Compiled by Baltic Eye from data in Clark and Tilman, 2017. Points are from different peer-reviewed Life Cycle Analysis studies. Risk for eutrophication is an estimate of the amount of nutrients released to the environment in each production system, shown per gram of protein. These studies are mostly for production systems in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand with only a handful of studies from other regions.
In addition to reducing the risk of nutrient leakage from agriculture, there are a number of other health and environmental benefits to reducing the production and consumption of livestock products.
Producing and consuming livestock products uses more resources (water, fossil fuels, nitrogen, and phosphorus) per amount of protein or calories compared to crop products. For example, in a high-density “industrial” system, producing one kilogram of pork meat requires about four kilograms of feed that could otherwise be consumed by humans. If we ate the food rather than feeding it to livestock, we would be able to feed more people per area of farm land. About ten times more energy, from fossil fuels for example, is needed to produce proteins in meats compared to proteins in legumes.
Reduced nutrients in sewage
Adults do not use most of the nitrogen (in protein) and phosphorus in food (especially dairy products) that they consume. As a result, these nutrients are excreted and enter sewage systems. Nutrients that are not removed by sewage treatment enters surface water as effluent. If people reduced their total protein intake, there would be minor reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage.
Regardless of human diets, no current technology removes all nutrients from waste water effluent. Improving sewage treatment is an effective way to remove nitrogen and phosphorous from wastewater entering in lakes and rivers that drain to the Baltic Sea.
Sewage management practices have improved substantially in the past few decades, but systems and capabilities vary greatly around the region. For example, nitrogen removal efficiency in centralised sewage treatment facilities is between 34% (Latvia) and 92% (Denmark). Phosphorus removal efficiency is between 63% (Latvia) and 97% (Finland, Germany, and Sweden).
A healthy, balanced diet includes proteins. Livestock products are an important source, not only of protein, but essential vitamins and minerals as well. However, in the EU, average protein consumption is 70% greater than what our bodies need. Overconsumption of protein alone is not a health issue, except that this protein is often contained in high-fat foods, red meat, and processed meats. Consumption of high-fat foods increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and consumption of red meat and processed meats increases the risk of certain cancers.
No quick or easy solutions
Among the public, there is low but growing awareness of the environmental effects of livestock husbandry on the environment. Focusing on consumption could be more feasible than focusing on production, because consumers are more likely to change their dietary habits than livestock farmers are to reduce their operations. Livestock production is important to rural livelihoods and economies.
There is strong and growing demand for livestock production in many areas, such as East Asia for example, and trade deals encourage the export of these products. However, reducing the consumption and production of livestock-based food is fraught with political, social, and economic challenges. Dietary habits derive from complex social, cultural, and behavioral factors and governments often are reluctant to tell people how to eat or tell farmers what to produce.
Research shows that consumption taxes could be effective in reducing consumer demand for meat and dairy products. Other options include public information campaigns, improved food labeling, and point of purchase information, but, the effectiveness of these approaches needs further research.