The meat and fish industries – part of chapter 2 of research study

The broad ecological issues associated with the meat industry are, as it will be seen, largely the same as the ecological issues associated with agriculture; as Harold A. Mooney, professor of biological sciences at Stanford, summaries1,’”We are seeing tremendous environmental problems with these operations [i.e. large scale livestock operations], from land degradation and air and water pollution to loss of biodiversity” – these issues have been explored in various previous sub-sections. The fish industry has had and still has its own consequences for ecology, although the particular kinds of ecological impact are different to those of the meat industry. Both industries have been included into this one sub-category of chapter one, part two, because they are both industries with the ‘purpose’ of providing particular animal proteins to feed people.

When it comes to the meat industry and issues of sustainability, the main concern underlying all others is quite simply that the amount of grain needed to feed ‘livestock’ killed and then eaten by human beings is enormous, and enormous amounts of land are dedicated to monocrops that serve the purpose of feeding the livestock; globalissues.org2, for example, points out that “More than one third of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock”, and according to the Food and Agriculture Association of the United States (FAO)3, “[g]razing occupies 26 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface”. A consequence of such a a large amount of crop and grazing space is deforestation – according4 “to Greenpeace, all the wild animals and trees in more than 2.9 million acres of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil were destroyed in the 2004-2005 crop season in order to grow crops that are used to feed chickens and other animals in factory farms” – and with such deforestation comes the loss of biodiversity and topsoil, and water sources accordingly become defiled, as discussed in an earlier sub-section. These kinds of issues with livestock commodification are acknowledged by dozens of sources, an example being People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) – it is pointed out at their website5 that livestock “grazing is the number one reason that plant species in the United States become threatened and go extinct, and it also leads to soil erosion and eventual desertification that renders once-fertile land barren.”

The one-third of the world’s grain harvest, mentioned above, used to feed slaughter-animals, consists largely of gmo-grains: gmoinside.com6 points out that 94% of soy and 88% of corn grown in the US, for example, is genetically modified, and these are dominant livestock-feed crops7:

“in the United States (the world’s foremost GMO producer and consumer) and in other major GMO producing countries, an overwhelming majority of the GMO crop is not even consumed directly by humans. In the US, livestock has been fed genetically engineered crops since these crops were first introduced in 1996 and each of the top 6 GMO crops (soy, cotton, corn, canola, sugar beet, and alfalfa) are heavily utilized by the US and global animal feed market.”

The implication is that the meat industry has become interlinked with bio-tech industry, and the same issues apply (see the relevant sub-section, 1.2.7), as do the ecological issues outlined in the sub-section entitled ‘genetically modified organims (1.1.7). Some elaboration of facts is offered at scientificamerican.com8: “Livestock are typically fed corn, soybean meal and other grains which have to first be grown using large amounts of fertilizer, fuel, pesticides, water and land. EWG estimates that growing livestock feed in the U.S. alone requires 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer each year across some 149 million acres of cropland.” Some of the kinds of issues, explored in the relevant sub-sections, are the dangerous pesticides and fertilisers used in the GMO industry and the impact they have on the ecology of an area; the killing of non-target species of insects and bacteria (etc.) that occurs with such chemical-use; the contamination of water sources with chemicals. These kinds of issues are all associated with the petrochemical industry as well, which has been explored above in the relevant sub-section.

The meat industry, as evident in the quote from above, is also heavily reliant on fossil-fuels; this is further explained at peta.org9, where it is pointed out that it “takes more than 11 times as much fossil fuel to make one calorie from animal protein as it does to make one calorie from plant protein. Raising animals for food gobbles up precious energy.” Readers are invited to “add up the energy-intensive stages of raising animals for food”:

“(1) grow massive amounts of corn, grain, and soybeans (with all the required tilling, irrigation, crop-dusters, etc.); (2) transport the grain and soybeans to feed manufacturers on gas-guzzling 18-wheelers; (3) operate the feed mills (requiring massive energy expenditures); (4) transport the feed to the factory farms (again, in gas-guzzling vehicles); (5) operate the factory farms; (6) truck the animals many miles to slaughter; (7) operate the slaughterhouse; (8) transport the meat to processing plants; (9) operate the meat-processing plants; (10) transport the meat to grocery stores; (11) keep the meat refrigerated or frozen in the stores until it’s sold.”

