The Environmental Impacts of Intensive Livestock Operations in Canada

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Greater worldwide demand for animal products within the last fifty years, due to increased affluence, urbanization and population growth has been facilitated by industrial animal agriculture methods (Steinfeldet al, 2006; Pimentel, 2004; Myers and Kent, 2003). This method, characterized by large scale, intensification, focus on economic profit, and increased use of off-farm inputs, is generically termed ‘Intensive Livestock Operations’ (ILOs)(Abdalla, 2002). ILOs are part of a vast network of industrial techniques and practices involving unsustainable resource consumption for the production of livestock using monoculture feed cropsthat can collectively be termed “the industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex” (Weis, 2010a). ILOs consume vast quantities of limited resources such as water and fossil fuels, contribute to biodiversity loss, deforestationand soil erosion, and generate significant greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and other air pollutants detrimental to human health and natural ecosystems. The overall environmental impact of ILOs, which this paper provides a sketch, could be referred to as their “ecological hoofprint”(Weis, 2007: 45).

The meatification of diets

ILOs can be understood within an historical context. Meat, eggs, milk, and seafood consumption are the fastest growing segment of global food consumption patterns (Halweil and Nierenberg, 2008; Pimentel and Pimentel, 2003). On a per capita basis, Canadians and residents of other industrialized countries consume these animal products above global averages (Bruinsma, 2003). The rate of meat consumption has increased since the 1960s: in 2006, global livestock farmers produced four times as much chicken, pork, beef and other meat as in 1961, resulting in a twofold increase in meat consumption per capita (Halweil and Nierenberg, 2008).

This centrality of animal products in human diets in industrial countries is a recent phenomenon in human history; for most of agricultural history, animal foods were on the periphery. The rapid escalation of consumption of animal products in recent decades, due to industrialization,could be referred to as the deliberate ‘meatification’ of diets (Weis, 2012a), precipitated byseveral related factors: industrial capitalism, increased incomes, population growth, and urbanization.

The meatification of China, industrializing Asian countries, and developing nations
In recent years many developing and industrializingcountries have embraced industrial methods to meet the growing demand for animal products. The most prominent example of this pattern is China. With an annual production of about 50 million metric tonnes, China is now the world’s single largest pork producing nation, with roughly 50 per cent of global industrial pig production (Schneider, 2011). Economic growth, population growth, and rapid urbanization since the late 1970s are drivers of the “meatification” of China, with the result that China is the largest animal product producer in the world (Liu and Deblitz, 2007). Many other developing and industrializing countries have followed suit, following the pattern of the importation of ILO technologies and management practices, consistent with globalization.

Food security issues have been framed in terms of volatile grain and oilseed markets in Asian markets, and the call for increases in food production to meet growing human populations, but this solution does not take into account the biophysical contradictions of the industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex, and how they are worsening worldwide inequality by taxing the limited resources and environmental burden of industrializing economies (Weis, 2012b).

ILOs in the U.S. and Canada

The U.S. and Canada are generally recognized as major centres for industrialized agricultureand industrialized livestock production. As of 2007, the U.S. and Canada together produced 14 per cent of the world agro-exports by value, and accounted for 15 per cent of the world’s agricultural GDP (FAO, 2007a; Tables C.1., C.2). Livestock production in the U.S. and Canada is centered upon three species – cattle, chicken and pigs – which account for virtually all animal flesh, as well as derivatives like eggs and dairy products (FAO, 2007a; Table B.2; FAOSTAT, 2009). Most of the livestock (including nearly all the chickens and pigs) are raised in homogenized, warehouse conditions on a massive scale. These arrangements are euphemistically termed ‘concentrated animal feeding operations’ or CAFOs (Weis, 2007: 19).

In industrialized nations, ILOs are based on a model of economic efficiency, with animals kept in small, confined spaces to maximize their growth, feed conversion and speedy transport to market (Weis, 2007: 19). These production methods disrupt the traditional ‘short cycle’ system between crop and livestock production where smaller numbers of animals are produced on larger areas of land, enabling the recycling of wastes as fertilizer in manageable quantities (FAO, 2005). The use of external inputs, in the form of industrial agro-chemicals, has undermined the importance of localized ecological knowledge in agriculture (Weis, 2010a).
Transnational corporations have driven technological advances in processing, packaging, refrigeration, transportation and food safety, thus overriding previous limits to centralization imposed by perishability and increasing fossil fuel consumption at every stage in the process (Weis, 2010). As P. S. Hoodaet al have noted, the post-war “move from mixed arable–livestock farming towards greater specialization, together with the general intensification of food production have had adverse effects on the environment” (Hoodaet al,
2000). These effects can be described in terms of inefficiency ratios in the use of finite resources.

Inefficiency ratios

A major defining characteristic of ILOs, in terms of their use of finite resources for food production, as compared to food production plant-based diets, is their gross inefficiency, exceeding the biophysical limits of the planet (Weis, 2010a).An inherent component of the intensive animal agriculture model is the production of monoculture grain crops for livestock feed, which replaces the grass and forage traditionally provided in pre-industrial models. These concentrated diets enable rapid growth, reducing the time required for animals to reach market weights in a shorter time than traditional animal agriculture. The ‘management’ model of ILOs includes selective breeding and genetic engineering to increase total product value relative to body size, higher rates of reproduction, and “more efficient lean growth to market live weight and earlier sexual maturity” (Dickerson, 1970).

Table 1: Global Facts About Livestock: land, air, climate (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 271).
Environment and land Total land for grazing 3,433 million ha or 26 per cent of terrestrial surface
Grazing land considered degraded 20 to 70 percent
Total land for feed crop cultivation 471 million ha or 33 per cent of arable land
Environment: air and climate Livestock’s contribution to climate change in CO2 equivalent 18 percent Includes pasture degradation and land use change
Livestock’s share in carbon dioxide emissions 9 percent Not considering respiration
Livestock’s share methane emissions 37 percent  
Livestock’s share in nitrous oxide emissions 65 percent Including feed crops

Despite providing short-term economic gains, grain-based feeding systemsare hugely inefficient, with only ten percent of the plant matter consumed by livestock being converted into edible animal protein (Godfrayet al., 2010). As a result, land requirements for livestock production are, on average, ten times greater than those for plant production, with fossil energy requirements about eleven times greater (Leitzmann, 2003; Pimentel and Pimentel, 2003).

