A new study has found that the production of meat and dairy emits more nitrogen than the earth can take.
Researchers from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conducted the study, which assessed 275 countries and territories. It found livestock farming produces approximately one-third of the world’s nitrogen emissions.
The sector emits about 65 teragrams of nitrogen each year. Scientists warn these emissions already reach the planetary boundary for nitrogen.
The bulk of these emissions, 68 percent, stem from the crops grown to feed livestock animals. Agriculture fertilizers and livestock waste are also high sources of nitrogen pollution.
Nitrogen emissions—such as ammonia, nitrous oxides, and nitrogen oxide—contribute to biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, acid rain, and climate change. Nitrous oxide is especially harmful because it is more than 300 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Meat and Dairy Highly Pollutive
According to the FAO, the production of meat and dairy emits approximately 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition to emitting nitrogen, the meat and dairy industries also emit high levels of carbon dioxide and methane. The former accounts for approximately 27 percent of all livestock emissions, while the latter is responsible for about 44 percent of total livestock emissions.
“This is a sober reminder to policymakers that while they’re already not dealing adequately with carbon dioxide from food, alongside it are equally pressing ecosystem demands such as nitrogen,” Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London, told NewScientist.
Cattle raised for dairy and beef generate the most emissions. They are responsible for about 65 percent of the livestock sector’s total emissions. “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation,” Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch, said in a statement.
FAO researchers are calling for a global initiative to tackle the issue of nitrogen pollution. But one possible remedy, the scientists say, is that people should consume less meat and dairy. They pointed to affluent countries in North America and Europe, as well as middle-income regions like Brazil, as being the ones that should consume less of these products.