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

Stopping climate change is the great challenge that humanity must face imminently. The causes of global warming are not only industry and transportation, our eating habits also have a notable environmental cost (crops, manufacturing processes, packaging, refrigeration, transportation, cooking...). Meat is one of the foods that has the highest environmental cost. The livestock sector is responsible for the emission of up to 18% of greenhouse gases. 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, which demonstrates that livestock farming generates more greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse effect than cars. This statement is, apparently, strange. What is behind industrial livestock farming that has made it unsustainable?

The denaturation of our lives, especially in our eating habits, has generated a great imbalance on the planet. Industrial livestock farming has become an ecologically and economically unsustainable problem, due to the large number of animals that are "produced", the food that is supplied to them and the living conditions in which they are maintained. The Long Shadow of Livestock, has been directed by agricultural economist Henning Stenfield. This detailed analysis shows that livestock farming 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 savannahs.

Currently, the consumption of products of animal origin seems to have become democratized. The daily steak is no longer a luxury that only the wealthiest classes can afford. People from all social classes consume meat products daily, which, a few years ago, was unimaginable. However, this crazy increase in meat consumption has had disastrous consequences for our health, for animals and for the economic and ecological balance of our planet. The increase in quantity has as its 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 seemingly bucolic spaces in which livestock grazed peacefully in green fields. A concrete warehouse in which the animals are confined and fed with feed made from transgenic soybeans, drinking 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 farming, which consists of fattening cattle in a very small space and in a very short time, to send them to the slaughterhouse as soon as possible and obtain very high productivity and, logically, a greater economic benefit. Most animals intended 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 farming contribute to climate change?

The basic keys that shape the responsibility of livestock farming 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 existence of cattle:

Cattle lead livestock farming globally. Currently, there are approximately 1.250 million cattle (bos taurus) throughout the world. At no time in history has there been such an exorbitant amount of bovids or other species that are used as livestock.

Intensive and/or industrial livestock farming systems allow more animals to be “produced” than would correspond within the framework of natural balance. In the wild, so many bovids, 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 humans to provide them with food.

Overpopulation of livestock has meant that 30% of the planet's land surface is occupied by pastures and industrial farms. The space occupied by all these livestock is the first cog in the gear of a food production system that has turned out to be unviable.

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 this not only generates a significant ecological imbalance, it also generates an economic imbalance.

On May 26, 2008, in the article Go on a diet, published in the newspaper El País, Josep Borrell, President of the Development Commission of the European Parliament, stated that "If Malthus raised his head, he would believe that 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 first consume an average of ten kilos of vegetable protein. The pig four and the birds between two and three.

sheep livestock

Meat consumption in developed countries has meant that 78% of total global crops (which is equivalent to 33% of the planet's land surface) are used for the manufacture of feed and forage for livestock fattening. 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 feed could be destined directly for human consumption and thus eradicate the problem of 850 million poorly nourished human beings, but, what's more, it would not even be necessary to use so much land area, since everyone 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 land to feed so much earned. Stopping meat consumption means stopping the demand for land, which translates into stopping the problem of deforestation.

The overpopulation of livestock does not only require an overdemand for land and consequently deforestation. The digestive system of ruminants (cows, sheep, buffaloes and goats) is the cause of the emission of 37% of total methane gas emissions (CH2), a gas up to twenty-three times more harmful than carbon dioxide (CO2). ). Obviously, these animals have always produced methane, but there has never been such a large number of cattle.

The quantitative imbalance and non-integration of these bovids into the environment has generated a major problem in the atmosphere derived from the emissions of methane produced in their stomachs. A single cow can produce up to nine hundred 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 ranchers for the pollution generated by methane from cows' flatulence.

Correlation between meat consumption, deforestation and genetically modified crops; What happens with soybeans?

Until very few years ago, the livestock industry used bone meal and meat scraps to make feed to feed livestock. This type of feed, indeed, caused a lot of weight gain very quickly, but it turned out to be the determining factor in 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 diet of a herbivorous animal just because it is of economic interest to us. By treating animals as mere meat production machines, the health of a mostly uninformed population was put at risk, causing a shameful crisis that showed great contempt for life. Since then, protein feeds are made from soybean meal (mostly transgenic), corn meal or fish meal. Due to its protein value and lower cost, soybean meal has become the main raw material for the manufacture of feed, a product whose demand is very high because the demand for meat is also very high.

Soybean (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. Soybean cultivation is a very valuable factor if it is carried out within 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 soy that provided multiple benefits and its cultivation does not follow seasonal rotation either. The virtues of soy have been very attractive for seed genetic manipulation 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 the creation of a soybean seed that is 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 and tear. ground. The plains of the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay are the largest producers of transgenic soybeans worldwide. The American corporation Monsanto is the producer of the seed, which they have patented so that they force farmers to pay royalties on part of the harvest they use to replant, in addition to selling them 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 tropical forest deforestation. Although tropical forests only occupy 6% of the planet's land area, they concentrate the spaces with the greatest biodiversity and have a greater capacity to suppress carbon dioxide (CO2), therefore, they are essential to counteract the greenhouse effect.

The ban on the use of meat flour in the production of feed has increased 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. Sea or air transport of soybeans, logically, also has environmental costs.

Those who consume vegetarian-friendly burgers made with soy actually consume less soy than those who consume meat burgers since the final balance must be taken into account. It is not soy destined for human consumption that destroys the forests, but soy destined for cattle fattening. Each kilo of meat accumulates between five and ten kilos of soy and sixteen thousand liters of water.

The marketing of lower quality GM soy is not intended for human consumption, however, meat from those fed with GM soy is served every day, especially in fast food chain restaurants. The effects that transgenic soybeans treated with Roundup herbicide can cause on human health are still highly uncertain, but the Monsanto corporation has accumulated numerous lawsuits from victims in different countries.

Second: The concentration of livestock in industrial farms:

But, in addition to the overpopulation of domesticated species for human consumption, its concentration in small spaces (intensive livestock farming) causes the problem of gas emissions to become even more serious. The emission of gases not only derives 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 and absorbed naturally by the earth. Currently, large concentrations of animals generate excess manure. The accumulation of all this waste in a small space represents too much to be absorbed by the earth. This is how they destroy the soil and contaminate groundwater.

Apparently, manure should not be a problem, since it is organic matter and should be used as fertilizer for crops. But the excessive quantity and, above all, the denatured feeding of the cattle do not allow this natural process to take place. To ensure that fattening occurs as quickly as possible, herbivorous animals that should have a fibrous diet are fed protein feed.

These feeds contain more proteins than these animals can metabolize, due to this inadequate diet, their waste does not serve as fertilizer, on the contrary, they become harmful to the soil. Regarding inadequate 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 animals confined, which is very unhygienic since optimal conditions exist for the proliferation of all types of infectious diseases. To avoid health disasters, large quantities of antibiotics are mixed with water and food. 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 industrial farms cause the formation of two gases that the Kyoto Protocol establishes 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 the biomass in the form of proteins. When ruminants ingest protein, the nitrogen expelled through their excrement and urine is more reactive and further facilitates the formation of nitrous oxide. 65% of global emissions of this gas derive from livestock farming.

The second gas derives from the accumulation of manure mixed with urine. It is the nitrogen or ammonia compound (NH2), which is formed from the evaporation of urine and the moisture of manure (especially poultry manure). Ammonia pollution is very serious at a regional level since it causes soil acidification and contamination of aquatic ecosystems, in addition to 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 prepared by the FAO has also concluded that 9% of global CO2 emissions derive from activities related to the livestock sector, such as transportation of livestock, transportation of forage, operation of slaughterhouse machinery, plantations forage, etc. The storage of fertilizers and the use of pesticides and herbicides release nitrogen and ammonia, as well as other harmful substances.


The president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations (UN), Rajendra Pachauri, recommended that European and American citizens reduce meat consumption as a measure to combat climate change. "You should eat less meat." As Pachauri declared in the European Parliament in response to a question from an 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 statements to the British newspaper The Observer, made an interesting reflection: “It is easier to reduce meat consumption than to dispense with transportation.”

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 farming and climate change was known, health authorities had already warned, for health reasons, that animal proteins were 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 farming means reducing the fields used for fodder crops. This may be the first step to begin the suppression of tansgenic crops and recover forest mass and traditional agricultural systems, in addition, it would allow millions of tons of cereals intended for fodder to be destined directly for human consumption. The imbalances caused by excess 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 those who suffer from diseases derived from malnutrition.

Helena Escoda Casas - LIBERA! Activist