Globally, industrially reared livestock use up about one third of the world’s arable land and its grain harvests (FAO, 2007). In Canada and industrialized nations the percentage is much higher: seventy per cent of all agricultural land used goes toward livestock production, most of it indirectly through feed crop production (Steinfeldet al, 2006: xii) (See Table 1). Overall, feed crop production is the single largest environmentally destructive component of ILOs.

Inefficient feed conversion ratios touch on three major allocations of finite resources – energy (in the form of fossil fuels), water and land – often termed “inputs.” For example, roughly three quarters of all freshwater use is for industrial agriculture and in industrialized nations over half of that amount is used for feed crops (Steinfeldet al., 2006). Far more energy, water and land are used to produce one unit of industrially produced animal-based food for human consumption than is used to produce one unit of industrially produced plant-based food (see Table 3).

The paradigm of production

The livestock sector impacts a wide range of natural resources through unsustainable consumption and production patterns. The industrial animal agriculture system, highly prized for its ability to produce an immense quantity of inexpensive food to consumers, is based on economies of scale, where unsustainable ‘technological fixes’, such as the use of industrial fertilizers,are central to the paradigm of production, and externalized costs such as environmental destruction are easily undervalued and masked behind an aura of plenty (Weis, 2010a).

Natural resource depletion is a human rights issue

The depletion and/or degradation of these resources is not only an environmental and wildlife conservation concern, but also a human rights issue of the first order, given rapidly mushrooming global human populations relative to finite resource depletion (Gleick, 1999). The United Nations has declared that access to water is a human right (United Nations, 2010). Given that ILOs are the single largest industrial user of this vital resource, it could reasonably be argued that they represent a threat to human rights.The same argument applies to global warming: it is now generally recognized as the human rights issue, given the growing number of eco-refugees, displaced by global-warming related events (Myers, 2002).

The moral imperative of resource conservation, in consideration of basic needs of current and future generations, is neglected in favour of the capitalist imperative of short-term economic gains at any cost.Increased meat and milk production and consumption are frequently framed as beneficial for human health and prosperity by ILO industries and governments, but this framing does not take into account the real human costs of environmental externalities. These costs are hidden behind an aura of prosperity (Weis, 2010a). David Loy refers to “the religion of the market,” to describe the worldview promoted by economists who subscribe to a“gospel of sustained economic expansion”without regard for the environmental destruction it causes (Loy, 1997). This worldview does not accept the idea of biophysical limitations, preferring instead to advance technological solutions for environmental problems, for the sake of advancing economic imperatives such as the meatification of society or the expansion of the Alberta oil sands, in violation of the ‘precautionary principle.’

Plant-based versus animal-based diets

Pimentel and Pimentel (2003) conclude that “the meat-based food system requires more energy, land and water resources than the lactoovovegetarian diet.” It is reasonable to suppose that even more energy, land and water would be saved by an entirely plant-based diet. Given that human beings are able to sustain healthy lives without consuming animal-based foods, it could be argued that industrial animal agriculture is one of the most unnecessary and unsustainable types of consumption of finite resources in present-day industrial society. This argument rests on the distinction between luxury and necessary uses of natural resources and the designation of the consumption of animal products – especially those produced by ILOs – as a major source of luxury emissions.


Environmental impacts caused by ILOs

The environmental impactsof ILOs can be broken down into several key areas: greenhouse gas emissions, water stress, water pollution, air pollution, land use change, land degradation, energy consumption, deforestation, habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity. This paper will provide a quick survey each of these areas.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Environmental externalities extend far beyond their borders, and in the case of greenhouse gas emissions have significant global implications. ILOs play a significant part in Canada’s per capita greenhouse gas footprint, which at 23.14 tonnes CO2 equivalent in 2005 is among the highest per capita GHG emissions rates in the world (Environment Canada, 2007). This fact is made even more reprehensible by the fact that Canada has had a prominent role impeding multilateral action on climate change (Weis, 2010a).

According to an important study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, Livestock’s Long Shadow (2006),18 per cent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions associated with ILOs are attributable to livestock production, globally. Environment Canada estimates GHGs from agriculture at 8 per cent of the national total, or 460 kt/CO2 equivalent (Environment Canada, 2010); however, this figure does not appear to include some of the variables included in the FAO study. Another possible reason for the discrepancy is due to the percentage related to energy-related emissions (55 per cent) and transportation (28 per cent) (Environment Canada, 2010), which are far higher than the global averages referred to by the FAO 2006 report – perhaps due to the Alberta oil sands and Canada’s large geographic footprint, or perhaps due to the use of different standards of measurement. Another possible factor is that the single largest source of emissions related ILOs is caused by deforestation, which occurs to a greater extent in the global south than in the global north (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 91).

Environment Canada notes that significant increases in GHG emissions from the agricultural sector since 1990 are due to “the expansion of the beef cattle and swine populations, and increases in the application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in the Prairies. Beef, swine and poultry populations in Canada are 23%, 19% and 31% higher, respectively, than in 1990. The significant growth in animal populations largely accounts for the 19% increase in emissions, from 29 to 34 Mt CO2 eq in emissions associated with animal production over the 1990-2009 period” (Environment Canada, 2010).

