Meat for all? Some thoughts on Argentina, drought, and sustainable animal farming
According to a recent NASA map, Argentina, together with Russia, Canada and Congo, does not emit carbon dioxide, but absorbs it. Based on this map, headlines have emerged linking the supposed sustainability of the Argentinean livestock industry with low emissions. Let's explore the overall impact of meat on the environment and how it contributes to drought – a pressing global problem – and why emissions are low in some regions. A key question is: Does sustainable animal agriculture exist?
Author: Kathelijne Bonne
Argentina is known for extensive cattle ranching in the pampas, an area of vast natural grasslands. The Latin American country has grown historically into a beef producer and exporter: Spanish conquistadores brought cattle, the semiarid climate and natural grasslands lent themselves to extensive cattle ranching, and the inverted seasons in the southern hemisphere provided a supply of meat during the low season of the northern hemisphere. That model worked in the past but throughout the last decades, meat consumption, fertilizer and fodder production, global population and livestock biomass have grown exponentially and have reached all-time extremes.
Today, Argentina not only raises cows, its pig population is growing too, as the Chinese pork demand rises steeply. The pigs are kept in so-called "macrogranjas" (meat factories with tens of thousands of animals). Furthermore, in Latin America, a soybean empire has risen to feed the world's livestock. Not only Brazil but also Argentina eliminates much nature to grow soy for export. Small traditional family farms give way to the industrial crop lands of powerful, often foreign, agricultural businesses. Instead of herding cattle on horseback, modern cattle rangers gather in offices consulting graphs of the fluctuating and speculative market prices of soy, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.
So what about the general impact of meat on the environment?
According to The Guardian, producing 1 kg of beef generates 70 kg of emissions as opposed to only 2,5 kg of emissions for 1 kg of wheat. And for every kg of meat 15,000 litres of water are also consumed. The meat industry also pollutes via the billions of tons of poop and pee, pesticides and antibiotics, which infiltrate groundwater, poison soil, lakes and rivers, and create dead zones in the oceans. Fertilizers such as nitrogen, but also phosphorus and potassium, are made with petroleum or extracted in polluting and unfair ways, are often supplied by non-befriended nations, making us dependent on them (Rusia for example is an important nitrogen producer). Domestic herbivores and poultry eat 80% of all cultivated crops but give us only 20% of calories. Thus, there is a huge "loss" of nutrients and energy because plant foods first pass through the digestive tract of an animal, that needs the energy to live, before it enters a human stomach.
Until recently, the impact of meat was not talked about. Meat is tasty, no one likes to change habits, traditions are sacred, but much more importantly, there are huge capitalist interests involved. In the US, environmental organizations received hush money from meat industry superpowers. In Brazil, a large number of activists addressing soybean cultivation, the main cause of Amazon deforestation, were murdered. Fortunately, since the release of the documentary Cowspiracy in 2014, there has been more openness.
But some things remain unspoken and inconvenient to address even now, in times of extreme weather events, namely that meat production is a cause of drought.
Meat causes drought
The link between meat consumption and drought is easily made. An average European (I chose the Belgian as an example and used databases from Our World in Data, see sources) eats 62 kg of meat per year requiring 930 cubic meters of water. He also consumes yearly about 30 cubic meters of household water. Thus, about 30 times more water is consumed via meat eating than for washing and cooking. 930 cubic meters of water is roughly equivalent to the contents of 20 private pools measuring 4 x 8 x 1.5 meters.
It's hard to ignore: Meat eating contributes to drought. Drought is caused in part by deforestation and stripping of land to make way for farming, and is also linked to land degradation. A bare ploughed, depleted land surface will no longer absorb or retain water, no matter how much it rains. It's no wonder that severe land degradation occurs in meat producing countries like Spain.
In Argentina, people eat more meat than average (world average is 42 kg): 111 kg of meat per person per year or 300 gr per day (this includes all types of meat - beef, pork, chicken, etc.). They may be (in)famous for their meat traditions, but actually in the US and Australia people eat even more.
If every human being on Earth ate that much, we would need about seven planets like Earth to sustainably produce that amount. This is based on the sustainable food guidelines of the "flexitarian diet" of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, which recommends about 15 to 20 kg of meat and dairy per year per person. With the flexitarian diet 10 billion people can eat healthily and sustainably.
It is possible to produce sustainable meat with a lower footprint, but "sustainable" is inextricably linked to fewer cattle and thus less meat per person than is currently consumed. We will only be able to eat truly sustainable meat once the global livestock numbers (1.5 billion cows and more pigs, chicken, …) is decimated.
