05 October 2017
- Biggest environmental impact of a meat-based diet comes from growing the livestock’s crop-based feed
- An area 1.5 times the size of the European Union would be saved from agricultural production if the amount of animal products eaten globally was reduced to meet nutritional requirements
- Intensive animal farming also results in less nutritious food: six intensively reared chickens today have the same amount of omega-3 as found in just one chicken in the 1970s
Diets rich in animal protein are having dire effects on the environment, with the largest impact from producing crops, such as soy, to feed livestock. This puts an enormous strain on natural resources and drives wide scale wildlife loss.
A new WWF report ‘Appetite for Destruction’, launched today at the Extinction and Livestock Conference, highlights the vast amount of land that is needed to grow the crops used for animal feed, including in some of the planet’s most vulnerable areas such as the Amazon, Congo Basin and the Himalayas. Protein-rich soy is now produced in such huge quantities that the average European consumes approximately 61kg each year, largely indirectly through animal products like chicken, pork, salmon, cheese, milk and eggs. In 2010, the British livestock industry needed an area the size of Yorkshire to produce the soy used in feed. If the global demand for animal products grows as expected, it’s estimated that soy production would need to increase by nearly 80% by 2050.
With 23 billion chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and guinea fowl on the planet – more than three per person - the biggest user of crop-based feed globally is poultry. The second largest feed crop consumer, with 30% of the world’s feed in 2009, is the pig industry. In the UK, pork is the second favourite meat after chicken, with each person eating on average 25kg a year in 2015 – nearly the whole recommended yearly intake for all meats.
Fish is also contributing to environmental issues on land. The global appetite for fish has almost doubled in 50 years, from 9.9kg in the 1960s to 19.7kg in 2013, and is projected to continue to rise. With wild fish stocks already under pressure, an ever-increasing amount of seafood is now farmed. But, as in other livestock production sectors, intensive systems using crop-based feeds are becoming more common. To grow these feeds required 26.4 million hectares in 2010 – an area about the size of the UK.
UK nutritional guidelines recommend 45-55g of protein per day, but the average UK consumption is 64-88g, of which 37% is meat and meat products.
Duncan Williamson, WWF Food Policy Manager said:
“The simple fact is that the world is consuming more animal protein than it needs and this is having a devastating effect on wildlife. A staggering 60 per cent of global biodiversity loss is down to the food we eat. We know a lot of people are aware that a meat-based diet has an impact on water and land, as well as causing greenhouse gas emissions, but few know the biggest issue of all comes from the crop-based feed the animals eat.
“For people and nature to thrive we need to consume and produce food differently. If we just stuck to the nutritionally recommended amount of protein, rather than overconsuming, an area 1.5 times the size of the European Union would be saved from agricultural production. Eating less animal protein would allow us to farm in a more sustainable way, with less impact on the environment and healthier and more nutritious food.”
The loss of species and land is not the only negative effect of our current animal protein-rich diet. The increased use of feed has led to a decline in the nutritional content of these animal products, with a decrease in healthy omega-3 fatty acid and a rise in unhealthy saturated fat content. The difference is so striking that you’d have to eat six intensively reared chickens today to obtain the same amount of omega-3 found in just one chicken in the 1970s.
This reduction in nutritional benefits is also seen in farmed fish. The omega-3 in farmed Scottish Atlantic salmon has halved since 2006. There are serious concerns that our current food system will not be able to meet the future fatty acid needs of our growing global population.
Notes to the editor
- Organised by WWF and Compassion in World Farming the Extinction and Livestock Conference takes place at the QEII Centre in London on 5-6 October. The event brings together experts, food business leaders and policymakers from all over the world to examine the issues in detail and help identify practical and policy solutions. For further information on the conference and the full programme visit www.extinctionconference.com.
- Copies of the report ‘Appetite for Destruction’ are available upon request
- Images are available here
- WWF’s Livewell report looks at how to make dietary changes that will benefit the environment. They illustrate how we can ensure people get their necessary nutritional requirements without a further increase in agricultural land area and still contribute towards meeting the Paris Agreement commitment to keep global warming well below 2°C.