GHGs can be broken down in three greenhouse gases: methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). The first two gases are measured as CO2 equivalents, based on the measurement that methane is 21 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2, and nitrous oxide is 296 times more effective that CO2. Because the higher heat-trapping properties of CH4 and N2O are greater than that of CO2, they pose a significant threat insofar as they are able to precipitate what is commonly referred to as the “tipping point” of runaway climate change. In other words, the deliberate “meatification” of society is in large part responsible for the accelerating a process that represents a significant threat to human civilization, biodiversity, and the life systems of Earth, insofar as it is responsible for the conditions accelerating catastrophic climate change.

Total global anthropogenic CO2 emissions related to ILOs are 24 to 31 billion tonnes, most of which is due to deforestation (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 113). Total N2O emissions are 3.4 billion tonnes, the greatest part of which relates to manure emissions. Total CH4 emissions are 5.9 billion tonnes, the greatest part of which issues from enteric fermentation from the digestion of ruminants. The total of the three gases is 33 to 40 billion tonnes per annum; 4.6 to 7.1 billion toones of that is directly from livestock related activities, and rest is due to feed crop production and land use change (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 113).

ILOs emit greenhouse gases in several ways (see Table 2). For the sake of brevity, just feed crops, animal digestion, manure, and transportation will be examined.

Table 2. Livestock life cycle and associated emissions (Garnett, 2007).
Life cycle stage Process creating emissions Type of emissions
Production of feed crops Production of nitrogenous and other fertilizers, agricultural machinery, pesticides N2O emissions from grazing land, fertilizer production, CO2 from fertilizer production
Housing, maintenance, machinery Heating, lighting, etc. CO2
Digestion (ruminants) Enteric fermentation CH4
Waste products Manure and urine CH4 and N2O
Slaughtering, processing, waste treatment Machinery, cooking, cooling, chilling, lighting, leather and wool production, rendering and incineration CO2 and refrigerant emissions
Transport, storage, packaging Transport, chilling, lighting, packaging materials CO2 and refrigerant emissions
Domestic consumption Refrigeration and cooking CO2 and refrigerant emissions
Waste disposal Transport, composting, anaerobic digestion and incineration CO2, CH4 and N2O

Feed crop production emissions

Greenhouse gases emitted during the entire feed crop production life-cycle represent the single largest source of GHGs associated with ILOs. Much of this comes from the release of nitrous oxide from fertilizers (see Table 1). Historically, there has been a steady increase in the use of feed crops for animal agriculture (Steinfeldet al, 2006:38-9). The estimates of GHG emissions,as given in the 2006FAO report, as CO2 equivalents in tonnes per year globally (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 86-93), are as follows:

  • Fossil fuel use in manufacturing fertilizers: 41 milliontonnes
  • Livestock-related land change, including the loss of carbon sinks through deforestation: 2.4 billiontonnes
  • Emission release from cultivated soils: 28 milliontonnes
  • On-farm fossil fuel use: 90 milliontonnes
  • Livestock-induced desertification of pastures:100 milliontonnes

The greatest of these, globally, is land use change from deforestation, the most prominent example of which is the burning of tropical rainforests to make way for cattle ranching (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 91). In Canada the majority of feed crop production emissions are from other major areas noted above.

Emissions from feed crop production: fertilizers, fossil fuel use, carbon release from soil

Fertilizers include synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and manure. Both producethe greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O), which has almost 300 times the heat-trapping effect (Global Warming Potential) of carbon dioxide, making both synthetic and organic fertilizers used in feed crop productionsignificant drivers of global warming. About half (55 per cent) of Canada’s total use of chemical nitrogen fertilizer (897,000 tonnes/year) is used for feed related to livestock, and most of it is produced using natural gas (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 87), adding to CO2 emissions. Globally, “fossil fuel use in manufacturing fertilizer may emit 41 million tonnes of CO2 per year” (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 86).About half of total maize production is used for feed crops and GMO maize is a crop that requires larges amounts of fertilizer (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 87). Canada accounts for 2,237,000 tonnes out of the estimated 41 million tonnesof the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer used globally every year (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 88). Increases in nitrous oxide emissions have also largely been driven by increased manure production from increased animal populations (Paton, 2003).

In terms of on-farm fossil fuel use, the majority is spent on feed crop production. This will be addressed later in the section on energy.Desertification of pastures will also be addressed later, in the section on land use.

Carbon release from the soil through feed crop production represents the largest potential source of emissions (1,100 to 1,600 billion tonnesin toto) but currently it is a relatively small fraction of that (28 million tonnes per year). Historically, the cumulative amount is far greater: 18 to 28 billion tonnes. The current rate of loss, as well as emissions from desertification,may increase as a result of climate change (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 93). This represents a serious concern, given the enormous potential for soil carbon loss that exists. Currently, carbon release from soil is caused by practices such as tilling and soil liming (Steinfeldet al, 2006: 92).

Emissions from animal digestion

Because methane (CH4) has many more times heat-trapping qualities than carbon dioxide (21 times to be precise), the industrial production of methane is a significant driver of global warming. Globally, ILOs account for 37 per cent of methane production (Table 1). The digestive process of bovine ruminants, called enteric fermentation, is the major source of ILO-related methane. It is also released from the breakdown of animal manure, both solid and liquid. Additionally, animal respiration is a cause of CO2 (Steinfeldet al, 2006). These are major sources of on-farm emissions.

Emissions from manure

Globally, farm animals excrete approximately 135 million tonnes per year (Steinfeld et al, 2006: 110). This results in 0.3 million tonnes N2O annually in North America; two thirds of that is due to beef cattle (Ibid). There is a high ration of nitrogen loss from manure applied to fields, adding to a process known as ‘ammonia volatilization,’ which refers to the return of ammonia (NH3) to the atmosphere.“Ammonia volatilization takes place when soils are moist and warm and the source of urea [ammonia in its organic form], is on or near the soil surface.”

Another related type of loss of nitrogen is manure-induced soil emission, which is the largest livestock related source of N2O (Steinfeld et al, 2006: 109).

