How can we stop climate change by changing our eating habits?

How can we stop climate change by changing our eating habits?

By Helena Escoda Casas

Stopping climate change is the great challenge that humanity must face imminently. The fight to stop the arrival of the greatest ecological disaster in history also involves improving our diet.

Stopping climate change is the great challenge that humanity must face imminently. The fight to stop the arrival of the greatest ecological disaster in history also involves improving our diet since acquiring healthy eating habits can save our planet.

On November 28, 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) presented a report entitled Livestock's Long Shadow, in which it is shown that livestock generates more greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse effect than cars. This statement is apparently strange. What is behind industrial livestock so that it has become unsustainable?

The denaturing of our lives, especially in eating habits, has generated a great imbalance on the planet. Industrial livestock farming has become an unsustainable problem ecologically and economically, due to the large number of animals that are "produced", because of the food that is supplied to them and because of the living conditions with which they are maintained. The Long Shadow of Cattle, has been led by agricultural economist Henning Stenfield. This detailed analysis shows that livestock is responsible for up to 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and that at the same time the increase in the consumption of meat products is the main cause of the deforestation of jungles, forests and savannas.

At present, the consumption of products of animal origin seems to have democratized. The daily steak is no longer a luxury that only the wealthiest classes can afford. People from all walks of life consume meat products on a daily basis, which, a few years ago, was unimaginable. However, this crazy increase in meat consumption has had dire consequences for our health, for the animals and for the economic and ecological balance of our planet. The increase in quantity has as a counterpart a decrease in quality, a great environmental cost and the systematic violation of animal rights.

The farms of the Post-Industrial Era are no longer those apparently bucolic spaces in which cattle grazed placidly in green fields. A concrete warehouse in which the animals are confined and feed on feed made with transgenic soy, drink water mixed with antibiotics and hormones that stimulate growth, is the prototype of the European industrial farm of our days. This system is known as intensive livestock, which consists of fattening the cattle in a very little space and in a very short time, to send it to the slaughterhouse as soon as possible and obtain a very high productivity and, logically, a greater economic benefit. Most animals destined for human consumption can see the Sun for the first time in their lives, the day they are transported to the slaughterhouse by truck. The result of this process is cheap meat, but it causes innumerable suffering to animals, which is harmful to our health and that of our planet.

Why does livestock contribute to increase global warming?

The basic keys that make up the responsibility of livestock in the increase in global temperature are two: first, the massive existence of livestock not integrated into the environment and, second, its concentration.

First: The Massive Stock of Cattle:

Bovine cattle lead the global ranching. Currently, there are approximately 1.25 billion cattle (bos taurus) around the world. At no time in history has there been such an exorbitant amount of bovidae or the other species that are used as livestock. Intensive and / or industrial livestock systems allow more animals to be “produced” than would correspond in the framework of natural balance. In the wild, so many bovines, pigs or chickens would never have been born, since this overpopulation would have condemned the species to extinction. Domestication has made possible this proliferation determined by artificial selection, with which animals are born by human will and they depend on human beings to provide them with food. The overpopulation of livestock has meant that 30% of the planet's land surface is occupied by pastures and industrial farms. The space that all these livestock occupy is the first piece of gear in a food production system that has turned out to be unfeasible. With the increase in meat consumption, more and more forest mass is destroyed to become pasture fields, but this is not the worst. The second piece leads to an even more complicated function, all these livestock must be fed, therefore, more and more forest mass is destroyed to become fields of crops to make feed. All of this not only generates a significant ecological imbalance, it also generates an economic imbalance.

On May 26, 2008, in the article Put yourself on a diet, published in the newspaper El País, Josep Borrell, President of the European Parliament Development Committee, stated that “If Malthus raised his head, he would believe that the competition for food scarce is not between humans, but between humans and animals. And, furthermore, it would tell us that meat production is not "profitable" in terms of the balance of resources (land, water, vegetable calories) ”. To produce one kilogram of meat, the bovine must previously consume an average of ten kilograms of vegetable protein. The pig four and the birds between two and three. Meat consumption in developed countries has meant that 78% of all global crops (which is equivalent to 33% of the planet's land surface) is used for the manufacture of animal feed and forage for fattening cattle. If the demand for meat were not so high, it would not be necessary to raise so many millions of cattle, therefore, it would not be necessary to feed them and the crops that are destined for the manufacture of animal feed could be destined directly for human consumption and thus eradicate the problem of cattle. 850 million poorly nourished human beings, but what is more, it would not even be necessary to use so much land area, since the whole world could be fed with fewer crops. The truth is that pretending that the six billion human beings who share the Earth can access the same level of daily consumption of products of animal origin, would mean a real deficit in land and water, since there is not enough arable area to feed so much won. Stopping meat consumption is stopping the demand for land, which translates into stopping the problem of deforestation.

