Land and water

Cattle raising has been criticized for its role in the destruction of tropical forests. Hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical forests in Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras, to name just a few countries, have been leveled to create pasture for cattle. According to other studies, 80% of deforestation of the Amazon is happening in Brazil and cattle ranching are the driving reason. 1 Since most of the forest is cleared by burning, the extension of cattle pasture also creates carbon dioxide and contributes significantly to global warming. 2

The annual rate of deforestation in the Amazon region has continued to increase from 1990 to 2003 because of factors at local, national, and international levels. 3 70% of formerly forested land in the Amazon, and 91% of land deforested since 1970, is used for livestock pasture. 4 According to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) between 1990 and 2001 the percentage of Europe’s processed meat imports that came from Brazil rose from 40 to 74 percent and by 2003 for the first time ever, the growth in Brazilian cattle production, 80 percent of which was in the Amazon was largely export driven. 5

The aforementioned FAO report also affirms that raising animals for food — including land used for grazing and land used to grow feed crops — now uses one third of the Earth’s land mass. A major environmental concern known as topsoil erosion occurs when the topsoil layer is blown or washed away. Without topsoil, little plant life is possible. Industrial farming encour- ages the depletion of topsoil because the soil must be plowed and replanted each year for feed production.

We are in an era of unprecedented threat to biodiversity. The loss of species is estimated to be running 50 to 500 times higher than background rates found in the fossil record. 6 15 out of 24 important ecosystem services are assessed to be in decline. 7 Conservation International has identified 35 global hot-spots for biodiversity, characterized by exceptional levels of plant en- demism and serious levels of habitat loss, of which 23 are reported to be affected by livestock production. 8 An analysis of the authoritative World Conservation Union (IUCN), Red List of Threatened Species, shows that most of the world’s threatened species are suffering habitats loss where livestock are a factor. 9 This is still happening everywhere in the world, especially in South America, 10 while the population and demand on beef keep growing.


Seckler et al stated already in 1999 that ‘nearly 1.4 billion people, amounting to a quarter of the world’s population, or a third of the population in developing countries, live in regions that will experience severe water scarcity within the first quarter of the this century. Slightly more than one billion people live in arid regions that will face absolute water scarcity by 2025. About 348 million more people face severe economic water scarcity. They live in regions where the potential water resources are sufficient to meet reasonable water needs by 2025, but they will have to embark on massive water development projects, at enormous cost and pos- sibly severe environmental damage, to achieve this objective.’ 11

Virtual water refers to the water used in the production of a good or service. Hoektra et al. made a comprehensive table of virtual water content of a few selected products that clearly shows the larger virtual water by livestock. 12

Virtual water content of a few selected products in m3/ton. Estimates by different authors
*The figures given represent global averages.
** Unless stated otherwise, the data refer to a study for California.
*** Data refer to Japan.

The aforementioned FAO report affirms that ‘the livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing to water pollution, eutrophication and the degeneration of coral reefs. 13 The major polluting agents are animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops. Widespread overgrazing disturbs water cycles, reducing replenishment of above and below ground water resources. Significant amounts of water are withdrawn for the production of feed.’


  1. Y Malhi, JT Roberts, RA Betts, TJ Killeen, W Li & CA Nobre, Climate Change, Deforestation, and the Fate of the Amazon, Science, 319, 2008, pp.169-172.
  2. R Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1999, p. 220.
  3. KR Kirby, WF Laurance, AK Albernaz, G Schroth, PM Fearnside, S Bergen, EM Venticinque & CD Costa, The future of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, Futures of Bioregions, 38, 2006, pp. 432-453.
  4. S Marglis, Causes of Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon, World Bank Working Paper, No. 22, The World Bank, 2004.
  5. D Kaimowitz, B Mertens, S Wunder & P Pacheco, Hamburger Connection Fuels Amazon Destruction: Cattle ranching and deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon, Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), 2004, p. 3.
  6. LEAD (Livestock, Environment and Development), Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN), Rome, 2006.
  7. LEAD, loc. cit.
  8. LEAD, ibid.
  9. LEAD, ibid.
  10. S Romero, ‘Vast Tracts in Paraguay Forest Being Replaced by Ranches’, The New York Times, 25 March 2012 ,
    retrieved 25 March, link.
  11. D Seckler, D Molden & R Barker, Water Scarcity in the Twenty-First Century, International Water Management
    Institute (IWMI), Colombo, 1999.
  12. AY Hoekstra (Ed), Virtual Water Trade Proceedings of the International Expert Meeting on Virtual Water Trade, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 12, IHE Delft, Delft, 2003.
  13. LEAD (Livestock, Environment and Development), Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN), Rome, 2006.