Transportation emissions

The industrial transformation of agriculture is related to the increasing distance and durability of food (Friedmann, 1993) and centralized production and processing systems. Food has to travel further, a fact popularly referred to as ‘food miles’. Much of the growing popular awareness about food miles has focused on the resulting carbon emissions (e.g. The Hundred Mile Diet), which has made this concept a very visible marker for how the food system is linked to climate change. Canada is a major exporter of both feed crops and industrially produced meat, adding to emissions. It should also be noted that Canada’s larger geographic footprint increases transportation emissions, as compared to other industrialized regions, such as the EU or Japan.



Water makes up at least 50 per cent of most living organisms and plays an essential role in the functioning of ecosystems, yet only 2.5 per cent of all water resources are fresh water, and 70 per cent of those are locked up in glaciers, permanent snow at the poles and the atmosphere (Steinfeldet al, 2006). Globally, water shortage and scarcity is a looming concern, exacerbated by the unequal distribution of water and the demands placed on the world’s freshwater used for agricultural purposes (Tilmanet al, 2002).
Water issues related to ILOs fall into two basic categories: water stress and water pollution, corresponding to environmental inputs and outputs.

Water stress

Industrial agriculture is responsible for almost three-quarters of total freshwater use worldwide, and also the single largest consumer of water in Canada (Weis, 2010a; Steinfeld et al, 2006; Briscoe, 2002). Agriculture practices and processes consume water in a variety of ways, with feed crop production accounting for the bulk of water use. Feed crop production requires irrigation watering systems, which is a growing concern since in many areas of the world, especially where water is being taken from aquifers in excess of its recharge rate (Weis, 2012a; Steinfeldet al, 2006; Tilman, 2002). Increasing global meat consumption and intensive production systems’ dependence on grain harvests aggravates water shortages (Myers and Kent, 2003). Many countries will soon fail to have enough water to maintain per capita food production from irrigated land (Tilman, 2002).

It is estimated that 100 times more water is required to produce 1 kg of animal protein than to produce 1 kg of grain protein (Pimentel and Pimentel, 2003) (Table 3). Beef production, which has the most inefficient feed conversion ratio of any animal, requires about 13 kg of grain and 30 kg of hay for 1 kg of fresh beef (Pimentel and Pimentel, 2003). To produce a 100 kg of hay and 4 kg of grain requires water inputs of 100,000 L and 5,400 L respectively. On a rangeland production system, more than 200,000 L of water are needed to produce
1 kg of beef (Pimentel and Pimentel, 2003), and beef produced in a feedlot system (grain-fed beef production) requires 100,000 L of water for every kilogram of beef (Pimentel, 1997).

Table 3. Approximate crop water requirements to produce food harvested (Gleick, 2011).
Crop/Food Produced Water requirement (kg of water per kg of food)
Potato 500 to 1500
Wheat 900 to 2000
Alfalfa 900 to 2000
Sorghum 1100 to 1800
Corn/Maize 1000 to 1800
Rice 1900 to 5000
Soybeans 1100 to 2000
Chicken 3500 to 5700
Beef 15000 to 70000

Chicken production, though less water-intensive than beef production, still demands a higher input of water per kilogram of food protein produced than plant protein. One kilogram of broiler meat requires about 2.3 kg of grain feed which would use about 3,500 L of water in its production (Pimentel and Pimentel, 2003). A pound of poultry requires 9,463 L of water, or the same volume of water as the average Canadian consumes domestically each month (Environment Canada, 2007). The use of water for “watering livestock is such a common use in Alberta that [in Alberta] submitting an application for a water licence actually provides a ‘guide’ for calculating the quantities of water needed for raising beef, hogs, chickens, and turkeys” (Nowlan, 2005: 32).

Resources are further taxed by other aspects of livestock production such as “service water” and “flushing” needs on industrial operations. Water needs for carrying manure down a gutter on a standard pig operation is about seven times higher than the animals’ drinking needs (Steinfeldet al, 2006). Additionally, freshwater consumed in milk production and tanning can be counted as part of the total water consumption: “water is a major input at each processing step, except for final packaging and storage” (Steinfeldet al, 2006:130).

Meat processing plants also have very high demands for treated freshwater, competing directly with domestic use in years of drought. For example, 5 to 10 gallons of water are used to process one, five pound, average–sized chicken (McMahon, 2007). It is not unusual for a typical poultry processor to generate one to 1.5 million gallons of wastewater daily. This water waste is representative of the inefficiency ratios and disregard for biophysical limits, discussed earlier.

Water as a human rights issue

As with greenhouse has emissions, water shortages represent a human rights issue of the first magnitude:it is predicted that “by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions” (FAO, 2006b)The United Nations recognizes the right to clean water as a human right, and the IPCC is concerned about the possibility of extreme water conflicts, in response to water stress (Nordas and Gleditsch, 2007). For these reasons, it is reasonable to state that ILOs, as the single largest industrial source of water stress, represent an extreme threat to the well-being of humanity.

Water pollution

Water used in agricultural production is returned to the environment, with some of it re-usable and some polluted, thereby contributing to water depletion (Steinfeldet al, 2006). Industrial farming, feedlots and factories pose a serious threat to the integrity of many freshwater systems. Water pollution occurs via a number of pathways. Surface water pollution from livestock waste can be caused by direct runoff the farm site, after field application of manure (slurry) or by contaminated water from barns or open feedlots (Steinfieldet al, 2006). Water contamination also occurs from direct deposit of fecal material into waterways, pesticide and fertilizer application to feed crops and livestock processing (slaughterhouses, meat-processing plants, dairies and tanneries) (Steinfeldet al, 2006). Groundwater contamination can be caused by leaching,following excessive manure or fertilizer application to land, and leaking earthen manure storages, or direct runoff into poorly sealed well heads (Steinfieldet al, 2006).

One of the largest burdens on water health is runoff from fertilizer nutrients and animal waste from ILOs (Weis, 2012a). This occurs when “large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus enter the environment through runoff, percolation into groundwater, and volatilization of ammonia (Mallin and Cahoon, 2003, 369).

