Each year, billions of animals are slaughtered to put food on our plates. The animal welfare and climate change implications of this are well-documented — most animals are factory-farmed, and global meat production accounts for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
But according to two recent studies — one published in Nature, the other by the think tank Chatham House — global meat production threatens even more than climate and the animals we eat; it could also wipe out thousands of species in the next few decades.
Two main factors are driving this problem. As developing countries get richer, they tend to eat more meat. And meat production, especially beef and lamb, requires a lot of land — more land than any other protein — and the increasing global demand for meat means the industry is constantly looking for more farmland.
To satisfy this demand, the industry continues to encroach on species-rich forests and prairies, like the Amazon rainforest and the land bordering Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, razing these natural habitats to create more space to raise animals and grow crops to feed them.
The dual pressures of growing populations and the rising demand for meat threaten the ecosystems of tens of thousands of species worldwide, unless we seriously cut back on the amount of meat we eat, and change how we farm.
The two studies, explained
In the Nature study, the researchers used a number of models to predict the impact on biodiversity over the next few decades if we continue to rely on “business-as-usual” meat production and consumption. They found habitat loss was the steepest under this approach, threatening the habitats of more than 17,000 of the species they studied.
Even worse, more than a thousand species are projected to lose at least 25 percent of their habitats by 2050 if no changes are made, making it far more likely that they’ll go extinct. These losses would hit the places where these species are primarily found, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, the hardest.
Michael Clark, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the University of Oxford, found it especially alarming that many of these species aren’t on the radar of many conservationists. “It means that we’re going to be missing out on a lot of severely impacted species in the next few years, and not do anything about them until it’s quite possibly too late,” he says.
The Chatham House researchers — the authors of the other new study — say the current food system and its constant conversion of natural habitats into farmland is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. Due to animal farming, the researchers say, our planet’s previously diverse animal population has largely been replaced with farmed livestock, mainly cows, pigs, and chickens. For example, farmed chickens now account for 57 percent of all bird species by mass.
The vast extent of this biodiversity loss is also largely unknown to the public. We may know about butterflies and birds, but so many other species are under-appreciated and misunderstood, says Helen Harwatt, a researcher and co-author of the Chatham House report. Take spiders, who serve as an important ecosystem regulator, both predator and prey. “If you take them out, it’s not like another species could sort of take over their role,” she says.
According to the Chatham House report, the food system’s drive toward cheaper food, what they call the “cheap food paradigm,” is a huge part of the problem. Cheap food doesn’t simply mean lower food prices, says Harwatt, because there are other costs like environmental damage and poor human health that we end up paying for later.
We also have to address supply and demand, which are interdependent. “Part of the reason why livestock is prolific now is because grain [to feed farm animals] has gone cheaper,” she says. That has enabled us to produce a lot more meat than we necessarily need for cheap, and that cheap meat, in turn, continues to drive demand.
Industrialized farming is at the core of the problem; although, paradoxically, there are aspects of it that could be part of the solution (more on this later). Still, there are many downsides to agricultural industrialization, as the Chatham House study reveals: “Our current food system is structured to drive demand, leading to biodiversity loss through (1) the continued conversion of natural or semi-natural ecosystems to managed ones, and (2) the use of unsustainable agricultural practices at farm level, landscape level and global level.”
With this second point, the researchers argue that the food industry’s push to produce mass amounts of food as cheaply as possible means little attention is paid to sustainability. That results in environmental threats to biodiversity like algae blooms, frequently caused by nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer pollution in waterways that kill fish and insects, and zoonotic disease threats from animals packed into factory farms, to name just two examples.
These downsides have affected ecosystems around the world, and intensified meat production systems that largely originated in the US have now gone global. As journalist Tom Philpott writes in his 2020 book Perilous Bounty, “nearly half of US soybeans and 15 percent of corn are exported, almost entirely to supply US-style concentrated livestock operations abroad.”
At the same time, populations — and their appetites for meat — are rising in the same places where there is great biodiversity: sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, according to University of Leeds researcher David Williams, a co-author of the Nature study. “You’re going to have this explosion in agricultural land in exactly the place you don’t want it to be,” he cautions.
Ultimately, both reports suggest, this threatened extinction can only be avoided by making significant changes to the global food system. Those changes are worth the effort, ecologists say, even if you don’t feel a deep ethical obligation to protect wildlife. Humans benefit from biodiversity, as our natural environments and their diverse species provide us with vital “ecosystem services”: services like cycling carbon, keeping pests under control, protecting human-populated areas from flooding, and the well-documented mental health benefits we get from spending time in nature. Without all of these benefits, humans will suffer.
But how do we make these changes?
A shift to plant-based diets and better farming practices could help avert massive biodiversity loss
Researchers from the Nature study compared the efficacy of a number of food system interventions, including reducing meat consumption, curbing food waste, increasing crop yields, and implementing strong land use planning policies, like using zoning regulations to prevent development in areas set aside for wildlife.
They found that a combination of these efforts would be the most effective, but that eating less meat and changing farming practices are the most crucial. Those farming practices include switching to better water and pesticide management, which could help farmers grow more food on less land, thereby minimizing expansion into wildlife habitats.
