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Unsustainable Livestock Production

Unsustainable Livestock Production

Latin America suffers from the highest levels of deforestation in the world. The main drivers are cattle ranching and mass crop cultivation, mainly soy, used as livestock feed. These unsustainable methods of industrial livestock production are one of the main contributors to climate change. Global greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector vary from an estimated 14.5% to an astonishing 51% if all side effects are taken into account. For many consumers in the Northern Hemisphere, reducing meat and dairy consumption is one of the most effective steps to reduce individual greenhouse gas emissions.

Each year, more than 60 billion animals are raised for human consumption. Meat and dairy production already uses 30% of the Earth’s land surface, 70% of agricultural land, and accounts for 8% of the water humans use, mostly to irrigate feed crops. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the global livestock industry is “probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution,” and one of the key agents of deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Continued meat and dairy consumption levels will make it impossible to feed the world’s population in the coming decades as large quantities of cereals and other food crops are used to feed animals rather than people. As highlighted by the recent report of the United Nations Rapporteur on the Right to Food, small family farms are rapidly giving way to the large-scale, factory farm model. This is particularly prevalent in the livestock industry, where millions of animals are raised in inhumane, unsanitary industrial conditions. These operations, along with the resources needed to grow the grain and oil meals (principally soybeans and corn) for livestock feed place intense pressure on the world’s forests and human communities.

Sadly, this highly unsustainable industry continues to receive active government support, including more than US $50 billion in subsidies in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries alone. These resources should be redirected to support more sustainable agricultural methods, such as agroecology, small-scale peasant farming, and pastoralist practices that enhance forest conservation and restoration and draw on the traditional knowledge of rural communities and Indigenous Peoples.

Together with our member group Brighter Green, an environmental action tank based in New York, we advocate for:

  1. Eliminating perverse legal, fiscal and other incentives for commodity chains like unsustainably produced beef and animal fodder that are a major driver of forest loss
  2. Redirecting subsidies and other forms of economic support for unsustainable livestock production, in line with the Aichi targets of the Convention on Biodiversity. The redirection of these subsidies would free up significant amounts of financial support for more sustainable forms of agricultural production that do not only contribute to climate change mitigation, but also to climate change adaptation
  3. Recognizing and supporting territories and areas conserved by pastoralists and their traditional knowledge related to climate change mitigation and adaptation
  4. Developing and implementing strict legislation prohibiting livestock practices that involve environmental pollution, weak labor standards, land grabbing, health risks and maltreatment of animals
  5. Halting negotiations on bilateral and multilateral trade agreements that weaken national standards related to the livestock sector
  6. Promoting consumer campaigns about the benefits of dietary change away from animal products, and
  7. Fiscal reform that supports sustainable forms and levels of livestock production and consumption.

Key publications