For the environment
A threat to biodiversity
94% of the world’s terrestrial mammal biomass—excluding humans—is made up of farm animals, while wild mammals now account for only 6%1. Animal husbandry, agriculture and aquaculture are considered a threat to 24001 of the 28338 species considered endangered by the IUCN (2019), mainly as contributors to natural habitat destruction2.
Animal agriculture, including farms and plantations devoted to feed farm animals, accounts for 77% of the land area devoted to food production worldwide. Nonetheless, it provides only 18% of the calories and 37% of the protein that sustain the world population. In contrast, plant agriculture for human consumption represents only 23% of the agricultural area and yet provides 82% of the calories and 63% of the protein3.
Greenhouse gas emissions
“Eat local” is a recommendation we hear often. Although it may seem logical at first glance, it’s not very effective advice when it comes to reducing our environmental impact. Food transport accounts for only 6% of total greenhouse gas emissions derived from food production. The type of food we eat, then, is much more important than where it comes from3. A 2008 study conducted in the US concluded that replacing meat with plant-based alternatives once a week had more of an impact than buying exclusively local food every day of the week4.
It’s estimated that the production, transport and sale of 1 Kg of chicken releases the equivalent to about 6 Kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. In comparison, plant foods such as wheat, corn, tubers, nuts, peas, tomatoes, apples, bananas, citrus fruits… release between 0.3 and 1.4 Kg, that is, between four and twenty times less3.
Meat, eggs and dairy products account for 83% of total greenhouse gas emissions from food consumption in the EU. In comparison, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts add up to 4%, grains represent another 4% and tubers a 1.5%. The remaining 7.5% comes from oils and beverages5.
According to the United Nations, animal agriculture and fish farming contribute to about 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the world, compared to 13% of emissions derived from transport. That is, the consumption of meat, fish, eggs and dairy contributes more to global warming than all cars, planes, ships, trucks and trains combined6.
Fishing, an ecological disaster
The United Nations affirms that three-quarters of the world’s fishing grounds are overexploited or severely depleted due to overfishing7. Today, fishing is carried out mostly through massive, non-selective nets that catch many non-targeted species as well as the targeted ones. It’s estimated that more than 300,000 dolphins, whales and belugas are killed each year as bycatch8.
Fish farming further contributes to the problem, since most fish bred in farms are fed fishmeal obtained from huge quantities of small fish caught in the wild, which significantly accelerates their extinction process9.
A recent study conducted in the Pacific Ocean in an area of 1.6 million km2 estimated that 46% of the total weight of marine debris collected corresponded to fishing nets, while most of the remaining 54% consisted of other fishing materials. Plastic bottles, caps, bags and straws accounted for only 8%10.
- Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., & Milo, R. (2018). The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(25), 6506-6511.
- Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392), 987-992.
- Weber, C. L., & Matthews, H. S. (2008). Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology.
- Sandström, V., Valin, H., Krisztin, T., Havlík, P., Herrero, M., & Kastner, T. (2018). The role of trade in the greenhouse gas footprints of EU diets. Global Food Security, 19, 48-55.
- IUCN. Durabilité des aliments pour le poisson en aquaculture : réflexions et recommandations sur les aspects technologiques, économiques, sociaux et environnementaux (2017).
- Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F. et al. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Sci Rep 8, 4666 (2018).
To find out more:
– www.ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food — Information on the environmental impact of different types of food
– Avoiding meat and dairy could reduce your carbon footprint from food by nearly three-quarters — Article in The Independent
– Seaspiracy — Documentary on the environmental impact of fishing, on Netflix