World Watch Magazine: July/August 2004

GLOBAL MEAT CONSUMPTION HAS FAR-RANGING ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS

World Watch Magazine Washington, D.C.—Growing demand for meat has become a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future, write the editors of World Watch magazine in the July/August issue. Total meat consumption has increased five-fold in the past half century, putting extreme pressure on Earth’s limited resources, including water, land, feed, and fuel.

In “Now, It’s Not Personal!” a survey of each major category of environmental impact regarded as critical to the sustainability of civilization reveals how central a challenge this once marginal issue has become.

  • Deforestation and Grassland Destruction: The world’s appetite for meat is razing forests at an accelerating rate. In Central America, 40 percent of all the rainforests have been cleared or burned down in the last 40 years, mostly for cattle pasture. In the process, natural ecosystems where a variety of plant and animal species thrive are destroyed and replaced with monoculture grass.
  • Fresh Water: Water experts calculate that humans are now taking half the available fresh water on the planet—leaving the other half to be divided among a million or more species. Producing 8 ounces of beef requires 25,000 liters of water.
  • Waste Disposal: Waste from livestock production exceeds the capacity of the planet to absorb it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that livestock waste has polluted more than 27,000 miles of rivers.
  • Energy Consumption & Global Warming: It takes far more fossil-fuel energy to produce and transport meat than to deliver equivalent amounts of protein from plant sources. This heavy use of carbon-rich fuels also contributes significantly to the emissions of global-warming gases.
  • Food Productivity of Farmland: In the U.S., 56 million acres of land produce hay for livestock. Only 4 million acres produce vegetables for human consumption, reports the US Department of Commerce. Such inefficient use of land means that food production will not keep up with population growth.
  • Diseases: Mass production of livestock has generated large-scale increases in both infectious diseases and degenerative or “lifestyle” diseases.
  • Biodiversity Loss and Threat of Extinction: As Earth becomes more crowded, poor populations are increasingly venturing into wildlife reserves for meat. Poaching and black marketeering of bush meat is decimating remaining populations of gorillas, chimpanzees, and other primates.

MIDDLE EAST ENVIRONMENTALISTS COLLABORATE TO SAVE THE DEAD SEA, SETTING AN EXAMPLE OF TRANSBOUNDARY COOPERATION

Behind the headlines of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, a grassroots non-profit comprised of Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian environmentalists is working to save the shrinking Dead Sea. In the process, the international group is providing an example of successful transboundary cooperation within a land of seemingly relentless strife.

In “Water and Peace,” Gidon Bromberg, director of the Israeli office of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), describes how this multinational group came together under a shared passion for this ancient sea—and under shared alarm over its demise.

“Human desperation is never greater than when water is no longer in reach,” writes Bromberg. “But for the Dead Sea to be managed sustainably, we believe there needs to be transnational cooperation at a level nearly unheard of in this region.”

To facilitate this cooperation, FoEME embarked on an effort to forge a common understanding of the Basin’s real value, taking into account the Sea’s ecological, recreational, and cultural values as well as the industrial ones. In a study of people’s “willingness to pay,” they found that Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike are willing to pay substantial amounts of their own money to preserve the Sea.

The Dead Sea, which straddles the border of Israel and Jordan, is the lowest point on the planet and one of the most mythic and storied places on Earth. Despite its name, the sea is abundant with life. Springs and oases along its shores provide water for 90 species of birds, 25 species of reptiles and amphibians, 24 species of mammals, as well as 400 species of plants. In addition to its cultural and environmental value, the Sea is a center for tourism and potash and mineral mining, making it economically important to the region.

Fed by the Jordan River, the Dead Sea’s surface level is dropping by nearly a meter per year as 90 percent of the river’s flow is being diverted for agriculture and urban use. The inflow of water from the Jordan has not kept pace with evaporation, which is causing a host of problems including thousands of large sinkholes along the shore and quicksand-like areas of mud.

FoEME is working to arrest the falling sea level through on-the-ground recommendations for better flow management of the Jordan into the Dead Sea, smarter resort development, and protection of shoreline as nature reserves, among other things. To accomplish these goals, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan all need to coordinate, managing competing needs of farmers, city-dwellers, tourism, mining, and religious pilgrims.

“The hope of cooperation among the Middle East’s embattled neighbors is not all ‘daydreaming,’ says Bromberg. “It’s actually happening as we work to save the Dead Sea.”