Pre-industrial versus industrial waste treatment

Traditionally, animal wastes were collected in straw bedding to compost before being applied onto fields. Many potentially pathogenic micro-organisms were killed during composting, because of the elevated temperatures, and the manure was used as a rich source of nutrients and humus usually without pathogen contamination risks (Shepherd Jr. et al, 2010). This system is a fundamental aspect of organic and mixed farming production systems where small amounts of waste are recycled as fertilizer on the land (FAO, 2005).

In contrast to traditional methods, ILOs concentrate large numbers of animals in a small geographic area, producing high volumes of manure, which then must be managed. The wastes are typically spread or sprayed onto fields, and pumped into waste lagoons (Mallin and Cahoon, 2003). ILOs typically contain highly concentrated amounts of feces, laden with drug residues, heavy metals, pathogens, and heavy nutrient loads (i.e. nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) (Steinfeldet al, 2006). Water pollution problems can be exacerbated by periodic lagoon ruptures, or major leaks to storage systems (Mallin and Cahoon, 2003).

Biochemical oxygen demand

One assessment of nutrient concentration causing water pollution is called “biochemical oxygen demand” (BOD5); it is the measure of organic and inorganic substances subject to aerobic microbial metabolism, referring to the amount of oxygen required by aerobic microorganisms to decompose the organic matter in a sample of water, such as that polluted by sewage. BOD5 is used to measure of the degree of water pollution (Pew Commission, 2008). For example, cattle slurry has a biological oxygen demand (BOD5) of 10,000 to 20,000 mg/liter (Steinfeld, 2007), and whey, a dairy product, has a typical BOD5 level ranging between 30,000 and 60,000 mg/L. Clean water, by comparison, has a BOD5 level of 5. As shown in Table 4 the BOD5 levels typical of animal/bird slurries and wastewater have a deadly impact if discharged into a waterway.

Table 4. Ranges of BOD5 concentration for various wastes (Steinfeld, 2007)
Source BOD5 (mg/litre)
Milk 140,000
Silage effluents 30,000 – 80,000
Pig slurry 20,000 – 30,000
Cattle slurry 10,000 – 20,000
Liquid effluents draining from slurry stores 1,000 – 12,000
Dilute dairy parlour and yard washing (dirty water) 1,000 – 5,000
Untreated domestic sewage 300
Treated domestic sewage 20 – 60
Clean river water 5

Manure contains nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, drug residues, heavy metals and pathogens, which contaminate water. Water can also become contaminated through storage facility failures, manure runoff from farms and grazing areas, and direct deposit of mature into bodies of water (Gerber, 2006). One cow excretes as much phosphorus as 18 to 20 humans.

When organic waste contaminates water, it increase algae’s demand for oxygen, need by other species. Discharge of these very concentrated organic wastes containing nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients into a waterway causes nutrient-driven eutrophication, or severe oxygen depletion in the water. Algae blooms, death of fish and other aquatic aerobic organisms result when excreta or wastewaters from livestock production get into streams, rivers and lakes through discharge, runoff or overflow of storage lagoons. In many parts of Canada, major blooms of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) are associated with eutrophication. The deteriorating state of Lake Winnipeg has been attributed in large part to the excessive phosphorous emissions from Manitoba’s pork industry (Friesen, 2011).
The Charest Report (1991) noted that livestock manure is, “one of the principle, non-point sources of nutrient pollution in Canada, and one that has yet to be adequately addressed from an environmental perspective.”

Groundwater forms an important source of municipal, industrial, agricultural and residential water supply in rural Canada, but it is a finite resource now endangered by industrial agriculture: in Canada 43% of the agricultural sector relies on groundwater (Nowlan, 2005: 5). In addition to excessive nutrient loading from manure and fertilizer application to crops, which may percolate into groundwater stores, there is concern regarding contamination from earthen lagoon structures used for sewage storage. (MacMillan and Llewellyn, 200). Among many members of rural communities on the Prairies, earthen manure storage structures have attracted widespread concern regarding their potential for groundwater contamination.

Meat Processing

Wastewater produced from livestock processing is laden with fats, proteins and carbohydrates from meat, fat, blood, skin and feathers.The water is also polluted with grit and other inorganic matter. In addition to meat processing gelatin production, rendering plants and dairy processing can produce large amounts of wastewater (Burton and Turner, 2003). Modern processing plants are required to remove the majority of all soluble and particulate organic material, phosphates and ammonium in their wastewater prior to any discharge from the plant. In Canada this discharge is usually released into surface waters and has to be in compliance with local, provincial and federal environmental regulations. Often these large processing plants are enticed to a region with significant municipal, provincial and federal contributions to capital costs and design.(Ibid).

Air pollution

Air pollution can be generated by buildings, manure handling and storage systems and during land application in the form of odours and gases (in particular ammonia) generated from anaerobic manure decomposition (Paton, 2003). Microbial agents (viruses, bacteria, fungal spores) and products (endo- and other toxins) have been confirmed in the air associated with ILOs (Ibid). These agents and products can also be of concern for the livestock, workers and downwind community. Dust can also be a concern arising from feed systems and the animals. Two related aspects of air pollution discussed below are odour and ammonia.

Odour from ILOs is generally recognized as a public health issue. Most problems arise with intensive pig and poultry units, and when animal manures are stored for lengthy periods: anaerobic (oxygen deprived) storage of manure, common practice in intensive livestock production, results in the production of malodorous compounds, which are intensified under severe winter conditions when biological activity is minimized. Odours may also arise from land spreading of wastes: odours from wastes are carried on dust and other particles as well as in gases and vapours (Paton, 2003). Some of the gases released from manure storage in the absence of oxygen are toxic to humans and animals (Paton, 2003).