The overpopulation of livestock does not only require an over-demand for land and consequently deforestation. The digestive system of ruminants (cows, sheep, buffaloes and goats) is the cause of the emission of 37% of all emissions of methane gas (CH2), a gas up to 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide (CO2 ). Obviously, these animals have always produced methane, but never before has there been such a large number of cattle. The quantitative imbalance and the non-integration of these cattle to the environment has generated a great problem in the atmosphere derived from the emissions of methane produced in their stomachs. A single cow can produce up to 900 liters of methane per day. The methane problem has been taken very seriously by the New Zealand government, one of the most active in the fight against climate change, which has implemented the Flatulence Tax, that is (and, although it may seem like it, it is no joke) a imposed on farmers by the pollution generated by methane from cow flatulence.

Correlation between meat consumption, deforestation and transgenic crops; What about soybeans?

Until a very few years ago, the livestock industry used bone meal and meat scraps to make feed to feed livestock. This type of feed, indeed, was very fattening very quickly, but it turned out to be the determining factor of the mad cow disease (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy) that caused a real disaster in Europe. We should learn a lesson from mad cows that we seem to have not yet learned. We cannot denature the feeding of a herbivorous animal just because we are economically interested. By treating animals as mere meat-producing machines, the health of a largely uninformed population was put at risk, causing a shameful crisis that showed great disregard for life. Since then, protein feeds have been made from soybean meal (mostly transgenic), corn meal or fish meal. Due to its protein value and its lower cost, soy flour has become the main raw material for the manufacture of animal feed, a product whose demand is very high because the demand for meat is also very high.

Soy (Glycine Max) is a legume of Asian origin appreciated for its great nutritional value, especially for its high protein content. Eastern populations have consumed soybeans since time immemorial and have benefited from its properties. Soya cultivation is a very valuable factor if it is carried out in the framework of a seasonal rotation crop, since it fixes nitrogen in the soils. On the other hand, soy monoculture causes ecological imbalances if it is maintained for a long time.

Soy is not an invention of genetic manipulation, but, unfortunately, the majority of soy today is no longer the traditional soybean that provided multiple benefits and its cultivation does not follow the seasonal rotation either. The virtues of soy have been very attractive to genetically modified seed companies to be able to offer a solution to cheap meat producers. This is the reason for the ecological disaster generated by those who have manipulated and reinvented soybeans at their convenience. The genetic manipulation of plants has allowed to create a soybean highly resistant to the selective herbicide Roundup (manufactured by the Monsanto corporation), which causes a very important loss of biodiversity and the monoculture of this soybean in large areas for a long time causes great wear ground. The plains of the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay are the largest producers of transgenic soybean worldwide. The US corporation Monsanto is the producer of the seed, which they have patented in such a way that they oblige farmers to pay royalties on part of the crop they use to re-plant, in addition to selling the herbicide to which it is resistant.

The great expansion of areas destined for the monoculture of transgenic soybeans has been one of the main causes of the deforestation of the tropical forest. Although tropical forests only occupy 6% of the planet's land area, they concentrate the areas with the greatest biodiversity and have the greatest capacity to suppress carbon dioxide (CO2), therefore, they are essential to counteract the greenhouse effect. The ban on the use of meat meals in the production of feed has triggered the demand for soybeans. Today, soybean cultivation represents 26% of total global production. In Brazil alone, 52.3 million tons of soybeans are grown each year. Most of this production is exported to Europe and the United States for cattle fattening, this is the reason for so much soy production. The sea or air transport of soy, of course, also has environmental costs.

Those who consume vegetarian-friendly burgers made with soy actually consume less soy than those who consume meat burgers as the bottom line must be taken into account. It is not soy intended for human consumption that destroys forests, but soy intended for fattening cattle. Each kilo of meat accumulates between five and ten kilograms of soybeans and sixteen thousand liters of water. The commercialization of transgenic soy of poorer quality is not intended for human consumption, however, the meat of those fed with transgenic soy is served every day, especially in restaurants of fast food chains. The effects that GM soy treated with Roundup herbicide can cause on human health are still in great uncertainty, but the Monsanto corporation has accumulated numerous lawsuits from victims in different countries.