Traditional extensive livestock farming in natural grasslands (pastoralism) as in some places in Argentina, and in nomadic pastoralist communities in Africa, has a lower impact than industrial intensive livestock farming.
But this is not the reason for Argentina's low total emissions.
Cattle industry executives
Simply linking the total emissions of CO2 (see map below) to the impact of the meat industry along the lines of "Our cattle industry doesn't harm the environment at all" is premature and to be taken with a grain of salt. Moreover, those making the statements are cattle industry executives and bosses of the IPCVA, the Institute for the Promotion of Argentine Beef, whose goals are to increase demand for beef both locally and internationally.
wonder they like to label Argentina's livestock industry as sustainable. It's
not really a lie but taken out of context. Some of the beef industry may be
sustainable, but the same people are silent on the out-of-control
Amazonian-style deforestation and increase of soybean cultivation in what was
recently nature. If this continues, Argentina will not score green on the NASA
map for long.
Tundra, grasslands, rainforests
Russia, Canada, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, Argentina's land
surface absorbs carbon (green on map). These countries are sparsely populated
and/or still have a lot of wild nature (taigas, tundra, grasslands and
rainforest) and/or are poor. Argentina is also sparsely populated and now still
has a lot of wild nature, such as the Patagonian steppe, the forests of the
Chaco, the pampas and other steppes and wild plateau lands.
So NASA's CO2 totals are primarily due to nature, not man. The map shows diffuse total averages that say little about the origin of emissions and lifestyle, but do tell us about population density, degree of industrialization and proportion of wilderness. Note how Brazil is far from being the lungs of the planet. The Argentine result is an overall average of natural carbon storage capacity on the one hand and emissions from population and industry on the other.
Argentina has certain conditions that make sustainable livestock production
possible in some parts of the country.
Sustainable meat from the pampas
The Mollisol soil type in the pampas (green on the map of Argentina's eco-regions), similar to the black chernozems of Ukraine, are famous for their fertility and ability to store carbon. These natural grasslands are the ideal habitat for large grazers, which will migrate with the seasons if they are allowed to, like wildebeest in the savannah.
Sustainable livestock farming is possible in the pampas within certain limits, as long as:
- the number of cattle per unit area does not exceed a certain threshold,
- no forest is cut down anywhere,
- the natural biodiversity of the pampas is protected,
- each cow is able to meet all its nutritional needs while grazing in the open air and is not fed supplementary feed,
- and no fertilizers are spread or antibiotics are administered.
In this scenario, the herbivore is part of the cycle of life in the pampas. A small part of the Argentine cattle industry may meet these conditions but such meat will be more expensive. So, an equal distribution is not guaranteed. In the most sustainable scenario, this beef is consumed locally.
The amount of meat that can be produced in such a way is far too low to meet current global consumption levels. The pampas and similar habitats cover only a small portion of the earth's surface, much smaller than the area currently used to produce fodder for cows that are locked up somewhere far from their natural habitat, and leading miserable lives, in stables, cages or factories.
The only solution so far to reduce our impact and be sustainable is to eat less meat; the consumer has power! The good news about eating less meat is:
- you have a very big positive impact on the environment and you consume much less water,
- you contribute to stopping cruelty to both animals and workers in the livestock trade,
- you dance less to the tune of powerful dictatorships and opaque industries.
- your health improves, because eating much red meat, especially processed meat (which is cheaper) isn't healthy at all.
More good news for those who like meat: We don't have to become entirely vegetarian or vegan. According to the planet-friendly flexitarian diet, we can still eat a large chunk of meat at least once a month, or a smaller piece of meat once a week.
Read more: Meat production is inextricably linked to the nitrogen cycle that runs at an unnatural accelerated rate. Or learn about black, extremely fertile soils of Ukraine, similar to those in the pampas, that we call the new black gold, or what happens to soil when it is bombed in war; or soil salinization and desertification due to industrial agriculture and the consequences, such as the Dust Bowl disaster. Or find out more on extreme drought events in the geological past, such as in the Mediterranean, which dried up almost entirely.
Kathelijne Bonne: As an earth scientist and nature lover I am intrigued by how rocks, soil, ocean, air and life interact with each other on geological and human timescales.
Infocielo, La NASA confirma que la ganadería argentina no contamina, según el IPVCA, https://infocielo.com/ganaderia/la-nasa-confirma-que-la-ganaderia-argentina-no-contamina-segun-el-ipvca-n758107
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