Time to make a greater promise or to embrace a greater peril — By DEEPIKA CHETTRI


By DEEPIKA CHETTRI | October 11, 2018

According to the recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2018, around 40% of the entire arable land worldwide is being utilized to raise livestock yet around a billion people around the world are victims to hunger on a daily basis, in terms of quantity alone more cereals are consumed by cattle than the entire human population,now it is only fair to ask ourselves if we as a human community are really trying to end world hunger, eradicate water scarcity and replenish our atmosphere. Livestock management world wide adds 7.1 giga tonnes of CO2 each year to our atmosphere, this amounts to about 14.5% of all Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. The process of raising cattle (feeding, medicating, hydrating etc.)itself sums to 65% of all emissions from the entire livestock sector, most of it arising from the beef and milk industry. Methane shares the bulk of the emissions at around 44% of all GHGs in the livestock sector, followed by Nitrous Oxide (N2O)at 29% and Carbon dioxide (CO2) at 27%.With the global human population estimated to cross 9.5 billion by the year 2050, the demand for livestock will skyrocket to an additional 70% (FAO). It has become vital to analyze if we are equipped to sustain that number, in terms of food, water, land, and air.


The practices of agriculture today are quite different from what agriculture used to be a century ago, a population boom from 1 billion in the year 1880 to 7.6 billion in 2018 means that more crops have to be grown with more or less the same natural resources that were available a century ago. Over the years, agriculture has grown to become an ever efficient industry but an ever-increasing demand has in some ways corrupted the practice of agriculture that was once based on a mostly natural process.

A report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), suggests that 50% of the planet's entire habitable land has been converted into farming land and around 33% of this is solely used to grow feed for livestock, and this number further increases if we add the land used for grazing and housing those animals.Every new acre added to the arable land zone increases the pressure on water, energy, soil and biodiversity systems of that area. Forests being the only potential regions fertile enough to sustain crop production, get destroyed deliberately to grow more crops. Agriculture single-handedly is responsible for a whopping 80% loss in the forest area. Today one would be surprised to know that of all the land area on this planet, a mere 37% comprises of forests and this becomes even more disturbing when one realizes that 80% of all animal species reside in this 37% land area.

A 2012 report by FAO shows a 196% increase in livestock population from 1970 – 2012. This trend co-relates to the rise in human population and also to the overall improved living conditions of the population in the developing nations.Now common sense tells us an increase in cattle population will automatically lead to an expansion of grazing land, cultivation land, storage land along with a rise in transportation demand but inevitably a decrease in forest area. Worldwide, livestock production is the largest user of agricultural land.

While a shortage of food is at the epicenter of the agricultural debate, it is slowly but surely being evident that the by-products of the agricultural practices are adding to the already critical climate situation.In perspective,the agri-business sector easily exceeds the amount of GHGs that are emitted by the entire transportation sector (FAO).

Now why all the fuss about these gases being released into the atmosphere? What are its impacts on our atmosphere and ultimately how are they influencing climate change? Well, if we look at the top three gases that are released into the atmosphere by the livestock industry– Methane, Nitrous Oxide, and Carbon Dioxide, these are the most influential gaseous additives in the atmosphere. Nitrous Oxide (N2O), although popularly known as the "laughing gas", has nothing to laugh about when it over saturates our atmosphere. Compared to CO2, N2O has a relatively short stay at the atmosphere (around 114 years) but in terms of the damage, it is evaluated to have 310 times more warming effect than CO2(Scottish Environment Protection Agency)and to top that N2O also causes a depletion in the of the Ozone layer.

"Right now, nitrous oxide is the most important ozone-depleting gas that is emitted," says A. R. Ravishankara of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), lead author of the new research. "It will continue to be so unless something is done."

