When we think about drivers of climate change, we often think about transportation and energy. Yet, industrial meat and dairy are actually responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions.

Grabbing the bull by the horns: It’s time to cut industrial meat and dairy to save the climate”, one of the latests reports from GRAIN released last month, reminds us that food system is responsible for up to 30 per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to widely cited official estimates[1]. Some emissions are linked to the growth in packaging and processing of foods, the increased distance foods are shipped and food waste. But the GRAIN report also highlights that the most important source of food-related GHG emissions comes from the expansion of industrial meat and dairy consumption. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), meat production alone now generates more GHG emissions than all the world’s transport combined.[2].


Cutting industrial meat & dairy to make a dent in climate change

If we are to meet the Paris target set by governments last year, of two degrees Celsius by 2050[3], cutting industrial livestock and chemical-intensive feed crops is critical… and possible, the report explains.

Reducing meat and dairy consumption, especially in North America and Europe- in regions that consume the most industrial meat and where meat consumption is projected to keep increasing (see image below)- would indeed make a significant impact. For instance, North America, the EU and Brazil together account for half of all beef consumed worldwide.

meat eating projections 2050

Factory farms are the problem, not small farmers and herders

Indeed, in most of the Global South, livestock is raised mainly by 630 million small farmers who practise low-emissions, mixed farming as well as 200 million herders who often graze their animals in areas where crops cannot be grown.

“Not only do these production and consumption systems contribute little to climate change”, write the authors of the report, “in these systems, livestock is an essential part of people’s livelihoods, food security and health, as well as an integral part of cultural and religious traditions.”

The real culprits is industrial meat and dairy production. Factory farms account for 80 per cent of the growth of global meat and dairy in recent years.[4] According to the FAO, manure storing and processing in factory farms is responsible for 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions related to livestock worldwide.

Moreover, a lot of the GHG emissions generated by industrial livestock occur indirectly, through the production of cereals (soy, maize, etc.) for animal feed. In 2010, about 1/3 of all cereals produced went to feed, and the FAO predicts this figure will jump to 50% by 2050.[5]

Another central but overlooked climate factor, the report points out, is that this animal feed relies heavily on the use of pesticides and fertilizers to grow, which account alone for 20% of the GHG emissions from the sector.

good cow bad cow

It is time for action

To make a significant dent in climate change, the report recommends:

  1. More support for small-scale producers and pastoralists to move towards more sustainable methods.
  2. That efforts to reduce industrial meat and dairy consumption be focused directed towards the big offenders: North America and Europe, plus a few countries in Latin America like Brazil.

The report also identifies interesting policies already in place to curb industrial meat and dairy consumption by different countries as well as some that need to be revisited (see image below).

livestock policy review

Read the full report here.




[1] Sonja Vermeulen et al., “Climate change and food systems”, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2012, http://www.annualreviews.org/eprint/EBIXxM7sNxrBJyuRYgki/full/10.1146/annurev-environ-020411-130608

[2] 14.5 per cent to be precise. See: Gerber et al. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities, Rome: FAO, 2013, http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/resources/en/publications/tackling_climate_change/index.htm

[3] The FAO estimates that one-third of livestock emissions could be mitigated on the production side. See: Gerber et al. Tackling climate change through livestock, Ibid.

[4] Worldwatch Institute, “Rising number of farm animals poses environmental and public health risks”, http://www.worldwatch.org/rising-number-farm-animals-poses-environmental-and-public-health-risks-0

[5] High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), “Sustainable agricultural development for food security and nutrition: what roles for livestock?” Committee on World Food Security, 2016, page 53, http://www.fao.org/cfs/cfs-hlpe/reports/report-10-elaboration-process/en/