Second: The concentration of livestock in factory farms:

But, in addition to the overpopulation of domesticated species for human consumption, its concentration in confined spaces (intensive livestock) causes the problem of gas emissions to worsen even more. The emission of gases does not derive only from the flatulence of ruminants but also from the accumulation of their waste and urine.

In the past, cattle grazed in fields and their manure was used by being absorbed naturally by the land. Currently, large concentrations of animals generate excess manure. The accumulation of all these wastes in a small space is too much to be absorbed by the earth. This is how they destroy the soil and pollute the groundwater.

Apparently manure should not be a problem as it is organic matter and should be used as fertilizer for crops. But the excessive amount and, above all, the denatured feeding of the cattle do not allow this natural process to take place. To ensure that the fattening is as fast as possible, herbivorous animals that should have a fibrous diet, are fed with protein feed. These feeds contain more proteins than these animals can metabolize, due to this inadequate feeding, their waste does not serve as compost, on the contrary, they become harmful to the soil. Regarding improper feeding of livestock, two very important aspects must be taken into account that directly affect the environment and our health. On the one hand, the industrial farm keeps confined animals, which is very unhygienic since there are optimal conditions for the proliferation of all kinds of infectious diseases. To prevent health disasters, large amounts of antibiotics are mixed with food and water. These antibiotics are, in part, expelled through urine, therefore, they damage aquatic ecosystems and our health when we eat the steak.

In addition to methane, the tons of manure accumulated in factory farms cause the formation of two gases that the Kyoto Protocol establishes that they must be reduced imminently. The accumulation of manure releases large amounts of nitrogen, which in its reaction with oxygen forms nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. Nitrous oxide (N2O) is up to two hundred times more harmful than carbon dioxide (CO2). Protein feeding further accentuates the problem caused by this gas, since large amounts of nitrogen are naturally found in biomass in the form of proteins. When ruminants ingest protein, the nitrogen they expel through their excreta and urine is more reactive and further facilitates the formation of nitrous oxide. 65% of the global emissions of this gas derive from livestock.

The second gas derives from the accumulation of manure mixed with urine. It is the compound of nitrogen or ammonia (NH2), which is formed from the evaporation of urine and moisture from manure (especially poultry). Ammonia pollution is very serious at the regional level as it causes soil acidification and pollution of aquatic ecosystems, as well as contributing to the formation of acid rain and causing respiratory diseases and other types of irritations. 68% of global ammonia emissions come from the livestock sector.

In the final balance, the study carried out by FAO has also concluded that 9% of global CO2 emissions derive from activities related to the livestock sector, such as livestock transport, forage transport, operation of slaughterhouse machinery, plantations forage, etc. The storage of fertilizers, manures and the use of pesticides and herbicides release nitrogen and ammonia, as well as other harmful substances.


In August 2008, the president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations (UN), Rajendra Pachauri, recommended that European and American citizens reduce the consumption of meat as a measure to combat the climate change. "You should eat less meat." As Pachauri declared in the European Parliament in response to a question from a MEP who asked him about the behaviors that citizens should adopt against global warming: "People would be healthier and countries would also benefit." Pachauri, in a statement to the British newspaper The Observer, made an interesting reflection "It is easier to reduce meat consumption than to do without transport."

The excessive consumption of meat in societies like ours is harmful to health because it is related to various diseases: obesity, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, colon cancer (among others), coronary heart disease, cardiovascular accidents, etc. Long before the relationship between livestock and climate change became known, health authorities had already warned, for health reasons, that protein of animal origin was consumed in excess. Now, knowing the damage that this unbalanced diet causes to our planet, we have even more reasons to learn to eat better. Reducing livestock means reducing the fields used for forage crops. This could be the first step to begin the suppression of transgenic crops and recover forest mass and traditional agricultural systems, in addition, it would allow millions of tons of cereals destined for fodder to be destined directly for human consumption. The imbalances caused by the excesses of meat allow us to affirm that a vegetarian in addition to respecting the life of all species is an activist in defense of our planet and of those who suffer from diseases derived from malnutrition.

Helena Escoda Casas - LIBERA! Activist

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