Ammonia volatilization, the release of ammonia from animal manure into the atmosphere,can have a negative impact on plant and animal biodiversity (Phoenix et al, 2006).“Agriculture accounts for more than 50% of the ammonia released into the air”, according to a Government of Canada report, The Health of Our Air (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 1992). The report adds that “much of this ammonia comes from livestock production.” In one study about 60-80 per cent of nitrogen (an element in ammonia, NH3) was lost from pig manure in lagoons exposed to air (Marks, 2001: 18). The effects of NH3 can be local or long range: ammonia can be carried long distances by wind before being deposited, sometimes up to 300 miles (Ibid). Once deposited, it can disrupt sensitive ecosystems.


Land Use and Land Degradation

There are two uses of land associated with ILOs: land occupied by animal agriculture directly (i.e. CAFOs and feedlots), which can lead to overgrazing, compaction and soil erosion, and land used for growing feed crops. Of the two, land use problems associated with feed crop production are more significant because they affect such large areas.

Land use costs related to industrial feed crop production

Industrial crop agriculture has several negative environmental impacts: the results of pesticide and fertilizer use, water consumption exacerbated by reduced soil moisture retention and ‘thirstier’ seed types, soil mining, deforestation, increased tillage by heavy machinery, and impact on biodiversity. Land used for feed crop production has a significant environmental impact in Canada. This is because industrially-reared livestock consume more than a third of the world’s grain harvest, and a much greater share of all oilseeds, with the ratios of cycling feed through livestock the highest in industrialized countries. In the U.S. and Canada, roughly 80 per cent of the total volume of agricultural production comes from the industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex (Weis, 2010b:13). Together, the U.S. and Canada produce roughly one-fifth of the world’s total grain production and one-third of the world’s oilseed production (mainly soy in the U.S. and canola in Canada) (Weis, 2012a).

Soil pollution can be caused by applying high rates of nutrients to the land, which can lead to imbalanced plant nutrition and poor plant growth and development. Several studies have reported that anaerobic livestock slurries can be toxic to seeds and reduce or inhibit germination. Pig slurry in Manitoba, Alberta and some U.S. states can be extremely high in sodium chloride and therefore potentially damaging to sustainable crop production (Paton, 2003). It has been suggested that by giving the animals high amounts of sodium chloride in their feed, they take up more water into the tissues and gain fresh weight faster. This salt would add to the soil degradation concerns raised by the 1984 Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture:

“Another serious result of current agricultural practices is the increase in cultivated land affected by salts …. The presence of high salt concentrations at or near the soil surface are now increasing at a rate that can only be described as alarming . . . On lands affected by salinization in the Prairies, crop yields have been reduced by 10 to 75%, even though farmers have increased their use of fertilizer . . . The presence of high salt concentrations at or near the soil surface renders the soil infertile. In some areas the telltale white patches on the surface are now increasing at a rate that can only be described as alarming.”

The Standing Senate Committee, reporting in 1984, estimated that the cost to Canadian farmers is more than $1 billion per year in farm income, as a result of salinization. They added: “we are clearly in danger of squandering the very soil resource on which our agricultural industry depends.” More recent reports have confirmed the same. With the increased intensification of industrial agriculture since 1984, the problem has worsened, but rather than responding to the causes of soil degradation by finding ways to restore organic content and enhance soil formation, the response of transnational corporations running ILOs has been the use of industrial fertilizers to replace lost nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. This approach entails a host of environmental costs (McKinney, 2002; Warshall, 2002), or in economic jargon, ‘externalities.’

Overgrazing, compaction and soil erosion

Canadian ILOs use intensification and confinement systems as the norm. Compared to nations in the global south Canada has less land use change. According to the authors of Livestock’s Long Shadow, Canada experiences “intensive forage production,” which is due in part to the fact that “climatic, economic and institutional conditions” favour intensification because land is scarce (Steinfeildet al, 2006: 38)

Where Canada does experience land degradation, it is in the form of soil compaction and erosion, results from overgrazing in dry land, which is different than livestock-induced deforestation in the humid and sub-humid tropics” (Steinfeldet al, 2006: iii).About 73 per cent of the world’s dry rangelands and pastures have been degraded as a result of compaction and erosion from cattle, over time — including the Canadian prairies.

Compaction and erosion is caused by “concentrated ‘hoof action’ by livestock – in areas such as stream banks, trails, watering points, salting and feeding sites [and] mechanically disrupts dry and exposed soils, followed by “discharge of eroded material into waterways, and eventually desertification” (Steinfeldet al, 2006). It is possible that if more cattle were grass-fed on existing grasslands, to supply the growing niche market for grass-fed beef, that this would result in even greater overgrazing of already degraded grasslands.



Industrial animal agriculture is more energy intensive than traditional farming systems requiring disproportionately large inputs of fossil fuels, industrial fertilizers, and other synthetic chemicals (Pew Commission, 2008). As noted previously this can understood in terms of inefficiency ratios, as it requires far less energy to produce animals for consumption than plant-based foods.

Traditionally, livestock production was based on locally available feed resources such as crop wastes and browse that had no value as food except as livestock feed. However, livestock production has intensified and grown increasingly dependent on feed concentrates that are traded domestically and internationally. In 2002, a total of 670 million tonnes of cereals were fed to livestock, this was almost one third of global cereal production. Another 350 million tonnes of protein-rich processing by-products are used as feeds (Paton, 2003).

The bulk of fossil energy expended in livestock production is on feed crop production (Pimentel and Pimentel, 2003) and associated tasks, including the production of feeds (land preparation, fertilizers, pesticides, harvesting, drying etc.), their bulk transport (rail, road ,air and sea), storage and processing (milling, mixing extrusion, pelleting, etc.) and their distribution to individual facilities. Once on the farm, and depending on climate, season of the year and facilities, more fossil fuel is needed to move stored feed to the animals; for control of the environmental temperature (cooling, heating or ventilation); and for the animal waste collection and treatment (separation solids, land applications etc.). Transport of products (meat animals to abattoirs; milk to processing plants; eggs to storage), processing (slaughtering, pasteurization, manufacture of dairy products), storage and refrigerated transport also require fossil fuels (Sainz,2003).

