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‘Appetite For Destruction’: How Feeding Livestock Strains The Planet

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We are eating more meat than at any other time in history, and the largest environmental impact actually comes from what the animals are being fed, says Duncan Williamson, food policy manager for the World Wildlife Fund UK

DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore. There’s a growing awareness that meat production puts a strain on water, land use and habitats, and that it increases greenhouse gas emissions, which drives climate change. But few know the largest environmental impact actually comes from what the animals are being fed. To discuss a recent study on this topic, it’s from the UK branch of the World Wildlife Fund, and it’s titled Appetite for Destruction. We’re joined by Duncan Williamson. He’s the food policy manager for WWF UK. Thanks for joining us today, Duncan.

D. WILLIAMSON: Well, thank you very much for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So, your recent report says that producing crops to feed livestock is putting an enormous strain on our natural resources, and it’s a driving force behind wide scale biodiversity loss. How does livestock feed actually have that kind of impact?

D. WILLIAMSON: It’s two things. It’s the numbers of animals that we’re producing globally, and where we are growing the crops to feed them, so for example, we know there’s 23 billion poultry animals on the world at the moment. That’s enough for three animals each basically, and most of these animals are grown in intensive systems, so they don’t have access to the outside, so they have to be fed on something, and their feed tends to be maize and soy. And maize and soy is grown in very large mono-cultures, and that tends to be in parts of the world, which have either already converted lots of their land to agriculture, like in parts of the United States, which have had previous biodiversity lots, or in areas of the world, which are in almost what’s called the agricultural frontier, like in the Cerrado in Brazil, where land that was originally rich in biodiversity has been converted to grow animal feed.

DHARNA NOOR: So, talk more about the scale of the loss that we’re seeing, and more about where it’s effects are the most pronounced geographically, where they’re the most felt.

D. WILLIAMSON: The scale of loss is huge. According to the United Nations, 60% of global biodiversity loss is attributed to the food system. Some of it is traditional because we’re not blameless over here in Europe. We chopped down our trees and got rid of a lot of our biodiversity many, many hundreds of years ago. So, that’s part of the historical biodiversity loss we look at. But the current agricultural frontiers that we talk about are also in South America, so if you look at Brazil, a lot of people think, oh, the problem is the Amazon and beef farming in the Amazon, but it’s not as simple as that. If you look just south of the Amazon, you have this amazing savanna, called the Cerrado. And about 5% of global biodiversity lives in the Cerrado from anteaters to jaguars. And it’s one of the most rapidly disappearing landscapes on the planet. And it’s purely disappearing, so we can grow soy to feed poultry, pigs and dairy cattle.

DHARNA NOOR: And how much of this meat are people really eating for the impact to be so huge?

D. WILLIAMSON: Well, it’s huge. We, particularly in the western world, we are eating more meat per person than we have ever eaten at any time in human history. We’ve really … we’ve never eaten this much meat. We’ve never treated it so lightly. An example would be, like when I was growing up in the United Kingdom, I was brought up on a chicken farm. We had about 400 chickens, and that was a big chicken farm in those days. You have people listening who will just laugh at that. And we used to have chicken about once a month in the 1970s, because it was an expensive meat and it was a treat. Now the average person in the UK and the United States eats chicken every single day. And in America, I believe, the total amount of chicken that’s eaten per year is about 50 kilograms per person.

DHARNA NOOR: And while we’re at it, what’s the impact of the industrial farming on the meat itself? How is industrial farming impacting the nutritional value of this meat?

D. WILLIAMSON: Well, what we’ve seen is that there’s a lot of studies looking at this. The evidence is still a little bit gray in some places, but what we do know is that industrial meat farming uses a lot of antibiotics, which is one of the drivers behind antibiotic resistance in human beings. It is potentially a hotbed for zoonotic diseases … animal diseases, which can transfer into the human population, but we’re also seeing other areas where the meat is becoming less nutritious, because the animals aren’t doing exercise. They’re not being opened to varied diets. The meat has slightly less high-quality protein in it, less nutrients in it, so you have to eat more to get the same nutrient hit you would have gotten from an animal that would, say, free range in the 1970s. And the meat tends to be slightly higher in saturated fat, which as we all know, we need to be careful about.

