Please forgive the attention grabbing headline, but according to a new report, continuing to increase consumption of livestock will fatally impact our environment on a local and global scale. This is the message to come from two researchers at Canada’s Dalhousie University School for Resource and Environmental Studies.

Nathan Pelletier and Peter Tyedmers have published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, little picked up by the general media, that “calls into question the sustainability of the livestock industry”.

Efficiency

As incomes and living standards rise, consumers want more meat. There is nothing new in this statement, and as demand rises, supply will have to keep pace. Most large-scale livestock producers are constantly looking to increase efficiency, ie to produce more with less, and even the smallest of producers wants to get the most out of his or her animals.

Most industries are able to respond to changing conditions, whether it be through more efficient production methods or through more efficient consumption of finished goods. Certainly, the animal protein and allied industries have not been slow to operate more efficiently, yet the researchers note that they have factored efficiency improvements into their projections.

They suggest that the livestock industry will double in size over the next 50 years. The paper argues that, over this period, the livestock industry alone will account for 72% of the world’s safe operating space for human activity greenhouse gas emissions, 88% of safe operating space for biomass appropriation and nearly 300% of the safe operating space for active nitrogen mobilization.

An abundance of reactive nitrogen presents the most startling statistic. Industrially produced fixed nitrogen is a large component of commercial fertilizer that is used on crops and pastures for the livestock industry. Only 10-20% of the nitrogen applied to crops is consumed by humans, the remainder is lost to the environment, the team noted. Too much nitrogen in the ecosystem can lead to a loss of biodiversity and simplification of ecosystems.

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As estimated 60% of biomass currently harvested each year to support all human activities is consumed by the livestock industry. It is well known that this is not the most efficient way to produce food but it, nonetheless, part of our established diets.

Nathan Pelletier commented: “What is surprising about our work is that, using what we believe to be quite conservative models, we suggest that by 2050, the livestock sector alone may occupy the majority of, or substantially overshoot, recently proposed sustainability thresholds for human activities as a whole in these three important environmental domais. This really should serve as a wake-up call for policy makers.

Decisions ahead

As individuals, it is important that we make wise choices in regard to protein consumption. We need protein as part of a balanced diet, but collectively, we over-consume livestock in particular. We need to start limiting the amount of livestock we consume and find alternative sources such as poultry and soy beans that have a smaller environmental impact, the report suggests.

While the publication may be good news for the world’s poultry and soy producers, it is based on estimates and projections, and its authors are not the first to make such claims. Controversy around meat production and consumption has repeatedly reared its head in the past. And while you may not agree with the conclusions of the report, it is worth knowing that it is out there.

And if the authors are correct, surely their publication can act as a starting point to find ever-more efficient methods of production and to make the very most of the animal protein that we do produce.