Livestock animals are inefficient converters of grain to animal protein. On average, for every kilogram of high-quality animal protein, livestock are fed about six kilograms of plant protein. In energy terms, more than eight times the amount of fossil fuel energy is used in livestock production for the same amount of plant protein produced (Pimentel and Pimentel, 2003). Stated in other terms, the average fossil energy input required to produce 1 kcal of animal protein is 25kcal of fossil energy compared to 2.2 kcal of fossil energy needed to produce 1 kcal of plant protein (Pimentel and Pimentel, 2003).Monogastric species that can most efficiently make use of concentrate foods (pigs, poultry), have an advantage over beef cattle, sheep and goats, but are still resource heavy compared to vegetarian diets (Pimentel, 2004; Pimentel and Pimentel, 2003).


Deforestation, habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity

Biodiversity loss in Canada, as a result of ILOs, includes the destruction of local indigenous habitats to make space for crops, the toxic effect of pesticides and fertilizers and manure on marine habitats and soils, monocultures displacing native flora and the fauna that depend on them, and the production of greenhouse gas emissions, altering temperatures faster than the ability of many plants and animals to adapt. This has resulted in overall loss of animal and plant biodiversity, loss of soil biodiversity, and loss of crop and farm animal genetic diversity.

The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment describes agriculture as the “largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity” (MEA, 2005: 777). This report also highlighted how the destruction of natural ecosystems for agriculture accelerated dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, with more land converted to cropland in only three decades (1950-80) than occurred during a century and a half of widespread colonial transformations (1700-1850) (MEA, 2005). The U.N.’s MEA report is corroborated by the Canadian government’s report Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, which attributes Canada’s biodiversity loss, in part, to industrial agriculture: “native grasslands have been reduced to a fraction of their original extent . . . Grassland losses exceed those of other major biomes in North America . . . Over the long term, changes in natural disturbance regimes due to . . . confined cattle grazing have had negative impacts on grasslands. Other stressors include . . . intensification of agriculture.” (Government of Canada, 2010).

Biodiversity loss can be observed from the scale of monoculture (i.e. single crop) fields down to the scale of plant and animal genetics. (Weis, 2012a).Biodiversity loss drivers such include “land use changes, physical modifications of rivers or water withdrawn from rivers” and “climate change, invasive alien species, overexploitation and pollution” (MEA Report, 2005b). All these factors are associated with the intensification of industrial agriculture. The following provides a description of these drivers in greater detail.

Loss of semi-natural land cover

Feedcrop production, representing more than half of total industrial crop production in Canada, is responsible for deforestation in some areas, though not nearly to the same extent as in the global south, where rainforests are cleared to make way for pastureland. In Canada, deforestation and habitat destruction takes the form of destruction of wetlands and forested areas (hedgerows and semi-natural land cover) adjacent to farmlands, to make way for farmland expansion. Historically this has occurred in Canada due to the intensification of agriculture:from roughly 1980 onward there was a resulting loss of semi-natural land cover, and the ability of “agricultural landscapes to support wildlife in Canada” declined (Government of Canada, 2010). It is estimated that “agricultural landscapes [now] cover 7% of Canada’s land area and provide important habitat for over 550 species of terrestrial vertebrates, including about half of the species assessed as at risk nationally (Government of Canada, 2010).”

Impact on soil biodiversity

Pesticide and fertilizer use for mono-crops requires ever-greater uses of fertilizers to compensate for loss soil productivity, resulting in increased runoff and soil erosion due to dead soil. It is also the result of reduced recycling of organic material on farms as a result of the decline in soil biodiversity, fallowing, and scavenging by small livestock populations (Weis, 2012a).

Impact on plant biodiversity

In Canada, four major monocrops (barley, maize, wheat and soybeans) have replaced indigenous biodiverse flora over millions of hectares. This has a direct effect on animal biodiversity, insofar as certain animal species are dependent on specific plants for sustenance and shelter: the Prairies ecozone has lost most of its tallgrass prairie, in turn affecting animal species that depend on them (see Table 5). There has also been an introduction of invasive species, with the introduction of monocultures, displacing and affecting indigenous species. As a result, “the remaining grasslands in Canada are under stress. Natural disturbance regimes that historically maintained grasslands have been altered; in particular, the suppression of fire and replacement of free-ranging bison with confined cattle have modified the structure and composition of native grasslands. Also, many of the richest soils have been cultivated, leaving remaining grasslands on less productive soils” (Government of Canada, 2010: 14). Additionally, the negative effect on native plant biodiversity has been exacerbated by overgrazing and intensification of agriculture in recent decades (Government of Canada, 2010: 14).

Table 5. Estimated historic and current declines of the mixed grass prairies in Canada (Sampson, 1994).
Mixed Grass Historic (ha) Current (ha) Decline (%) Current Protected (%)
Alberta 8,700,000 3,400,00 61.0 <.01
Manitoba 600,000 300 99.9 <.01
Saskatchewan 2,500,00 2,500,00 81.3 <.01

Impact on marine biodiversity

Industrial agriculture impacts waterways in two major ways. First, wetlands and streams are often destroyed and diverted. Despite conservation efforts over the past several decades, wetland loss and degradation continue, largely as a result of intensification of agriculture: “between 1985 and 2001, 6 per cent of wetland basins were lost, representing 5 per cent of the total estimated wetland area. In addition, estimates of wetland area suffering a loss of function due to factors such as partial drainage were about 6% annually.”(Government of Canada, 2010:16). Secondly, waterways receive runoff from farmland and are often poisoned by excessive nutrients and pesticides and animal manure. The runoff causes algae blooms that adversely affect native species: “inputs of nutrients to both freshwater and marine systems [from] agriculture-dominated landscapes, have led to algal blooms that . . . may be harmful” to indigenous flora and fauna(Government of Canada, 2010).

