FEED Business Worldwide - August, 2011
The interconnectivity of feed, soil and the meat we eat: Asian livestock's impact on the environment
by Eric J. BROOKS
Humans, livestock and the environment have always had a tense relationship. Archaeology has proven that even 10,000 years ago, livestock domestication changed everything from local plant flora to soil composition and rainfall patterns. Ancient Egypt's feed and livestock production boosted its populations of cats, rats and people - while accelerating a once grain-rich country's top soil loss and desertification. Nevertheless, recent decades have seen an intensified trade-off between our need for meat, its impact on the planet and consequences revisited upon us.
Nowhere is this more true than in Asia, where booming per capita meat consumption and expanding cities require an ever-larger supply of livestock from a fixed area of feed crop land, which itself is often densely populated. Along with a surprising capacity to keep up with meat demand, the end result is a complex web of toxic feedback loops and a multitude of human consequences.
Inescapable feedback loops
Some of these ecological linkages reside within the agribusiness supply chain or its meat end products. Others extend into nearby urban areas, soil, feed crops, drinking water, or even the human medical system. When pondering the vast scope of land, air, water and human contamination, one thing becomes apparent: The very innovations which sustain high meat consumption and keep famine at bay are, in their present form, unsustainable.
Even in less-densely populated North America, Australia and Europe, outbreaks of food-poisoning have been caused by pathogens made resistant to bacteria inside livestock. Pathogens such as MRSA (which can cause amputation of limbs) have been traced directly to soil tainted with both antibiotics and bacteria which became resistant to them (see Pgs 44-48: "MRSA in British dairy cattle: Is a livestock farm superbug spreading to humans?").
Such harmful pathogens evolved inside antibiotic-fed livestock before being re-exported to humans via the application of manure or sewage-based fertiliser on feed crops, which then picked up its pathogens, heavy metals and antibiotics. Toxins inside these tainted feed crops find their way into livestock muscle and eventually, our dinner plates and bodies. In some cases, the toxins impacted humans even more directly, via the consumption of spinach, broccoli or other greens raised in contaminated soil.
The impact on human health can also be more subtle, as in the buildup of toxic heavy metals that moved from supplement-tainted livestock manure to feed crops. From there, the contamination circulated to livestock, meat and vegetables tainted with arsenic, copper, cadmium and other toxins.
At other times, the impact hit humans in mercifully more indirect, though still disturbing ways. One increasingly frequent example is transformation of lakes into stinking green swamps to mass death of farmed fish, which choke when fertilizer nutrients cause an overgrowth of oxygen-absorbing microbes. (see Pgs 28-29: "Philippine fish kills land environmentally unfriendly fish farming").
In the United States, mosquitoes feeding off antibiotic-laced poultry manure where found carrying dangerous disease causing bacteria â€“and biting human workers. According to researchers, it is possible that some new, dangerous strains of E-coli bacteria and MRSA causing staph bacteria may have come to infect and even kill people in this manner.
Another side-effect that is common in Asia is that rural residents are frequently exposed to harmful levels of atmospheric ammonia and horrible odours that cling to their clothes. While this also occurs throughout American and EU rural areas, Asia's rural populations are much higher, the amount of unprocessed livestock waste is usually larger, and its toxic effects impact many millions more than they do in the west.
Environmentalists: Right diagnosis but wrong solutions
Clearly, the environmental movement predicted many of the above mentioned impacts on our food and health as early as the 1960s. But having said that, this is not another environmentalist-activist diatribe that criticizes agribusiness or accuses it of polluting the earth.
Few environmentalists dare admit that without fertilizers, supplements and high livestock population densities, billions of people would have either starved or at the very least, eaten poorly. Nor should they assume that the solution lies in asking hundreds of millions of Asians to eat less meat or return back to poverty-level eating habits.
Despite all the problems it causes, without the productivity boost provided by fertiliser and supplements, there would be insufficient feed crops to turn into meat. If fertilizer was removed from the feed and livestock equation, there would only be enough food to sustain two billion people or less.
Ironically, despite recycling sacred reputation among environmentalists, it is actually nature's recycling and recirculating of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, heavy metals and antibiotics that causes so many of the above mentioned problems.
When recycling is NOT ecologically friendly
Fertiliser's N-P-K run-off contaminates numerous lakes, rivers and groundwater. Despite numerous environmentalists' odes to 'the joy of composting', the recycling of manure creates much of the same nitrogen, potassium and phosphate-based pollution as chemical fertiliser â€“while adding antibiotics, dangerous bacteria and heavy metal contamination to the toxic mix.
Far from its 'natural equals good' reputation among health-conscious urban gardeners, even composted livestock waste contains a witch's brew of antibiotic resistant bacteria, antibiotics and heavy metals, along with the usual oversupply of key N-P-K nutrients that are loved by oxygen-consuming aquatic microorganisms. In fact, manure is a primary carrier and transmitter of livestock's burden on the environment. That is why we begin our discussion of livestock's impact on the environment back examining its end product.
Of course, there are ways of making sure that livestock waste becomes friendlier that have nothing to do with changing our recycling paradigm, just making it smarter. New supplements deliver trace metals more effectively to livestock intestines, leaving less to be excreted into nearby water ways. Many natural substances found in common herbs have been proven as effective as antibiotics, without accelerating the evolution of dangerous bacteria. With these technologies on the horizon, the EU and South Korea have banned antibiotic use in livestock growth promotion, with others to follow.
Unfortunately, both of these approaches boost production cost and by doing so, challenge Asian agribusiness's cost-centered rationale. That is why both in this cover story and related articles throughout this month's issue, we examine a multitude of ways in which livestock production impacts our shared environment.
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