DHARNA NOOR: So, people are actually eating more meat and getting less out of it?

D. WILLIAMSON: Yeah, that’s probably the big thing. We’re eating more. We’re getting less. And that’s one of the challenges. We’ve only been recently, have we started to realize this because the effects have only now become noticeable.

DHARNA NOOR: Let’s switch gears a little bit, and take a look at a map that shows some of the animals impacted around the world. Can we really directly tie the western meat diet to the impact on particular species? So this looks like sometimes the impact is on species on the other side of the globe. How is that possible?

D. WILLIAMSON: Well, it’s possible because this map is looking at where the biggest biodiversity loss is around the world, and when you map it nearly in every single place, the biodiversity loss is related to habitat conversion or overfishing, and the driver behind habitat conversion, which is things like deforestation, is without doubt the food industry. The most biodiverse parts of the world now tend to be in South America, parts of Africa, et cetera. And those are also some of the areas of the world that the land isn’t valued so much, and tend to still be quite fertile. So they’re the ones that are targeted for agricultural expansion. And the simple thing is they are the ones that … that’s where we’re growing a lot of the commodity crops, like your palm and your soya, and those are the crops that are driving the current food system, and are being to fed to animal agriculture, so there are direct links.

In the United States, of course, you grow a lot of soy and maize in your own country. And that is fed to animal agriculture, but in areas it’s grown are areas that, say, the northern great plains, which used to be biodiversity rich as well, but a lot of the biodiversity has already been lost due to historic changing in land use.

DHARNA NOOR: And additionally, your report actually links industrial meat to the extinction of some species around the globe. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

D. WILLIAMSON: Yeah, what this report’s been doing is looking at how many animals have gone extinct, where they’ve gone. It hasn’t actually named every single one, because that would be impossible, because we don’t actually know how many animals have gone extinct. But we do know that the areas of the world where the greatest habitat conversions have happened, where it has been driven by animal agriculture, particularly in production of feed, we have seen associated extinctions. So our researchers, who over many years have looked at this, have extrapolated that you can link some extinctions to animal agriculture, the same as you can link some extinctions to the British arriving in New Zealand, and their cats getting loose and killing some of the birds off.

DHARNA NOOR: Okay, so we’ve talked quite a bit about the impact on animal ecosystems, but what about the impact of industrial agriculture and industrial meat farming on people? Around the globe, what are the effects on indigenous and local communities?

D. WILLIAMSON: I mean, there’s lots of effect. Again, it’s really hard to definitely link some of these issues, because we know they’re happening, but they’re often in places with poor recording systems, poor land rights, and that’s quite challenging then to get to this is definitely what’s happened. What we do know is land is being lost. People are having to move on from their land as it becomes more valuable to grow feed. So, the traditional way of life is being lost. We do know that more and more people are starting to convert to the western diet, which for all of its benefits, and all of us love to have the occasional burger or have the donut, that sort of thing, but the problem with the western diet is it’s superseding traditional diets, traditional ways of eating, traditional habits within the family.

As people are eating food faster, they’re eating it on the move. They’re no longer eating what their parents would have eaten, or their grandparents would have eaten. So we’re losing a lot of social cohesion as a result of it. And this is probably impacting on the choice of foods we have, the crops we grow, and how we interact as a culture, so we’re seeing what people are classifying as a homogenization of the human population.

DHARNA NOOR: And beyond sort of the ethical argument to care for people and living things across the globe, why should people care about biodiversity? What could the impact of the reduction or extinction of certain species on the globe be as a whole?

D. WILLIAMSON: Well, I mean, it’s simple. First of all, biodiversity is the baseline for our life. We need biodiversity. Without biodiversity, we would never have been able to grow any of the crops we have. It’s really, really caught everything we do. Biodiversity provides ecosystem services, so at the moment, we’re lucky enough to get bees pollinating our food. There’s thousands of types of bees in the world. They pollinate our food for free, and that’s essential and they’re all examples of biodiversity. Without them, we would have to pay for our food to be pollinated, and that would rise the cost of our food.