Global warming and biodiversity loss

The aforementioned impacts are local to Canada, but global biodiversity is adversely affected by Canadian ILOs through their contribution to global warming through greenhouse gas emissions. The threat to global biodiversity as a result of global warming is well documented by the IPCC, which notes that many of Earth’s approximate 8.7 million species face extinction as pre-industrial temperatures significantly alter habitats (IPCC, 2007). Additionally, there are impacts on Canada due to global warming, include the loss of biodiversity in the Arctic and the infestation of western Canada’s boreal forests by an invader species, the pine beetle. The Government of Canada notes that temperatures have risen in Canada over the past 50 years, with an average increase of 1.4°C and that “ecosystems and species are affected by all of these changes, often in complex and unexpected ways that interact with other stressors, such as habitat fragmentation.” (Government of Canada, 2010: 4). It is further estimated that these impacts will increase exponentially as global warming continues.

Crop and farm animal genetic diversity

The standardization of plant and animal life enhances vulnerability to the impact of weeds, insects, fungus and diseases. Dozens of different genetic strains of crops replaced by one genetically modified crop makes crops more vulnerable to disease, which is in large part why more pesticides are used, furthering toxic runoffs and toxification of soils and killing soil biodiversity. This in turn requires greater amounts of water.

Although farm animals are selectively bred, and therefore not indigenous to Canada, the increasing loss of genetic biodiversity among farm animals, as a result of the transition from traditional to industrial methods, has been a source of concern for some farmers. Industrial animal agriculture has tended to narrow the genetic base for farmed animals. According to the FAO, “of the more than 7,600 breeds in FAO’s Global Databank for Farm Animal Genetic Resources, 190 have become extinct in the past 15 years and a further 1,500 are considered ‘at risk’ of extinction” (FAO, 2007c).



There are strong indications that the biophysical basis for the industrial livestock system is beginning to fracture, due principally to the intersecting and intensifying factors of climate change, land degradation, water depletion, and increasing demands on finite fossil fuel reserves, all caused, in large part, by industrialized crop and livestock production methods (Weis, 2010a). Yet even as the physical limits of the Earth’s natural resources are unsustainably stretched beyond the tolerance limits of the Earth (a phenomenon known as “ecological overshoot” ), ILOs continue to grow in size and number. For example, the average cattle farm in Canada had an inventory of 144 in 2006, a rough doubling in three decades (StatsCan, 2007a, Table 2.12). This trend is part of the larger pattern of the ‘meatification’ of diets, or the progressive shift of livestock products to the centre of societal food consumption patterns (Weis, 2007). As a result, the average Canadian now consumes 3 times more poultry, 2.5 times more beef, and 5 times more cheese than global averages (FAO, 2007b). Ultimately, this is both perilous and unsustainable.

With the global human population now (officially) at seven billion (United Nations, 2011) and rising, and with meat consumption increasing in developing nations, and especially China (Liu and Deblitz, 2007), more sustainable agriculture practices, coupled with a reduction in the consumption of animal protein is required. This is why many notable voices, including IPCC Chair RajendraPachauri, are calling for a reduction in meat consumption, to mitigate greenhouse gas emission and the ensuing environmental crises exacerbated by ILOs.

The alternate position, preferred by the transnational corporations that own and operate ILOs, as well as several scientists employed by or associated with the meat and dairy production industry, is that ILOs be made more “sustainable” through technological innovations.This, however, has not proven a viable option in the past, thus calling into question the viability of technological fixes for environmental problems caused by ILOs in the present. A lack of sufficient knowledge of all the interconnected variables in natural systems, and how they interact with one another, means that over-reliance on technology to solve environmental problems will frequently meet with disaster, as the effects of the technologies used cannot be adequately anticipated (Vanderburg, 2005). The tendency towards technological fixes, which is widely endorsed by the scientific community, has its historical origins in what has been termed the “faith in progress through technology,” which seeks mastery over nature for the edification of often unnecessary human desires, rather than recognizing and respecting the limits of nature, and attempting to conform to them by adopting an “ethic of limitations,” in consideration of the needs of future generations (Schmidt, 2008). As a result, the biophysical instability of industrializing agriculture has been met with increasingly unsustainable solutions by the transnational corporations, exacerbating and complicating the initial problems (Weis, 2010).

A key historical example of the failure of technological fixes is the replacement of depleted soil nutrients with synthetic fertilizers (Weis, 2010). This had the unexpected side effect of further soil depletion, eventual soil erosion, loss of soil biodiversity, increased water usage and greenhouse gas emissions. Another example is ethanol biofuel, produced from maize, originally promoted as “sustainable” but now understood to be too fossil fuel and land intensive to merit that claim (Pimentel and Patzek, 2005; Patzek and Pimentel, 2006). A more practically viable solution is to reduce the environmental “hoofprint” of industrial societies, by moving towards more plant-based diets.

As peak oil, climate change and water depletion take their toll, it will become a matter of practical necessity to find alternatives to the ILO model. As the biophysical limits of the land are exceeded, reduction of meat consumption will become a practical reality for most people (no longer a choice), although it is highly probable that animal products will continue to be consumed, but they will be locally produced, with a trend towards dairy and eggs and away from meat, and “food will become more expensive and take up much more of our income or tradable surplus” (Jermyn, 2009). This is already leading to the emergence of alternative food networks, that take biophysical limits into consideration, such as the permaculture movement, the growth of community-supported agriculture, the slow food movement, and environmental and ethical plant-based diets.

Leaving aside the questions of animal cruelty and human health concerns, which are significant in themselves, the monumental waste of both renewable and non-renewable finite resources by ILOs, which comes at the expense of future generations, as well as their role as a significant driver of global warming, which poses a grave threat to humanity and all life on Earth, provides sufficient rational argument for the abolition of ILOs.

Paul York is a doctoral candidate and has been an activist for social and environmental justice, human rights and animal rights for the last 23 years.

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