fertilizer abuse and biodiversity loss do not align with the marketing techniques of the meat and dairy industry. Although some make bold statements suggesting that a specific type of cheese or beef handling is "sustainable" or "environmentally friendly," this is simply not the case. All farm animals must eat. The crops, grains, and grasses they depend on are grown on land that could be used to feed humans directly, and all at the expense of local biodiversity. This issue is further exacerbated by the vast quantities of food wasted every year. It is estimated that over 50% of the food we produce in Canada goes to waste. While a large portion of this waste is plant-based, the impacts from meat and dairy food waste sharply outweigh that of fruits and vegetables. Meat and dairy require significantly more resources to produce and much of the animal we do not eat or use.

Sadly, the inefficiencies do not stop there. In order to maximize profits, farm animals are often crammed into tight, poorly ventilated spaces for their entire lives. This raises serious ethical concerns both regarding the animals’ welfare and the diseases they eventually spread to humans. Foodborne illness and antibiotic-resistant disease stem from animal agriculture. Unnatural, feces-filled living quarters are a breeding ground for zoonotic disease and infection. Farmers often attempt to combat this by administering animals with strong and frequent doses of antibiotics. 

This abuse of human's most precious medical invention has caused a surge in antibiotic-resistant bacteria which eventually find their way into our drinking water, our fruits and veggies, and even our packaged meat. Similarly, foodborne illnesses such as e.coli, listeria, and salmonella contaminate meat under the same circumstances. Each year, between 11 and 13 million Canadians fall ill from foodborne illness, with children, pregnant people, and the elderly most at risk. 

For most of us, linking such inefficiencies to the animal products we eat is difficult and far outweighed by our hungry families, discount meat deals, our habits, and taste buds. Moreover, our sterile grocery stores laden with lush countryside imagery further remove the damages and dangers of factory farming from our minds. And while agriculture has welcomed many innovations through mechanization and robotics (at the expense of farm labor jobs), it has become a less efficient system. Over 4.4 million Canadians do not have enough food to eat and are deemed food-insecure. Our agricultural system, which promises abundance, is failing Canadian families at the expense of the environment, animal welfare, and human health. 
Reimagine Agriculture is working hard to combat these inefficiencies and you are welcome to check out the organization here. We are excited to be eliminating many of the crucial barriers to changing our food system. At a both individual and systemic level, we can take the needed actions to solve these problems to allow for a more hopeful future.

Hayley Cloona holds a B.Sc. Environmental Science and an M.Sc. Environmental Policy and writes for Reimagine Agriculture.

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