1,500,000,000 pigs – the impact of livestock breeding on climate change

Written by Anthea Bicakcioglu
Posted on January 22 2021

12.30 pm, lunch break – you decide to grab a burger from the shop around the corner, beef teriyaki with extra cheese and bacon. After twenty minutes you have satisfied your hunger and go back to work.

However, how did this burger end up on your plate? What if I told you that the consumption of this burger contributes extensively to climate change?

The first pictures that come to one’s mind when thinking about the current climate crises are probably the following: incessant traffic polluting the air, airplanes poisoning our sky and smoke emerging from coal burning power plants.

However, did you know that agriculture and animal husbandry are one of the main driving forces behind global warming? Livestock farming alone is currently responsible for approximately 14,5% of all man-made green-house gas emissions (Gerber et al., 2013). Included in this number are not only the direct emissions produced by livestock, such as methane produced by enteric fermentation, but also the proceedings necessary for livestock breeding: modifications of the soil to allow livestock farming; the production and processing of feed which is often linked to deforestation and the use of fertilizers and the storage of manure.

Growing meat consumption

In fact, the volume of meat and dairy production has quadrupled since 1961 (Ritchie, 2017). It is projected that the world population will grow extensively over the years, from 7,8 billion in 2020 to around 9,7 billion in 2050 (UN, 2019). Based on these numbers it is likely to assume that the livestock industry will further increase its output in order to satisfy the ever-growing demand. It is of utmost importance to highlight that the price for meat is declining: In the EU, the average monthly price for meat declined by 2,2% from October 2018 to October 2019 (EU Commission, 2020). In the Netherlands, the price declined by 12,9% – the most severe decline in the EU.

What are the consequences of an exploding consumption of ever-cheaper meat and dairy products? Animal mass farming is inevitable to meet the ever-growing demand. This, in turn, implies increased animal suffering and, to come back to the starting point, increased greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, this trend is affecting many different sectors in a devastating manner.

Let’s take a closer look at how your burger ended up on your plate.

Feed production

The first step in the process of livestock breeding is the production of feed for the animals. Most of us have the picture in mind: Fields the size of a football pitch dedicated to growing soya pushing back the Brazilian rainforest with no end in sight. According to the prognosis of WWF, by 2030, around 27% of the Amazonian rainforest will be deforested (WWF, 2020) – a dreadful development which would not only destroy the livelihoods of millions of species but would also contribute immensely to climate change. The Amazonian rainforest, the ‘lungs of our world’, is essential for the storage of CO2 and the production of O2; its destruction is a catastrophe. Once the soya is ready to be harvested it is not uncommon for it to embark on a journey around the world to reach the farms where livestock is bred – yet another step which contributes to the pollution of the planet.

Enteric fermentation and manure storage

In Germany’s industrial farms, pigs are crammed into tiny cages ranging from 0,3 – 1m2. Amongst a multitude of torturous conditions, the pigs can barely move in these minute spaces. An unavoidable side effect of the breeding of livestock is enteric fermentation and the production of manure. Enteric fermentation refers to the digestion process of animals and to the consequent emission of greenhouse gases – methane (CH4) by cows, and nitrous oxide (N2O) by pigs. Here, it is very important to highlight that methane is 28 times more harmful than CO2. Nitrous oxide, which is often emitted by fertilizing products, is 256 times more harmful than CO2 (Myhre, Shindell, Bréon, et al., 2013). On top of that, the storage of the manure of livestock is also responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases.

After around six months of hell and around 448.3 kg CO2equivalent emissions later (Philippe, Nickslater, 2014) the life of an average pig comes to an end. Slaughtered, dissected and packaged in plastic, the meat which used to be a pig ends up in the kitchen of the burger shop around the corner and eventually on your plate. Enjoy!

And now?
As was highlighted in this text, livestock farming is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Since the world population is supposed to increase immensely over the next years, the importance of livestock farming will only grow. What can you do? Although it might be difficult, try to minimize your meat and dairy consumption. If you cannot go vegetarian/vegan completely, try to buy locally and biologically produced meat and dairy products. Moreover, and this applies to grocery shopping in general, try to buy food which was not imported from other continents or countries – as far as possible. And lastly, spread the word – be an amplifier of the voices of this movement to preserve this planet and to end the suffering of animals.

Sources

Gerber, P. J., H.Steinfeld, B.Henderson, A.Mottet, C.Opio, J.Dijkman, A.Falcucci, and G.Tempio. 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Rome: FAO. Available from http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3437e.pdf

https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/popfacts/PopFacts_2019-6.pdf

Hannah Ritchie (2017) – “Meat and Dairy Production”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production’ [Online Resource] https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/food-farming-fisheries/farming/documents/beef-veal-market-situation_en.pdf

https://wwf.panda.org/our_work/our_focus/forests_practice/deforestation_fronts2/deforestation_in_the_amazon

Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, et al. (2013): Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

https://ccacoalition.org/en/resources/review-greenhouse-gas-emissions-pig-houses-production-carbon-dioxide-methane-and-nitrous

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/chart-of-the-day-this-is-how-many-animals-we-eat-each-year/#:~:text=Nearly%201.5%20billion%20pigs%20are,to%20the%20abattoir%20every%20year.

Remark title: number of pigs slaughtered every year worldwide (World Economic Forum, 2019)

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