We need all of … we need biodiversity just for the natural air around us. It does things like it cleans the air. It cleans the water. Trees are really good at sucking pollution out of the air, and that’s not just one type of tree, it’s any different varieties of trees. You want to play golf? You won’t have a good game of golf unless you got a really nice biodiverse rich golf course, and lots of varieties of grass growing on it, so it’s important for leisure time. It’s been shown it’s good for our wellbeing as well to be around nature and to be around biodiversity. So, there are so many different benefits for it.

And even a lot of our medicines originate from biodiversity. We know that we need to keep looking to nature to find some of the cures for the greatest diseases, because that will give us the spark we need to keep being creative and move forward. Most of the big pharmaceutical companies really look to biodiversity as being key for their future.

DHARNA NOOR: So, can we slow or stop industrial farming from voraciously destroying forests and other natural habitats just by reducing meat consumption?

D. WILLIAMSON: Well, we think there’s a variety of solutions. One is definitely … we need to look at how much meat and dairy we’re eating. We’re not saying go vegan. We’re not saying go vegetarian. You don’t need to do that. What we’re saying is people in the West are eating too much, more than we need for health, and just more than we need basically. Most people in the United States and the UK eat about twice the amount of protein they need for healthy diets, and lots of people don’t even know you can get protein from plants. So, we need to just eat a bit less meat.
It’s really that simple. Yes, have a steak, but maybe have it once every couple of weeks. If you’re going to have chicken, don’t have it every single day. You have it three or four times a week. Just think about our food, or if you want it every day, have less of it. Some of the greatest cuisines in the world have got a little bit of animal protein, but not a great amount. Look at Italian, Chinese, Thai. They’ve all got a bit of meat, but it’s a flavoring. It’s a treat. It’s the extra bit that goes on top of the food. It’s not the predominant center of a plate. So, it’s just a case of reevaluating our relationship with food. So, yes, have a burger. East a sausage. East whatever. But just think about it.

And we’re also trying to remind people that plants are really good, really tasty. There’s about 7,000 edible species of plants, so I get quite frustrated when people go, yeah, vegetables are boring and I can’t live on vegetables alone. Because they’re really exciting. The flavors are so exciting, the vegetables, let’s start eating more plants. Let’s make our diets more diverse and more exciting, and that’s a really easy step we can make to reduce the over-environmental footprint of our food choices.

DHARNA NOOR: So, the population is obviously growing globally. In light of this, is there some sort of alternative kind of meat production that wouldn’t have this kind of impact, and would allow people to keep consuming levels of meat, at least at the ones that you’re suggesting?

D. WILLIAMSON: We’ve done work on this, and we’ve looked at it. There’s a role for every type of meat production. I’m not going to sit here and go, yes, one is bad, one is good. I think we have to take a balanced approach and look at every type of meat production. I think we need to definitely grow less meat. I think we need to practice what’s called contraction and conversion. In the western world we need to eat less meat, and we need to eat less livestock products while enabling people in poorer parts of the world to have access to a greater protein source. So, it’s good for them, so they can start eating meat, because it’s going to be part of their cultures as well as their development.

But we need to look at more pasture raised livestock. We need to eat more pasture raised livestock. We need to have significantly less industrially raised livestock, and that is industrially raised. We need to reduce stock in numbers, and that would overall change the picture. And if we just did things like that, we could have a balanced system. I think we can get to the future we need to get to, but we do need to look at it. We also need to explore what we feed the industrial livestock. It is crazy that we’re feeding food that could be either fed to people or is grown on land, which could be used to grow food for people, and feeding it to animals. I mean, the land that’s being so used to grow soil maize. Imagine if we used that to grow vegetables and fruit. We’d have so much more benefit from it, so much more healthier diets, and it would make fruit and vegetables a lot cheaper for us to eat.

So instead, we need to look at other things of feeding livestock. That includes food waste. That includes insects. Insects like black fly larvae, but it also includes things like looking to the seas, and can we grow algae as animal feed as well.

DHARNA NOOR: Okay, Duncan Williamson from WWF UK. Thanks so much for joining us today.

D. WILLIAMSON: Yup, thank you very much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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