The Chatham House report’s recommendations have a lot of overlap with the Nature study: shifting toward more plant-based diets, setting aside more land as protected natural habitat, and adopting more sustainable farming methods. All three of these levers are crucial, says Harwatt. You can’t simply start farming more sustainably and expect to produce enough meat to satisfy growing demand. “You really need to think about all three together rather than separating them.”
What food system change looks like at the country level will vary widely, cautions both Clark and Williams, as it really depends on each country’s agricultural resources and dietary preferences. In countries like the United States — where we eat more meat per capita than any other country — we know it means relying less on land-hungry meat and more on nutrient-rich plants, with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
There are a number of ways governments can encourage a shift toward plant-based eating. Two of the most important policy options in the US are the federal dietary guidelines, which dictate the type of foods served in subsidized school meals and those covered by food assistance programs, and the set of food and agriculture regulations known as the Farm Bill, says Stacy Blondin, a behavioral scientist at the World Resources Institute.
The Farm Bill, and its specific programs like crop insurance, could be used to subsidize crops like legumes and seeds, the types of nutritious plants grown for people to eat, rather than the soy and corn mostly used for ethanol and animal feed. Standardization around food labeling for expiration (these labels are currently more or less meaningless) would also help reduce food waste, she says.
But there are considerable challenges. For one, Blondin explains, the Farm Bill and dietary guidelines are sometimes conflicting. You can’t tell farmers to grow more nuts and tomatoes and less animal feed if there’s no consumer demand for it, and you can’t tell consumers to eat a wider variety of fruits and vegetables if they can’t actually find them at the grocery store. “There’s no one silver bullet,” she adds.
Another obstacle is that the meat industry, and other sectors of Big Food, have an outsized influence over federal dietary guidelines. For example, the US doesn’t factor environmental sustainability into its dietary guidelines, and doing so could help shift diets in the right direction, according to Blondin.
“Even eliminating red meat or something like [a hamburger] as a qualifying meal ... could substantially reduce the impact of our collective dietary pattern,” says Blondin. This was tried in 2015 — the government-appointed Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee praised plant-based diets and recommended Americans cut back on meat. But according to Politico, the meat industry “went into high gear,” lobbied against these recommendations, and won.
Yet another challenge for us in the West is whether we can change our cultural assumptions around protein, says Clark. The average person in the US is actually consuming far too much protein, around two times more than is healthy, in fact, and most of it from meat and dairy. Yet these conversations are just as important as policy action, says Clark. “If we’re not changing those cultural norms at the same time as we’re talking about these policy mechanisms, that’s going to be an issue.”
A plant-based meat future might require bigger ideas
One viable policy mechanism could be more government investment in research and development for meat alternatives. While plant-based meats have been embraced by the non-vegetarian mainstream, these alternatives are still pricey. That’s a big stumbling block to getting people to eat more meat substitutes on a regular basis, but more research and development could help bring the price down. Canada and Singapore’s federal governments have invested large sums into such food technology, but so far the US has only spent a few million, while spending billions on traditional agricultural research and development each year.
The Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research group favoring technological solutions, has proposed the government boost spending by $50 million for research and development of alternative proteins. This increased funding would help lower the price of plant-based meat, as well as cell-based or lab-grown meat. Shifting the US diet toward these alternative proteins would mean consumers still get to eat “meat,” just a more sustainable version of it.
Another less politically feasible idea, at least in the US, is putting a carbon tax on meat to reduce consumption. As Vox contributor Lili Pike explained, taxes on alcohol and soft drinks for public health purposes have been effective at decreasing consumption. According to Blondin, although some European countries are considering meat taxes, the idea remains unpopular in the US. And such a tax could disproportionately affect low-income consumers, some critics argue. Researchers on this issue suggest subsidizing fruits and vegetables to offset that cost.
In terms of more sustainable farming methods, a number of researchers, including Williams and environmental organizations like the World Resources Institute, think that making some of the practices of industrialized farming more sustainable could help mitigate biodiversity loss.
This can’t be typical agricultural intensification but something more like “sustainable intensification,” a term that’s been contested in agricultural research but at least gets at the effort to balance the drive toward high yields while reducing environmental damage. “Essentially, it would differ by sort of minimizing the amount of land used for agriculture,” explains Harwatt, adding “[by] using that land in the most sustainable way possible.”
How sustainable intensification is encouraged is also a complex matter, Williams says, because you wouldn’t want to export Iowa-style cornfields to rural Tanzania, for example. Clark made a similar point: “This has to be done in a way that’s ethical and equitable and also accounts for farmer well-being.”
According to Harwatt, one example of sustainable intensification is precision agriculture, where farmers use technology like soil sensors to determine the precise amounts of pesticide and fertilizers to apply, and end up using less overall.
The Chatham House report also considered the pros and cons of less intensive methods like regenerative agriculture, an approach to farming that’s focused on improving soil health. Some of the farming practices used in regenerative agriculture include cover cropping and no-till methods instead of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, and agroforestry, which aims to share farmland with wildlife.
Rather than favor a particular approach, Clark and Williams stressed the importance of using better farming methods to grow more crops on less land in order to minimize wildlife habitat encroachment.
The bigger challenge may be figuring out how to drive global action while getting each country on board. Still, there’s no disagreement about the need for action, and just how urgently we need it, Williams says. “We do need global action or we’re stuffed.”
Jenny Splitter is a freelance journalist covering food, agriculture, science, and climate change.