Animal agriculture causes biodiversity loss: UN report

A new UN environmental report, which found that around one million species are at risk of extinction, puts much of the blame on animal agriculture, saying that the meat industry has a "particularly heavy impact".

Of all the major causes of biodiversity loss listed by the report (such as destruction of forests and wetlands, overfishing, climate change and pollution), animal agriculture is the primary cause of the deterioration. Fortunately damage caused by animal agriculture may be the easiest to reduce, because most animal products can be replaced by plant products with a much lower environmental footprint. For this change to be successful, it will require environmental organisations and governments to strongly promote plant based diets.

The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was released by IPBES, a UN organisation with over 100 member countries. The report also found that:

  • Livestock production (grazing and feedstock) is the single largest driver of habitat loss.
  • Grazing areas for cattle account for about 25% of the world's ice-free land.
  • Animal agriculture contributes at least 18% to global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Industrial fishing takes place in more than half the world's oceans.
  • Livestock production uses a large portion of freshwater resources.
  • One third of the world's crops are used as feed for livestock production.
  • Animal-based foods, especially beef, require more water and energy than plant-based foods. This means more greenhouse-gas emissions.
  • The meat and dairy industries use 83% of farmland but contribute only 18% of food calories.
  • Farmed animals now account for over 90% of all large land animals.
  • Producing protein via farmed animals is a very wasteful use of resources. It can take from 10kg to 100kg of plant foods to produce just 1kg of animal product.
  • The demand for grain-fed meat is one of the main drivers of global biodiversity loss.

Note that the 18% figure for greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture is determined using a 100 year GWP time frame to compare methane and carbon dioxide. Using a 20 year time frame (much more relevant to the current climate emergency), the figure is about 50%. That is, about half of the world's greenhouse gas emissions are due to the animal agriculture industry.

The report also lists climate change, pollution and invasive species as damaging to nature, but these have had a relatively low impact compared to the surge in agriculture (mainly animal agriculture) and fishing which are the primary causes of the deterioration.

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To help reverse some of this damage to the environment, the report recommends that meat consumption be reduced by changes in diet. It suggests that reducing meat consumption in higher-income countries would yield the largest potential gain for the environmental and health benefits.

It suggests "improvements in consumption patterns can likely be achieved by reducing subsidies for animal-based products, increasing those for plant-based foods, and replacing ecologically-inefficient ruminants (e.g., cattle, goats, sheep). Research and development of plant-based meat substitutes is also a growing phenomena and potential solution." It also suggests that meat prices are kept artificially low, which can increase consumption.

The report mentions that another driver for higher meat consumption is its promotion via advertising, which promotes images of identity, such as masculinity and national and cultural identity. "Given the central role of advertising and marketing in boosting production, policies might seek to rein in the reach of advertising, particularly to children and for resource-intensive products" (such as animal products). The report suggests that regulating the advertising of animal products could reduce their consumption and hence improve the sustainability of food.

The report notes that reduced demand for animal products can achieve multiple goals, such as greenhouse gas emission reduction, food security and biodiversity protection.

While the report does not call for a vegan diet, it does suggest that the less meat, dairy and egg in a diet, the better for the environment and for health. Some scenarios mentioned in the report call for 50% less meat consumption. Regarding the environment, the best future scenario beneficial for biodiversity envisioned by the report includes "a shift in diet towards less meat." It also states that "significant reduction in consumption of meat and eggs means that less agricultural production would be required, thus reducing associated biodiversity loss." Regarding health, the report notes that "diet related disease is the leading cause of premature mortality." and "increased consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with reductions in various diseases such as cardiovascular disease."

In other words, the report is consistent with moving towards a vegan world.

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