Livestock Industry (Climate Change)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:57 pm on 25th March 2009.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 4:57 pm, 25th March 2009

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Benton, for this debate, which is about an issue that has been of long-standing interest to me. Until recently, I was part of the small minority who were aware of it. It was always mentioned in the context of the debate around vegetarianism, as an add-on to the main arguments about the ethical case for giving up meat, the health benefits and so on.

I should probably get this out of the way straight away and say that I am a vegetarian. Actually, I have been a vegan since 1992 and a vegetarian since 1981, but I hope that I can convince people that I am not calling for this issue to be treated with the seriousness that it deserves because of my ethical concerns about vegetarianism. I am not trying to use this debate as a Trojan horse to push that case. I genuinely think, from an environmental point of view and also a development point of view, that we need to look at the impact of increasing meat and dairy consumption around the globe and the consequent growth of the livestock industry.

As I said, this was very much a marginal issue, but it is now crossing over and becoming mainstream. One of the key points in that process was when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation published its report, "Livestock's Long Shadow" in 2006. It looked at a range of issues, including the impact of the livestock industry on land use, soil, water, biodiversity depletion and climate change. The report's conclusion was stark:

"The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."

The basic fact is that the livestock industry uses huge amounts of water, grain, energy and land. On the UN figures, it is responsible for 18 per cent. of total global greenhouse gas emissions. That is more than the emissions from all the world's planes, trains and cars put together.

I should say at this point that this speech will almost unavoidably be full of statistics, which I appreciate makes for dull listening, but it is important to get some of the facts and figures on the record. There are many different statistics floating around, and it has been difficult to come up with the definitive ones. For example, on the livestock industry's contribution to global greenhouses gases, the Government use the figure of 14 per cent. I shall use my figures and hope that we do not get into too much to-ing and fro-ing.

The first factor that I want to identify is the sheer amount of grain or soya crops that it takes to produce feed for animals. It takes 8 kg of grain to produce l kg of beef; 4 kg to produce the equivalent amount of pigmeat; and 2 kg for the same weight of chicken. That pushes up food prices throughout the world. Raj Patel wrote in his excellent book "Stuffed and Starved":

"The amount of grains fed to US livestock would be enough to feed 840 million people on a plant-based diet. The number of food-insecure people in the world in 2006 was, incidentally, 854 million".

But to return to climate change, my second point follows on from animal feed: the livestock industry also uses an absolutely huge amount of water. It takes 100 times as much water to produce 1 kg of beef as it does to grow 1 kg of vegetables. That is a particular factor in countries where water is a scarce resource.

The third factor is the amount of fossil fuel energy that the industry uses. It takes 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of plant protein; four times as much to produce 1 calorie of chicken protein; 17 times as much to produce 1 calorie of pork protein; 50 times as much for 1 calorie of lamb protein; and 54 times as much for 1 calorie of beef protein. Basically, it takes almost 120 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of beef.

The fourth and possibly most important impact is the amount of land use. It takes almost 21 sq m of land to produce 1 kg of beef, if we factor in animal feed, compared with 0.3 sq m to produce 1 kg of vegetables. Currently, about one third of all arable land in the world is used to produce animal feed crops, and that means deforestation, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. Large swathes of forest are being cleared to provide land to grow soya and grain to feed to cattle.

In the climate change debate, we are all familiar with concerns about biofuels and deforestation, but deforestation for new pasture lands and to create arable land on which to grow animal feed is responsible for about one third of livestock emissions globally. About 100 million tonnes of crops are being diverted to create biofuels this year, but 760 million tonnes are being used to feed animals, so I hope that that puts the issue in some context.

According to Friends of the Earth, which is to be congratulated on its "Food Chain" campaign that examines the environmental footprint of the food that we eat, more than 3,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest were cleared between August 2007 and August 2008. On that trend, cattle and soya production will destroy 40 per cent. of the Amazon in the next 40 years.

A short while ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Father Edilberto Sena, who has been on a crusade since 2001 to stop the world's largest private company, the trans-national grain trader Cargill, from using the vast new port that it has built on the Amazon river to export its soya from Brazil to northern Europe, to supply the intensive meat and dairy industries of Britain, Holland and France. He told MPs about the destruction being wreaked in Brazil and particularly his local community by that growing trade. Almost 80 per cent. of UK soybeans are imported from Brazil, so there is a strong link between meat and dairy consumption in this country and the deforestation of the Amazon.

The fifth impact is emissions. As I have already mentioned, the livestock industry contributes 18 per cent. of global greenhouse gas emissions, including 9 per cent. of global CO2 emissions, 37 per cent. of methane emissions and 65 per cent. of nitrous oxide emissions.

This is where we reach a fairly delicate subject, which I shall try to treat as delicately as possible. Methane is released by what is politely termed natural livestock emissions—slightly less politely, flatulence, belching and manure produced mainly by cattle. It has about 25 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide, and 1 g of methane produced by a cow's natural emissions therefore warms the planet 20 times as much as 1 g of CO2 from a car engine.

Livestock is also responsible for most of the world's nitrous oxide emissions, and that is related to fertiliser and muck spreading. Although nitrous oxide represents only a tiny proportion of global greenhouse gases, being about 1,000th of the world's CO2 emissions, it has a much more powerful effect. It has one of the longest lifetimes of any greenhouse gas, lasting up to 150 years, and it has about 300 times the warming potential of CO2. There are also other concerns about the environmental impact of the billions of tonnes of waste—unrelated to climate change—that those animals produce. The waste leaches into the water supply and emits 30 million tonnes of ammonia each year, and that translates into 68 per cent. of the emissions that cause acid rain. Pesticides are also an issue.

Those are the concerns, and the issue must be set in the context of the huge increase in the consumption of meat and dairy products over recent years, which has been caused by rising living standards in the developing world and the adoption of western diets, particularly in countries such as India and China. The United Nations report, "Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options" states that in 2003, on average, India consumed 5 kg of meat per person, the UK consumed 83 kg and the United States 123 kg. However, developing nations are increasing their meat consumption rapidly. In India, it has gone up from 5 kg per person in 2003 to 28 kg in 2007, and in the UK, in the developed world, we eat 50 per cent. more meat than we did in the 1960s. Meat production globally quadrupled between 1961 and 2001, and it is expected to double again by 2050.


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