Green Or Gone

Cattle Farming, A Wretched Environmental Legacy

Pope Francis' recent encyclical on the climate had a major blind spot: cattle farming and meat consumption. Nowhere is the damage more evident than his native Latin America.

Ready for sale
Klaus Ziegler


BOGOTÁ â€" Pope Francis should have cited the harm meat and meat-eating are doing to the planet in his encyclical on the environment. Perhaps Adam was banned from Paradise not for biting into an apple, but for trying his first steak.

Our close ties to livestock farming began about 9,000 years ago. DNA tests have shown the presence of domestic livestock in southeast Asia and India about 6,000 years ago, an evolution of that small proportion of herbivores that were prone to domestication. The zebu bull for example, had descended from wild aurochs that are now extinct but were immortalized in cave paintings like those of Altamira in Spain. They seem to have died out around 1627, the last one having been seen in Poland.

Domesticating animals is a source of salvation that turned into something of a curse. In contrast with our vegetarian ancestors, humans could develop a bigger brain thanks to eating meat, a "detail" many vegans forget. But with livestock and animal farming came diseases: tuberculosis, measles, smallpox, flu, whooping cough, malaria, field fever and ailments of similar origins. Measles, for example, is just one variant of bovine typhus, which mutated and became lethal to humans who lived surrounded by their livestock's fecal matter and pustules. The most horrific of pandemics, flu, may have had its source in poultry and ducks.

Livestock may be one of the greatest sources of new bacterial strains. Consider how the guts of ruminants are a giant cauldron of microbes where food is turned to the fatty acids that provide the animal with energy. Infections that then require the use of pharmaceutical drugs and antibiotics appear when livestock are fattened up through intensive feeding. The continuous use of such medications favors the appearance of increasingly resistent strains of pathogens, some of which are potentially lethal to humans.

In terms of pollution, information from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicates livestock to be one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases, emitting more than cars. Bovine manure and "escape valves" are estimated to emit 65% of all nitrous oxide (300 times more polluting than CO2), 37 of all methane associated with human activity and 68% of the ammonia present in acid rain.

Livestock are also one of the main causes of soil degradation and water pollution. More than 30% of the earth's surface is used up to produce food and raise cattle, excluding the immense expanses of land devoted exclusively to producing corn, just to feed the livestock.

Latin sins

The worst environmental disaster is happening in Latin America, where cattle farming is one of the main causes of deforestation. Producing 1,000 calories of beef requires 36,200 calories, primarily of grains and feed, three times more than the amount required for pork and four times more than what's needed to produce the same quantity of poultry meat. Producing that quantity of meat requires an average of 1,642 liters of water, much more than required by pork and poultry industries together.

Cattle in Argentina. Photo: Tanozzo

Overgrazing causes massive soil degradation and is a leading cause of desertification. Production of feed requires enormous amounts of water resources and its residues pollute rivers and seas. The FAO estimates this to be a direct cause of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the South China Sea, and directly responsible for much of the loss of biodiversity in marine ecosystems.

Socially, in contrast with crop farming, cattle raising provides very few jobs. One of the world's biggest ranches in Texas needs just seven people to manage 43,000 head of cattle. In Colombia, massive estates almost as big as entire counties may typically employ a couple of cowboys who live in conditions comparable to those of medieval serfs. And unlike Europe and the United States, land taxes are derisory.

Finally, there is the issue of the cruel treatment of animals, be it of cattle, pigs or poultry. We are not not talking about the spectacular and occasional suffering caused in bullfighting rings, but a continuous, minute-by-minute suffering of countless animals forced to live and die in overcrowded and vile production facilities.

Perhaps, in the end, livestock farming offers enough material for a whole papal encyclical of its own.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!