The Environmental Impact Of Animals As Food
Producing food typically has an impact on the environment, but the costs associated with animal-sourced food (ASF) have received an increasing amount of attention over the last decade plus. This is largely due to how quickly animal-sourced food production is growing, and with world population growth and rising incomes in many countries, there is an increasing demand for ASFs. Data shows that from 1993 to 2013 livestock production has increased at an average of 2.46% per year, with aquaculture production increasing 5.79% per year from 2009 to 2014.
There are many ways that ASF production can impact the environment, and with production increasing, it is important to examine these impacts. Greenhouse gas production, effect on water quality and habitat loss, amount of energy required in production—plus the footprint of auxiliary inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides and antibiotics—all have environmental impacts that need to be accounted for. However, there isn’t currently a systematic way to compare these impacts across different types of ASFs. This type of standardized information would improve our ability to make informed choices and policies, and be particularly useful for policy makers, retailers, and consumers alike.
To begin to address this need, a recent study examined life-cycle assessments of 148 “conventional” (longstanding, industrial, mass) ASFs: 48 were livestock (meat), 29 capture fisheries, and 71 aquaculture. The energy demand, greenhouse gas production, eutrophication potential, and acidification potential of producing a 40g serving of protein was examined. A literature review was also conducted to examine other impacts that were not widely assessed in the life-cycle assessments, including water use, pesticides, antibiotics, and soil erosion.
Overall results showed that mollusk aquaculture, small pelagic, and whitefish fisheries had the lowest environmental impacts across all of the categories included in the analysis. Beef and catfish ASFs were found to have the highest impact on GHG emissions and acidification potential, with beef, catfish, carp, and tilapia ASFs having high impact in energy demand and eutrophication potential.
The study also found that production methods can vary greatly across ASF type, resulting in a wide range of other potential impacts, including high water demand, the use of pesticides and antibiotics, soil erosion, and effect on biodiversity.
The review provided environmental impact data for particular types of large scale ASFs which can be very useful to policy makers. However, there are some limitations that were recognized by the authors. One key observation was that local impacts of a particular ASF are very important to consider. A life-cycle assessment that focuses more on global impacts may have too broad a scope when making local decisions; for example, GHG emissions tend to have more of a global impact than the eutrophication potential from an ASF in a local area due to agricultural runoff directly affecting local waterways.
As well, more life-cycle assessments are generally needed that examine the impacts of organic versus conventional production across various ASFs, and that more thoroughly evaluate milk, egg, pork, chicken and beef production across different countries.
Although all of these varying factors need to be considered, this study presents one of the first opportunities to use assessment data to create responsible food production policy, and it will hopefully encourage further assessment and evaluation in the future.