Slaughtering the planet -- on a farm
text size

Slaughtering the planet -- on a farm

Many scientists say animal agriculture is a bigger driver of climate warming than fossil fuels, contrary to popular belief

Animal agriculture is eclipsing fossil fuels as a driver of climate change, a panel was told.

Ask someone what the biggest cause of climate change is, and the answer is almost always the same: burning fossil fuels. But that's simply not true, according to a growing body of scientific research. The biggest driver of climate change and environmental destruction could well have been handed to us on a plate.

A raft of alarming statistics was on display at a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Wednesday night. Animal agriculture causes somewhere between 14.5% and 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is responsible for 90% of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest -- one acre gets cut down every second -- and 60% of global biodiversity loss… a mass extinction.

The root cause is that eating animal products is an incredibly inefficient way of feeding ourselves. An average piece of land can produce fifteen times more protein from plant-based sources than meat. One third of the planet's land surface -- 70% of all agricultural land -- is used to graze livestock and grow the vast quantities of feed they consume before being slaughtered. To make 1 kilocalorie of protein from meat takes 54 kcal of fossil fuels -- but only 2.2 kcal from plant-based foods. A quarter-pounder hamburger, according to the documentary Cowspiracy, uses almost 2500 litres of water to produce.

"Right now our food system is not just broken, it's absolutely out of control," said Rattanasiri Kittikongnapang, the Food and Ecological Agriculture Campaigner for Greenpeace. "Meat and dairy production alone is responsible for as much greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change than the transport sector. The agribusiness industry is as much to blame as the fossil fuel industry for our climate crisis."

Ms Rattanasiri -- who three years ago ran through the streets of Bangkok to the Thai Union headquarters in a tuna fish costume -- said meat production is also a major disease vector, with Covid-19 linked to animal trafficking, frequent outbreaks of swine and bird flu occurring on factory farms and Zika, Sars and Ebola sparked by deforestation.

Greenpeace is campaigning for a 50% reduction in the production and consumption of meat and dairy by 2050 to match the Paris agreement, as well as requirements for all animal products to be labelled with where and how they were raised.

In northern Thailand, vast tracts of forest have been razed to plant corn which is then fed to pigs and chickens -- and much of the annual February to April haze she said, comes directly from burning cornfields.

Michael Shafer, an American professor who left 25 years of academia to start the Warm Heart Foundation in Phrao district of Chiang Mai, agreed. "People say 'oh they're burning the forests to get mushrooms or whatever. Bullshit. The forests…are full of small cornfields. That's where all of the fires start."

Dr Shafer teaches farmers how to turn corn waste into biochar -- sold as fuel and fertiliser -- instead of burning it. Chiang Rai, Tak, and Nan provinces alone produce almost 6 million tonnes of corn waste, 50% of which is set ablaze, he said.

That's the equivalent of driving 12.6 billion kilometres or smoking 1.3 trillion cigarettes -- "a huge amount of environmental and climatic damage, deforestation and destruction of habitat, biodiversity and watersheds".

Dr Witsanu Attavanich, associate professor in the Faculty of Economics at Kasetsart University, said one of the causes of burning is "conflict between government and community …they have a kind of reaction of burning to show they are not satisfied with the policy."

Dr Witsanu has worked as an advisor to the government on strategies to mitigate Thailand's emissions of greenhouse gases, including optimising fertiliser and improving the quality of animal feed to reduce methane emissions.

For David Yeung, the founder of Green Monday, the only true mitigation strategy is to stop consuming animal products. But "you can't just tell people never to eat meat again, he said via Skype from Hong Kong. "Awareness alone cannot get the job done. We need to empower to people with choices."

To that end, he created a brand called Omnipork -- sold under the brand name Omnimeats in Thailand -- that seeks to customise the kind of Western meat substitutes made by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods for an Asian market.

One of the biggest challenges, he said, is cultural -- the association of meat with wealth in the minds of many members of the world's emerging middle classes.

"We have to rewire their minds. This is a new aspirational lifestyle that's good for the planet, good for health."

Plant-based chef Maricel Lukkanit is on the frontline of changing tastes. The founder of cooking school and catering company Vegan Crush said that among meat-eaters, "the biggest misconceptions are missing out on delicious flavours, not meeting daily protein and vitamin requirements, and that vegan alternatives are expensive, not easily available -- but it's the other way round".

What meat eaters really like, she said, is not the meat itself but the smoky, salty, rich flavour -- and vegan food has "a more complex flavour and texture, more variety, more nutrients and better for health ... and it's the cheapest food on earth." Oh, and it might just save the planet too.

Do you like the content of this article?