Methane, which makes the bulk of the emission coming from the livestock sector, is more effective in trapping heat than CO2, about 84 times more effective than CO2 in the first two decades of its release into the atmosphere (Environmental Defense Fund,2018). Among these gases, CHhas the shortest life cycle in the atmosphere – roughly about 10 years after which it is broken down by natural processes. Nonetheless, since cattle naturally produce methane as a part of their digestion cycle (Enteric Fermentation), it leads to a straightforward co-relation that an increase in the number of cattle will directly increase the quantity of CH4 in our atmosphere. CO2, on the other hand, is the most destructive of all the GHGs because of two simple factors, first – the amount of it being released into the atmosphere(3200 giga tons in total till 2017; 37 bn metric tons in 2017) and second- the amount of time it will continue to stay in the atmosphere– although 80% of the CO2 will be removed from the atmosphere (once we stop adding any further amountinto it) the remaining 20% will continue to stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years (IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group I (AR4, WG-I)). Hence, it poses quite a valid and very logical question – Why continue to increase the dependency on livestock when clearly there are commodities which could potentially substitute the consumption of meat and knowing that an increase in raising these animals is literally punching a hole in the atmosphere and simultaneously trapping more heat than the planet needs.

As a proud carnivore its hard to convince people on not to consume meat even if that means for the sake of their health concerns hence when a message can't be conveyed morally scientific facts come into play.According to a research conducted by Dr. Natalina Zlatevska from University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Business School and Dr. Eugene Chan from Monash Business School, the psychological drivers for meat consumption is the desire for societal status as opposed to other variables such as hunger or perceived nutritional benefits."There is a symbolic association between eating meat and strength, power and masculinity. It is traditionally a high-status food, brought out for guests or as the centerpiece of festive occasions, so we wanted to better understand this link to status," said Dr. Zlatevska.

As for a country like India, the view of the country being a predominantly vegetarian nation may not be quite accurate. With a surging urban population, India is rapidly shifting towards a more industrial economy from an agricultural society. A country where being a vegetarian once promoted an individual up in the social hierarchy, it is now not very difficult to appreciate why our ancestors tried to integrate vegetarianism into the social hierarchy. India is a birthplace to the world's two most significant religions that preach vegetarianism as a core principle of human morality-Buddhism and Jainism, and the ideology that being a vegetarian is more "humane" still runs strong deep in the mindset of the citizens. In India there are entire communities that survive entirely on greens and grains, without consuming a single ounce of meat for their entire lifetime, this fact might surprise the western world as there's a misconception in that part of the globe that a diet that lacks meat is deprived of nutrition.Even if we are not morally obligated to consider a more "green" diet, we should be obligated by what scientific facts have to say. Our previous generations had the liberty to view the choice of food from a moral standpoint but, unfortunately, the current generation has lost the liberty of that luxury and are rather compelled to view it from a purely scientific standpoint.

Indians certainly consume far less meat than the global average but it's the home to a large number of animal products. According to the report of Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), Government of India, India has emerged as the largest producer of milk with 20.17 % share in total milk production in the world. India accounts for about 5.65 % of the global egg production and also the largest population of milch animals in the world, with 110 million buffaloes, 133 million goats, and 63 million sheep. The sudden increase in the meat export has been sparked by the demand for buffalo meat in the international market. Buffalo meat dominated the exports with a contribution of over 89.08% in total Animal Products export from India in the year 2017-2018. The majority of the markets for Indian buffalo meat and other animal products are Vietnam Social Republic, Malaysia, Egypt Arab Republic, Iraq,and Saudi Arabia.

With India rushing to become the most populated country by the year 2050,peaking at 1.8 billion people (UN population projection), there comes a very serious question of 'environmental sustainability' which will trigger the question of sustainable consumption. A recent report by Asia Research and Engagement (ARE) 2018 states that the international policy to achieve food security recognizes the significant increase in protein consumption with population growth and affluence, the report, however, mentions the environmental impacts of this dietary shifts will be significant with negative externalities. ARE predicted that the meat and seafood consumption will grow upto 33% by 2030 and 78% by the end of 2050 in Asia. The current strong demands for meat as a protein source is carelessly going to have knock-on effects on the environment.

As a part of Asian contribution, China alone accounts for a staggering 70% of regional meat and seafood consumption. The ARE report highlights that Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam are going to lead the demand growth for the rest of Asia. Indonesia, on the other hand, is going to triple its total meat and seafood supply between the years 2018-2050, the number is much quicker than the 60% expected in India during the same period. According to the report, "Human intake eventually levels off, but this will not necessarily occur in many Asian countries over the next three to four decades. In Asia, continued growth in disposable incomes will lead to more regular access to meat and seafood meals that were previously un affordable."

