Livestock, Brazil’s big environmental problem

Are we going to eat our way to extinction?

Deforestation, mostly caused by livestock expansion, is Brazil's leading source of emissions


In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released an extensive report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, which addressed holistically and thoroughly the various stages of different production processes of the sector. The report brought to light alarming data showing that the production of meat and other animal products is drastically reducing the availability of renewable and non-renewable natural resources, polluting, damaging, or consuming such resources at a rate incompatible with their renewal rate, besides the damage through their interactions with various biogeochemical cycles on which life on the planet depends.

Livestock is causing and accelerating climate change both directly, releasing greenhouse gases along the production chain, and indirectly, triggering deforestation and major land use changes. It is also largely responsible for the impoverishment, fragmentation and loss of habitats, factors that lead to the current steep decline in biodiversity.

Another 2013 FAO study – which focuses on global, human health and planetary safety in food production – indicates that most of the new diseases that have emerged in recent decades are of animal origin and are related to human demand for more food of animal origin. Examples of cases such as aviation and swine, a bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, aka ‘mad cow disease’), Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola virus and many other veterinary public health risks.

Also of concern is the use of antibiotics – to prevent disease and stimulate the growth of animals – and their unintentional release into the environment through sewage and waste from agricultural areas. There is evidence that antibiotics are losing their effectiveness for human medication because of their routine use on industrial farms. These sewers are even rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, which contributes to the formation of “dead zones” in the oceans and the degradation of coral reefs, the “tropical forests” of the oceans.

Livestock, which is also responsible for the massive spread of GMOs and the indiscriminate use of pesticides, is characterized by its thermodynamically inefficient way of producing food: industrial agricultural systems are heavily dependent on oil. And the price of such products does not reflect any of the risks/damages mentioned.

In Brazil, where there are more cattle than people, pasture and soy cultivation take up an area the size of Cerrado, the second biggest biome of South America. Like maize, the main purpose of these grains is their transformation into animal feed. These grains are mostly transgenic – which is already damaging – and in the case of soybeans, for example, they depend on dangerous herbicides such as glyphosate, which has been linked to several negative impacts on animals, humans and the environment.

Brazil is responsible for 26% of the area planted with GMOs in the world.  With over 200 million hectares,  Cerrado is home to the springs of the three largest watersheds in South America. Only 20% of the biome is well preserved because most of it is occupied with grazing pastures and monocultures that destroy their rich biodiversity from the bottom to the top of the trophic chains.

As in the Amazon rainforest, this type of land occupation weakens evapotranspiration mechanisms, recharge of aquifers, impacts soil integrity, and thus affects the water balance on which the rainfall regime that supplies agriculture and the cities itself depends on it. Even without pointing out other very important forest functions, it is easy to understand how this single function – water balance – impacts climate at the local, national and global levels: a single tree in the Amazon rainforest can put up to 1,000 liters of water a day into the atmosphere.

In addition, trees consume an enormous amount of carbon dioxide, offsetting the effects of burning and other sources of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere responsible for climate change. Changes in this system have repercussions on both terrestrial hemispheres.

Regarding greenhouse gas emissions, the scenario is bleak: between 1990 and 2013, the agricultural sector increased by 46% in Brazil. Today this sector contributes 55% of emissions, 31% directly and 24% resulting from changes in land use (such as deforestation linked to pasture and agriculture). Note that when we export grains, we export our water.
Globally, one fourth of the land area is currently used for grazing ruminants and one third of the global arable land is used for growing cattle feed, representing 40% of total cereal production.

More than 80% of deforestation in Brazil between 1990 and 2005 was caused by the conversion of land to pasture. And in six countries surveyed in South America, pasture expansion has caused at least one third of the forests to be lost. As habitat destruction is the leading cause of biodiversity loss, it is not surprising that vertebrate populations (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) declined sharply (58%) between 1970 and 2012, which is a “geologic fraction of a second”. In Latin America, the drop is even more dramatic, around 83%. Current criminal fires in the Amazon, again led by cattle-ranchers, loggers and miners, is pushing the Amazon further to the brink of collapse.

In the case of terrestrial mammals, livestock has a huge negative impact, since the biomass of wild species has been reduced to a tiny fraction when compared to humans. This generates a number of negative impacts on biogeochemical cycles, for example, affecting carbon sequestration.

With regard to water use, agriculture accounts for 92% of humanity’s freshwater footprint, with almost 1/3 of all products of animal origin. Consequently, even if direct domestic use is very sparing, the largest expense is in virtual, “invisible” water, which is needed to produce such products.

A simple switch to vegetarian/vegan diets would reduce the food-related water footprint by 36% or more. With regard to energy, it is worth mentioning a study showing that if grazing and feed production land were used for planting crops to be converted directly into food for humans and for biofuel production, such fuels could replace about half of the coal used worldwide, avoiding the emission of 3,340 million tonnes of CO2 annually.

The science is there, the message is clear. Going vegan can help reduce emissions, preserve habitats and save water. Besides, it requires no new technology or political will – every individual can make the switch and start making a difference. There is no time to waste. Go vegan now.

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