As a society, America loves its burgers, steaks and hot dogs. This fact explains the reason that U.S. meat consumption is over three times the global average. All of this has contributed to an increase of over 20 percent in the worldwide population of farm animals, based on findings by the Worldwatch Institute.
Along with the numbers, the dynamics of farming has also changed. No longer is the family farm the norm. Rather, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or factory farms provide most of the meat, eggs and dairy products consumed. CAFOs, for example, provide over 70 percent of the poultry production.
Health Risks and Climate Change
The sharp increase in the global livestock population has the potential for serious environmental and health consequences. From a health perspective, increased meat consumption increases your risk of chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. You may also experience nutritional deficiencies if meat is replacing fruits, vegetables and whole grains that your diet should include.
From an environmental perspective, a growing livestock population means an increase in methane, one of four dominant greenhouse gases. With carbon dioxide emissions far outpacing methane, the latter carries the added risk of a much higher global warming potential. It has 21 times the potential versus carbon dioxide.
Livestock is a major contributor to methane emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that it contributes over 20 percent of total emissions, exceeded only by natural gas systems. For the most part, methane emissions have remained fairly steady from 1990 to 2009. However, the risk exists that these figures may spike given the increase in livestock numbers.
The farm stage contributes the most to the ecological footprint of raising livestock. A study by AgResearch in New Zealand quantified the farm stage at 80 percent of the carbon footprint contribution with lamb farming.
A closer look at the trends in meat consumption globally show that the scenario is changing. As citizens of developed countries become more aware of the heath risks, meat consumption may begin to decline. However, the opposite is true in developing countries. As incomes rise, so too does meat consumption. The findings of the Worldwatch Institute show climate change is far more complex than simply targeting fossil fuel power plants.