How our food is contributing to global warming

In this post I would like talk about how small choices we make can have a global effect. Specifically, I will briefly talk about intensive farming: what it is, what the real price is, its consequences and what can we do about it.

What means intensive farming?

First, it is a type of livestock in which the animals are in stables, under artificially controlled conditions (light, temperature, ventilation …). Then, we can control and define the final aspect of the food. 1 Therefore, certain parameters are manipulated externally to obtain products of animal origin more quickly, always under consumer’s demand.

Moreover, its only advantage is the high productivity generated by the system, being able to obtain rapidly food that otherwise would take months to be produced. Therefore, this is a kind of mass production, where animals are used to obtain a desired product. This type of production arose from the industrial revolution and capitalism, when mechanization was extrapolated to the food industry.

What is the real cost of intensive farming?

Not everything can be exchange for money and, in this case we are paying a with our environment. Since we have managed to advance in genetics (for intensive farming, transgenic animals are not used, but an artificial “natural selection” by crossing individuals) and, therefore have been achieved higher production levels than ever imagined. So, we are paying the costs with our health and our planet.2

However, according to the FAO, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gases – 18 percent, measured in its equivalent in carbon dioxide (CO2) – than the transport sector. It is also one of the main causes of the degradation of soil and water resources, through the contamination due to poor waste management. In addition, livestock today use 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface, which is mostly grassland. 3

Then, this is mainly due to the fact that nowadays, most of land is being used to maintain livestock and for animal feed. That is why I would like to talk a little about the some examples in intensive livestock farming.

Some examples of intensive farming 

Cattle

Then, cattle are mainly oriented to two sectors: milk and meat. There are other minorities, whose weight in the intensive industry is lower. For both sectors, cattle breeds that have been genetically selected for the highest production of the desired product are used, for example we have the Holstein in the case of milk or the Belgian Blue for meat.  5

In the case of intensive cattle farming, they choose the most nutritious feed to obtain the highest amounts of product. That is why, on an ecological level, means that a large amount of water is invested to produce one kg of meat. For example, for 1kg we invest more than 15 tons of water, because we need to take into account no only what the animal needs to drink, but also the liters to irrigate the crops as well as the different points of the supply chain.6

 

On the other hand, apart from water consumption, due to the digestive physiology of ruminants, cattle industry is a source of methane (CH4). In general, the production is related to food consumption, composition and digestibility of the diet and previous processing of the food. Therefore, one of the ways to reduce this production of greenhouse gases would be to study more thoroughly which composition is better, and, of course to reduce the consume of meat.

Enteric methane emissions derived from cattle production

However, the cattle industry in developing countries is not a big obstacle for the planet, as it helps maintain local trade and economy. A clear example is that the average household in milking areas of Africa or Asia raise two dairy cows (or buffaloes) with a daily dairy yield of 11 liters per animal. However, in the developed countries as Europe or USA, a Holstein cow can produce up to 50 liters/day, with consequent feeding and handling expenses 8 , 9.

Pig farming

In the case of pigs, a very high level of technology has been reached, almost similar to the avian industry, where pigs are found in large production halls.

This is done to avoid the spread of infectious diseases and achieve high production levels. However, it implies a high level of overcrowding where the pigs are in boxes without almost any kind of stimulus or freedom of movement.

Right now, the production of pigs in Spain is up to 25 million animals, of which 90% are raised in intensive systems.10

This is how manures and slurry from the pig factories looks like.

One of the major environmental problems, is the water contamination from these reservoirs of manures and slurry.

Poultry

In the case of poultry farming, there are two large industries: destined for meat or eggs. But in both cases the same production mechanism is followed. The animals are raised in large halls, in a regulated environment for temperature, light and humidity, highly mechanized. On the one hand, water and feed enters and on the other, eggs and excrements come out.

Worldwide poultry production

Evolution of poultry industry during the past years

This livestock has been one of the greatest “achievements” for genetic improvement. It has been achieved that a broilers get to weight up to 2.6 kg in 6 weeks11, while in extensive poultry a chicken campero takes 16 weeks to reach that weight.  12

But this “achievement” has a price, first, we will not rule out the health of animals, since overcrowding and stress are extrinsic risk factors for infectious diseases. Secondly, it is estimated that chickens emit 0.6 gigatons of CO2 equivalent, representing 8 percent of total emissions from the livestock sector .13

What can we do about it?

All these intensive production systems have been created at the demand of the consumer . Therefore, they have look for characteristics in flavor, color and composition that are completely artificial.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the answer and solution to the environmental problem is also in our hands. Hence, it is true that some industries are “less bad” than others, but this is not an excuse.

At society level, we have to consider what type of species we are. However, movements that are increasing as vegetarianism, veganism or reductionism are the solution. And are the way to stop this unnecessary over consumption.

Then, does farming has any advantages?

Above all, there is a type of livestock called extensive farming that efficiently uses the natural resources of the territory. It has a low use of external inputs and mainly by grazing. In addition, it is characterized by the use of species and breeds adapted to the environment. Therefore, its impact on the environment is less.

However, among of the advantages, is the use of resources such as bushes helping in this way to control fires. That is why extensive livestock farming can not be completely eliminated. Additionally, in developing countries it has a great weight within the small communities. In general, it is used for self-consumption and environmentally seen is  not a great burden for the Planet.

References

  1. Intensive animal farming

  2. Ganadería y cambio climático
  3. Livestock a major threat to environment
  4. Cattle ranching is encroaching on forests in Latin America
  5. Tipos de ganado bovino
  6. The water footprint of food
  7. Enteric methane emission by ruminants and its contribution to global climate change. Review
  8. Production systems
  9. Data comparison; FA
  10. Manejo y producción de porcino 
  11. Crecimiento, eficiencia y rendimiento de los broilers desde 1957
  12. Aviculturas alternativas: el pollo campero

 

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