LIFE-CYCLE STUDIES: THE HUMBLE HAMBURGER

There are more ingredients in one quarter-pound hamburger than meet the eye. To start, 8,000 calories of fossil-fuel energy are used in the agricultural production of one 400-calorie burger, not including the bun. It’s estimated that 55 square feet of tropical forest containing 165 pounds of living plants and animals are destroyed to produce one patty made from Central American Beef. All together, the land, fuel, and water used to raise cattle and transport beef from farm to plate takes far more energy than the burger gives to the person who eats it. Add byproducts such as water pollution, high blood pressure, and heart disease, and the negatives of burgers outweigh their food value.

ENVIRONMENTAL INTELLIGENCE

Ranching Accelerates Amazon Deforestation: Rising international demand for Brazilian beef is encouraging high rates of Amazon deforestation, according to the Center for International Forestry Research, an Indonesia-based NGO. The area lost in 2002-2003 is expected to exceed 25,000 square kilometers, a plot the size of Uruguay. Cattle ranching is the reason behind most of this loss. The cattle population has exploded in the Amazon, from 26 million in 1990 to 57 million in 2002. A widening share of the beef produced by this supply is exported to overseas markets.

U.S. Food Crops Widely Contaminated by Genetically Modified Seed: A study by the U.S. based Union of Concerned Scientists has found evidence that DNA sequences from genetically modified (GM) crops have found their way into many of the country’s traditional food crops. GM crops were found in up to 1 percent of individual seeds and in more than half of the batches of seeds. This contamination is essentially irreversible and could doom organic farming, present risks to human health, and possibly disrupt U.S. agricultural trade.

Atmospheric CO2 Reaches Record High: In 2003, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principle global warming gas, reached its highest level in Earth’s atmosphere in 42,000 years. It’s likely that this was the highest level of CO2 concentration in 20 million years.

Ocean Dead Zones Multiplying: The number of oxygen-starved areas in oceans and bays around the world has doubled to 146 since 1990, according to the Global Environmental Outlook Yearbook 2003, released by the United Nations Environment Programme. The cause of these “dead zones” is several types of pollution—including excess human waste, airborne industrial waste, and traffic fumes—that cause nitrogen build up. These zones are inhospitable to most forms of life, posing a huge threat to fishers and others who depend on marine resources for their livelihood.

Too Much Mad Cow Safety? Less than a year after the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in the U.S., the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is refusing to let a small, upscale beef-packing company test all of its cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), voluntarily and at its own expense. Creekstone Farm’s testing plan stands in contrast of the USDA’s policy of testing only a fraction of all cattle slaughtered in the U.S. The USDA says Creekstone will imply cause for consumer concern that is not scientifically warranted. Larger meat packing companies oppose such testing. Meanwhile, Creekstone is losing $200,000 a day since it can’t export its products to Japan any longer, which has banned imports of untested U.S. beef.

Also in Environmental Intelligence:

  • Plant Genetic Resources Treaty Enters Into Force
  • Heroic River Diversion Plan Resurrected
  • UN Launches Campaign to Clean Up Coastal Waters

JANE GOODALL: WHEN PRIMATES BECOME BUSH MEAT

Jane Goodall, who has studied chimpanzees for 45 years, warns that within 10 to 15 years, humanity could lose chimps and other animals like gorillas and bonobos as Earth’s population continues to grow and the bush meat trade expands into forests.

GREEN GUIDANCE: PASS THE FISH, HOLD THE TOXINS

Over-fishing, destructive fish farming, and toxic contaminants are requiring consumers to be more careful about the kinds of fish they are eating and the frequency at which they eat them. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that 16 percent of American women of child-bearing age have levels of mercury in their blood high enough to put their offspring at increased risk. To avoid risk, consumers should educate themselves about the mercury content in the fish they eat, avoid eating the skin and fatty parts of fish, and limit the amount they eat—especially in the case of children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and women of childbearing age.

MATTERS OF SCALE: BRAIN DRAIN

Age at which Mozart composed his first symphony 9 years
Cumulative time the average American will have spent watching TV, by the age of 65 9 years

Percentage of Americans who can name three Supreme Court Justices

17
Percentage of Americans who can name The Three Stooges 59

Hours per year the average American youth spends in school

900
Hours per year the average American youth watches TV 1,500

Number of people in the world who had a conventional telephone line in 2002

1.10 billion
Number who had a cell phone by then 1.14 billion

Percentage of his or her “media time” spent on TV or radio by the average American, age 12 to 64

77
Percentage of his media time spent on TV or radio by the average American boy, age 12 to 17 62

Percentage of his or her media time the average American (age 12 to 64) spends on electronic media (TV, radio, Internet, and video games) 93
Percentage he or she spends on print media (newspapers and magazines) 7

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