Reversing land clearing for meat production

Current animal farming practices are environmentally unsustainable and unethical (see this documentary showing the appalling way farm animals are treated), and always will be under pressure to remain so, in order to keep the cost of food low

Also the WWF estimate 60-70% of the new diseases that have emerged in humans since 1990 (including Covid-19) came from wildlife, with beef, palm oil and soy being commodities frequently linked to the deforestation that increases these global health risks.

Despite a tripling of crop yields since the 1960s, half the world's habitable land is devoted to agriculture (whilst only 1% is used as built-up urban areas), with 77% of this being used for livestock that provides just 18% of global calorie supply (see side chart from here), so the "80/20 rule" applies, with only a little more than 20% of agricultural land producing plant-based food that provides about 80% of calories and still almost two-thirds of protein consumption.

Cattle grazing alone occupies 25% of the world’s ice-free land, which – coming on top of other human uses of land & oceans – threatens many species with extinction (despite some progress in the protection of biodiverse areas), whilst also contributing hugely to greenhouse gas emissions.

I estimate animal agriculture causes roughly 30%+/-10% of global greenhouse-gas emissions (similar to estimates reported here for all food), based on a low UN/IPCC estimate of about 20% that only includes emissions from new land clearing, whilst higher estimates include further "uncounted" emissions such as the lost opportunity to absorb CO2 by allowing forest regrowth on existing pasture land (a high estimate of about 50% produced by the WorldWatch Institute also includes over 10% for animal respiration which I don't think is valid, thus giving my revised upper estimate of about 40%).

Another paper claims animal agriculture is responsible for 87% of greenhouse gas emissions, on the assumption that 55% of further CO2 emissions will continue to be absorbed by plants & the ocean, whilst additional methane emissions from livestock will have a stronger effect over the next decade than assumed by the IPCC, which adopts a hundred year timeframe to account for methane gradually reacting with oxygen to form less harmful CO2.  Whilst I can’t validate their approach, regardless, animal agriculture is clearly a major issue that must be addressed.

Reversing land clearing by investing in reforestation and coastal ecosystems - especially in the US, Canada, Australia, Russia, Brazil and China - could restore the habitats of endangered wildlife whilst also offseting other greenhouse emissions over a couple of decades until the forests reach maturity, thus buying us some time to allow for a more orderly & less disruptive phase-out of existing fossil-fuel systems (but note this is not an excuse to delay major action to reduce emissions).  At the same time, sustainably grown, high-tech timber used for better, natural buildings with faster construction and possibly even better fire resistance than steel-reinforced concrete (or alternatively, hemp-crete/bricks/blocks/insulation, or bamboo, which absorbs 5 times more CO2 & releases 35% more oxygen than hardwood trees, as well as saving pandas) offers the potential along with low-carbon concrete such as cement-free bendable concrete with captured CO2, cement from electrolysis or other strategies to reduce the 8% of CO2 emissions created by cement production.

Meat production also requires huge amounts of water e.g. 15,000 litres per kg of beef (vs 1000 litres/kg grain) which means water use for food could be reduced 33-55% by switching to a vegetarian & fish diet (from typical levels of about 3,000 litres per person/day, though commonly 50% higher for the French as they need 7x more water per kg of wine than the 111 litres required for a kg of beer), thus benefiting natural eco-systems suffering from water diversion, and/or allowing for more water supply to drought-affected rural communities.

[Similarly, cotton growing requires 2-3 times more land & water than hemp (& infinitely more agricultural chemicals & pesticides) and is responsible for about 35% of all the water extracted from the Murray Darling Basin for irrigation (with all irrigation accounting for about 70% of all surface water extracted in the Basin).  Prerequisites for better managing water are to stop wasting billions of dollars on irrigation subsidies and to start actually measuring water use so all parties to water laws can be held accountable and incentivised to be more efficient.

Cotton is also a significant input to the extraordinarily wasteful fashion industry, which exploits the poor and on current trends will be responsible for a quarter of all carbon emissions by 2050.]

So instead of subsidising environmentally-damaging agriculture and unsustainable fishing, public policy should support sustainable farming, such as:


In the meantime, be wary of any "backlash to plant-based meat" pushed by vested interests in the meat industry, and note also it would help if we reduced the 25-30% of food that is currently wasted (see also here), or maybe more, perhaps by reducing global inequality, since the nearly 1 billion of hungry, undernourished people in the world tend not to waste food like the 2 billion overweight or obese adults and wealthy Americans (consumers in Europe & North America waste about 10 x more food than those in sub-Saharan Africa & South Asia, although the majority of food waste occurs during production & retailing, and at fairly consistent rates in all countries, although for different reasons).  Or more locally you could reduce waste by getting a bargain meal through here.

And for continuing animal farming, all farms could be mandated to have comprehensive CCTV that the public can view (e.g. by scanning a QR code on food packages), so customers know whether their purchases are contributing to animal cruelty (but instead, Australian law is currently being used to hide cruelty).