Furthermore, the meat industry is responsible for the release of alarming amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, thereby playing a considerable role in climate change. According to the FAO10,

“the livestock sector has assumed an often unrecognized role in global warming. Using a methodology that considered the entire commodity chain…, FAO estimated that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport. It accounts for nine percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, most of it due to expansion of pastures and arable land for feed crops. It generates even bigger shares of emissions of other gases with greater potential to warm the atmosphere: as much as 37 percent of anthropogenic methane, mostly from enteric fermentation by ruminants, and 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, mostly from manure.”

The source used above adds that in spraying such huge amounts of pesticides and fertilisers in the growing of feed-crops, “copious amounts of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide” are produced.

Biodiversity is greatly reduced, if not eliminated, when large-scale activity takes place for the sake of producing meat for humans to consume. The FAO makes this clear11:

“The sheer quantity of animals being raised for human consumption also poses a threat of the Earth’s biodiversity. Livestock account for about 20 percent of the total terrestrial animal biomass, and the land area they now occupy was once habitat for wildlife. In 306 of the 825 terrestrial eco-regions identified by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, livestock are identified as “a current threat”, while 23 of Conservation International’s 35 “global hotspots for biodiversity” – characterized by serious levels of habitat loss – are affected by livestock production.”

Peta.org12 has the following information to add about the large amount of water used by the meat industry in the US alone:

“Nearly half of all the water used in the United States goes to raising animals for food. In 2008, John Anthony Allan, a professor at King’s College London and the winner of the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize, urged people worldwide to go vegetarian because of the tremendous waste of water involved with eating animals.”


“It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, while growing 1 pound of wheat only requires 25 gallons. You save more water by not eating a pound of meat than you do by not showering for six months!”

The same source adds the following relevant information: “What do we get back from all the grain, fossil fuels, and water that go into making animal products? Tons and tons of feces. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the runoff from factory farms pollutes our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined.”

Already, enough evidence about the meat industry has been offered to show it as highly problematic in the context of the ecological crisis. It is therefore unsurprising that at a 2007 symposium named, “Livestock in a Changing Landscape: Drivers, Consequences and Responses”, researchers from Stanford University presented findings which were reported on as follows13: “The harmful environmental effects of livestock production are becoming increasingly serious at all levels–local, regional, national and global–and urgently need to be addressed”.

The fishing industry is less obviously rampantly problematic in the context of the ecological crisis, but it does play a role in such a context that is often not realised: the fishing industry has been largely responsible for the near decimation of fish species for several decades, to the point that the entire oceanic ecosystem is threatened; this has a huge knock-on effect for the chain of life on the planet. This issue can be seen at 21stcenturychallenges.org14, where it is stated that the “United Nations estimates that 80% of world fish stocks are fully exploited or overfished and require precautionary management. The problem of commercial overfishing has become so intense that we have altered the basic food web, eliminating target species at the top of the food chain.” After the animals at the top of the food web are affected, the impact gets felt at the lower end; the same source explains:

“That [i.e. the elimination of target species at the top of the food chain] is followed by fishing down the food web until the catch becomes plankton-eating fish at the base of the food web. Habitat destruction from trawling at the bottom of the oceans disturbs an area of the seabed as large as Brazil, the Congo and India combined every year. The massive bycatch – or unintentional catch of fish, birds, turtles and mammals – adds to the impact on oceans.”

The WWF15 states unambiguously that “The global fishing fleet is 2-3 times larger than what the oceans can sustainably support.” The same source adds the following information:

  • 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion;

  • Most of the top ten marine fisheries, accounting for about 30% of all capture fisheries production, are fully exploited or overexploited

  • Several important commercial fish populations have declined to the point where their survival is threatened

  • Unless the current situation improves, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by 2048.

The global fishing industry is furthermore heavily reliant on the use of fossil fuels. Two researchers, Tyedmers and Watson, published a paper in 2005 called ‘Fuelling global fishing fleets’16; albeit somewhat outdated already, the abstract to the paper holds relevance in light of the ecological issues of the fishing industry:

“we calculate that globally, fisheries burned almost 50 billion L of fuel in the process of landing just over 80 million t of marine fish and invertebrates for an average rate of 620 L t(-1). Consequently, fisheries account for about 1.2% of global oil consumption, an amount equivalent to that burned by the Netherlands, the 18th-ranked oil consuming country globally, and directly emit more than 130 million t of CO2 into the atmosphere. From an efficiency perspective, the energy content of the fuel burned by global fisheries is 12.5 times greater than the edible-protein energy content of the resulting catch.”

Clear here is the energy intensity of the fishing industry; all of the ecological issues with fossil-fuel extraction and use are therefore intertwined into this industry, as has been the case with the livestock industry.