Eat less meat to arrest biodiversity loss

A stark new UN report on the poor health of the planet puts livestock and agriculture in the frame

Feedlot full of cattle

Humans may sit at the top of the evolutionary ladder, but our lack of understanding about the world we rely upon for our existence is protozoan, it seems. A new “planetary health check” by the UN finds biodiversity around the world in dangerous decline, and has identified the basic virus that is killing it: us.

The actions of humankind now pose an “ominous” threat to our very survival, according to the most comprehensive global assessment ever undertaken, with three-quarters of all land, two-thirds of the world’s oceans and three-quarters of all rivers and lakes used or having been altered for the purposes of agriculture or the benefit of humankind.

The report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IBPES), compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists, says livestock farming for meat is a key contributor, with pristine ecosystems lost to monoculture feed crops and cattle grazing. Half a million species have insufficient habitats for long-term survival.

IBPES says farming and fishing are the major causes of the biodiversity loss, and places particular emphasis on the damage wrought by the meat industry. Of the global land not covered in ice, a full quarter is now used to graze cattle and accounts for 18 per cent of the world’s harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Crops are grown on an eighth (12 per cent) of global land and produce less than 7 per cent of emissions.

It also makes clear, however, how multinational industrial agriculture is shooting itself in the foot: almost a quarter (23 per cent) of land around the world is less productive as a result of overfarming and degradation, while crops worth £440 billion a year are at risk due to the loss of pollinators such as bees.

“The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” said IBPES chairman Robert Watson. “We have lost time. We must act now.”

Acting now means policymakers taking urgent steps to make “transformational change”, from encouraging individuals to eat less meat to changing trade rules and reforesting. While it is encouraging that the research was signed off by all UN member states, indicating they concur on the severity of the problem, it remains to be seen whether they can agree on the “drastic” action the experts say is required to tackle it.

“The situation is tricky and difficult but I would never give up,” said German entomologist and IBPES co-chairman Josef Settele. “The report shows there is a way out. I believe we can still bend the curve. People shouldn’t panic, but they should begin drastic change. Business as usual with small adjustments won’t be enough.”

Read a summary of the report