The proverb "Better late than never" bears a threshold barrier in the Asian scenario, as it stays valid for a limited amount of time, much of which is already lost. During the course of meeting the Asian meat and seafood, nutrition demands 2.9 billion tons of CO2 has been emitted into the atmosphere already (IPCC). Fantastic results are not on the way because of the anticipated rise in the greenhouse gasto 34% by 2030 and 88% by 2080 (ARE,2018)based on the current projections of Asian demand for meat and seafood at current rates of emissions.

Ben McCarron, founder and managing director of ARE, states, "It is not possible to solve the world's sustainability challenges without addressing the implications of the growing demand for protein in Asia." He further adds that industries must "prioritize and implement the solutions necessary to feed Asia while managing the undesirable environmental and social side effects."

In the midst of changing temperature and everyone playing the blame game, the good news for India is that the country can reduce its carbon footprint but still there is a long way to go. A recent research conducted at the Department of Animal Science, University of California-Davis, shows that feeding seaweed as a dietary supplement to the cows dramatically reduces their emission of methane gas to a greater extent. As per the world cattle inventory ranking, in 2018 India stands at a head count of 305 million cattle, comprising of 30.44% of the world cattle making it number one on the list, later followed by Brazil (23.19%), China (9.67%) and USA (9.42%). With this huge number of cattle, there comes a huge responsibility of ensuring the well-being of cattle and the environment simultaneously. The livestock industry in India faces challenges due to management issues but there is always a solution if dug deeper into the problem as with the case of sustainable dairy farming the method which incorporates three major elements- Animal care, Earth care, and Energy care in the production of the dairy sector.

To make our understanding simpler on the consequences of climate change humans have been gifted with a conspicuous neighbor 'the evening star' which we otherwise know as Venus, the planet which once supposedly had a similar atmosphere of that of Earth fell victim to a runaway greenhouse gas effect due to which today 98% of the sun's heat that reaches venus is trapped within Venus making it the hottest planet in the entire solar system with surface temperatures soaring at 451oC, hot enough to melt metals. To get the message through to any layman in the real world, all we have to do is point at Venus and simply say "If we don't act soon, that will be us!".

With the meat consumption taking the center stage slowly, the situation led to two entrepreneurs to take action to combat the problem of global GHG emissions due to meat. Ethan Brown, founder Beyond Meat,2009 and Patrick O'Reilly Brown, founder Impossible Foods, 2011 shared something in common. They both believe that plant-based meat is the future of Earth. According to the founders, it is possible for the world to get rid of the need for animals in the food system by moving the protein placed at the center of the plant to a plant-based meat.

The idea of omitting of animals in the process of converting plant-based protein into meat via cattle and instead producing flesh directly from plants in a laboratory sounds almost like science-fiction movie, and to know that this is a plausible reality, it gives humanity a chance to restore their reputation for being not only an intelligent species but also a compassionate species. Supporting this research to reach its ultimate potential it will have a chain-effect in terms of repairs needed to the environment.For their pioneering work towards reducing the world dependence on animal-based foods, Ethan Brown and O'Reilly have been selected as 2018 Champions of the Earth in the category of science and innovation by the UN Environment.Apart from synthesized meat, there is a range of meat substitutes that are proven effective in terms of protein intake that one could include in their diet. Tofu, Tempeh, Seitan, Vegan meat, Jackfruit, Mushrooms, Lentils, Beans and Legumes are some of the worthy mentions.

It is almost hysterical to believe that even after all the fact-finding research, all the field data gathered and processed we have not only ignored the elephant in the room but we have allowed the elephant to befriend cows, pigs, chickens, goats and sheep, and while they continue to lay their impact on global carbon balance humans have decided to put all their strength to battle the other causes which have been leading to climate change, unbeknownst that all this while the choices of food led to an equally concerning outcome in terms of GHG emissions as the other causes.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Deepika Chettri has a Master's degree in Environmental Science from Bangalore University and  her interest lies on Biodiversity Conservation & Sustainable Development policy and research. She can be reached at karkideepika1@gmail.com

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