By Cassandra Brooks  

While the global meat industry provides food and a livelihood for billions of people, it also has significant environmental and health consequences for the planet. Experts predict that the worldwide consumption of pork, beef, poultry and other livestock will double by 2020, although this prediction may be dampened by the recent economic downturn. A team of Stanford University researchers has been assessing the environmental impact of the meat industry in light of this inevitable growth and is offering solutions to this global challenge. 

"People aren't going to stop eating meat," said Harold A. Mooney, professor of biology and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford. "The industry is massive, it's growing and it has huge environmental and social impacts. So we decided to look at it globally and see the options available for reducing the detrimental effects of meat production as well as enhancing positive attributes." 

In 2004, Mooney and Stanford colleagues Rosamond L. Naylor and Walter P. Falcon received a two-year Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) grant from the Woods Institute to quantitatively evaluate the environmental impact of global meat consumption and find real-world solutions. The EVP research team focused on the international trade of grain for animal production and the meat trade itself. That pilot study led to a more comprehensive global project among many collaborators, including the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), on issues related to meat production. Those results were published in March 2010 by Island Press in two volumes entitled, Livestock in a Changing Landscape.

The meat of the problem

The growth of the meat industry mirrors the rise in global population, but increasing gross domestic product per capita in developing countries boosts the demand even higher, Mooney said. Generally, in developing countries when people have more money, they increase the meat and animal products in their diets, he noted. 

To meet the rising global demand for cheap protein, livestock production has grown increasingly more industrialized. 

"The livestock industry is changing really rapidly in this country and elsewhere," said Falcon, deputy director of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute. Falcon grew up on an Iowa cattle farm. In his lifetime, he's seen a 90 percent reduction in the number of small feedlots near his childhood home.

Small farms with free-roaming animals are disappearing in many parts of the world, he said. Currently, three-quarters of the world's poultry supply, half of the pork and two-thirds of the eggs come from industrial meat factories, according to the FAO.

The concentration of livestock increases the environmental burden, Falcon added. "Issues, like runoff and odor, that were present in rather small and diverse quantities 40 years ago have now become concentrated and significant," he said. 

The meat industry also has a significant impact on global warming. Livestock production accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, including 9 percent of carbon dioxide and 37 percent of methane gas emissions worldwide, according to the Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative, an international consortium of government and private agencies based at FAO headquarters in Rome. 

More than two-thirds of all agricultural land is devoted to growing feed for livestock, while only 8 percent is used to grow food for direct human consumption, LEAD reported. If the entire world population were to consume as much meat as the Western world does-176 pounds of meat per capita per year- the global land required would be two-thirds more than what is presently used, according to Vaclav Smil, professor of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba and participant in the EVP study.

LEAD researchers also found that the global livestock industry uses dwindling supplies of freshwater, destroys forests and grasslands, and causes soil erosion, while pollution and the runoff of fertilizer and animal waste create dead zones in coastal areas and smother coral reefs. There also is concern over increased antibiotic resistance, since livestock accounts for 50 percent of antibiotic use globally, according to LEAD.

Breaking down the burden

Calculating the true cost of meat production is a daunting task, Mooney said. Consider the piece of ham on your breakfast plate, and where it came from before landing on your grocery store shelf. First, take into account the amount of land used to rear the pig. Then factor in all of the land, water and fertilizer used to grow the grain to feed the pig and the associated pollution that results. Finally, consider that while a small percentage of the ham may have come from Denmark, where there are twice as many pigs as people, the grain to feed the animal was likely grown in Brazil, where rainforests are constantly being cleared to grow more soybeans, a major source of pig feed. 

"These interconnections are even more important for countries, such as Japan and the Netherlands, that rely heavily on trade to meet local meat and feed demand," said Marshall Burke, a collaborator on the EVP project and program manager at Stanford's Food Security and the Environment program. 

To help quantify the industry's hidden environmental costs, Mooney brought together a team of international experts, including Naylor and Falcon, to create a model that traces the impacts of livestock production on a global scale. The results were published in the journal Environmental Modeling & Assessment, with Burke as lead author. 

The researchers then applied the model to the United States and Brazil, two of the largest livestock producers and exporters in the world; Japan, which relies almost completely on imports; and the Netherlands, which imports feeds but exports animal products. The results, published in the December 2007 issue of the journal Ambio, showed that global meat production has widespread and severe environmental consequences, and that when a country substitutes imported for domestically produced meat, the environmental burdens are shifted abroad, affecting countries half a world away. 

For example, Japan greatly benefits from importing grain for raising meat, because Brazil provides the land, water and nutrients to raise the grain without accounting for the true environmental cost that is incurred. Japan would have to devote 50 percent of its total arable land to raise the equivalent of their chicken and pig imports, and the country simply does not have the land available for agriculture and livestock.

"This trade in grain to support meat somewhere else has big impacts on the country it's going to as well as the country it's coming from," Mooney said.


Mooney and collaborators are proposing that their meat model be used in a continuing global assessment of the livestock industry. A more extensive application will inform policies that take into account the environmental benefits and consequences of global trade of grain, in addition to the economic benefits that may exist. 

"A recoupling of crop and livestock systems is needed-if not physically, then through pricing and other policy mechanisms that reflect social costs of resource use and ecological abuse," wrote Naylor, director of the Program on Food Security and the Environment and William Wrigley Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute, in the journal Science. 

"That's fundamental and that's true for all food," Mooney said. "We should pay the real cost, and that would make a huge difference for the environment."

One solution is for countries to adopt policies that provide incentives for better management practices that focus on land conservation and more efficient water and fertilizer use, Mooney said.

So much of the problem comes down to the individual consumer, he stressed, adding that one solution could be to get people in developed countries to eat less meat and to consider how and where the meat that they do eat is produced. At the same time, people in certain regions of the world, such as southern Africa, are suffering from a deficiency of animal protein, and the means to enrich their diets is needed. "I am always hopeful that as people learn more, they do change their behavior," Mooney said. "If they are informed that they do have choices to help build a more sustainable and equitable world, they can make better choices." 

Cassandra Brooks is a science-writing intern at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford.