The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock

The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock

by Tony Weis


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The exploding global consumption of meat is implicated in momentous but greatly underappreciated problems, and industrial livestock production is the driving force behind soaring demand.

Following his previous ground-breaking book The Global Food Economy, Tony Weis explains clearly why the growth and industrialization of livestock production is a central part of the accelerating biophysical contradictions of industrial capitalist agriculture.

The Ecological Hoofprint provides a rigorous and eye-opening way of understanding what this system means for the health of the planet, how it contributes to worsening human inequality, and how it constitutes a profound but invisible aspect of the violence of everyday life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780320960
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date: 11/01/2013
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Tony Weis is an associate professor of geography at the University of Western Ontario. His research is broadly located at the intersection of political ecology and agrarian political economy. He is the author of The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming (Zed Books, 2007), and numerous articles and book chapters on environmental and development issues surrounding agriculture.
Tony Weis is an associate professor of geography at the University of Western Ontario. His research is broadly located at the intersection of political ecology and agrarian political economy. He is the author of The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming (Zed Books, 2007), and numerous articles and book chapters on environmental and development issues surrounding agriculture.

Read an Excerpt

The Ecological Hoofprint

The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock

By Tony Weis

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Tony Weis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78032-097-7



Agriculture and the creeping simplification of ecosystems

For over 99 percent of the last 2 million years, 'our ancestors lived off the land in small, mobile groups.' During this time, all energy was ultimately derived from the sun, converted by photosynthesis along with carbon dioxide (CO2), nutrients, and water into usable biochemical forms. Humans harvested only a minuscule part of the total biomass contained in ecosystems through gathering, hunting, and fishing, and did little to impact the structure, self-organization, and process of succession toward climax communities, which are richest in species diversity and almost always have the highest net primary production (NPP) in any given bioregion. Yet as part of nature and evolution, humans have always had some impact on the ecosystems and animal populations around them, and many gatherer-hunter societies were in fact agents of ecological change on a considerable scale. Some intermittently arrested succession through fire, modifying their environments in order to increase the abundance of key prey species, and there is much evidence that hunting pressures were implicated in significant extirpations and even in extinctions of large mammals before the rise of agriculture.

Agriculture arose roughly ten thousand years ago and its expansion was the dominant force of ecological change over most of the Holocene, the relatively warm and stable geological epoch from the end of the last ice age that began around twelve thousand years ago. Agriculture revolutionized how humans obtained biomass and nutrients from the environment, gave rise to new class and gender hierarchies, and established new inter-species relations through the course of domestication. In a biophysical sense, the essence of the agricultural revolution was that humans began to direct photosynthetic activity (and not just appropriate its products) by reorganizing plants, animals, and physical materials within ecosystems and managing their interactions, in order to increase the volume of more proximate and easily accessible nutrition, energy, fibre, and other resources. This also entails a degree of intervention in the earth's biogeochemical cycles: the movement of elements or molecules through living organisms, the atmosphere, water bodies, the earth's crust, and the crucial interface between the crust and the living world, the soil. In particular, as Vandana Shiva emphasizes, agriculture might be understood, in part, as organizing cycles of 'living carbon.'

Permanently arresting the process of natural succession toward climax communities also entails a reduction in the photosynthetic activity within a given area, and hence the biomass available to most other animals. Thus, over millennia the slow but steady march of agriculture meant that human societies were displacing more diverse and biologically productive self-organizing ecosystems, and the space for non-domesticated species was inching slowly downward. But apart from the long-distance dispersions of domesticated plants and animals, which radiated from a small number of key hearths, agricultural societies were predominantly oriented within bioregions, bound by limits of technology, surpluses, storage, and usable biomass.

So long as the movement of goods was based on animal and human labor and biomass was the primary source of fuel, a heavy friction of distance prevailed. Put simply, most goods could not move very far, especially if they were bulky or perishable, and until very recently only a small number of agricultural products were ever traded across significant distances, and what was traded was not depended on for sustenance but rather had value for flavoring, preservation, or medicinal functions. Wind and water did enable some movement and grinding power, but it was not until around the fifteenth century that wind power began to be harnessed in a way that significantly reduced the friction of distance. The heavy friction of distance also conditioned agricultural practices for most of agrarian history, with the exceptions of the episodic introductions of new crops and livestock and the fact that some old agricultural societies did manage to draw irrigation across significant distances.

Agriculture poses a number of endemic biophysical challenges, such as preventing soil degradation, containing undesirable species (or 'pests,' the definition of which varies), and coping with weather and moisture variability, especially prolonged periods of dryness. The heavy friction of distance meant that solutions had to be largely place-based; that is, reliant on nearby resources and rooted in local ecological knowledge and innovation. The challenge of sustaining long-term soil health is among the most fundamental and underappreciated imperatives facing any civilization. Frequently dismissed as mere 'dirt,' soil is better understood as a thin and fragile 'living skin of the earth,' a dynamic combination of diverse organisms from microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, protozoa, fungi) to invertebrates (e.g. worms, insects), chemical elements (e.g. carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and molecules, and larger physical materials undergoing interactive biological and chemical processes. As David Montgomery puts it: 'soil is our most underappreciated, least valued, and yet essential natural resource ... the whole biological enterprise of life outside the oceans depends on the nutrients soil produces and retains. These circulate through the ecosystem, moving from soil to plants and animals, and then back again into the soil.' Appreciating soil as a living organ highlights how soil fundamentally underpins all terrestrial ecosystems and all human economies, and how it can reproduce and grow but can also become unhealthy and even die, as in desertification. Soil tends to build up slowly under conditions of natural succession, and when land is converted to agriculture soil tends to be lost faster than it forms – though this is not inevitable.

In order for agriculture to endure, then, farmers had to develop a range of localized practices to reduce erosion and enhance the biological activity, diversity, and recycling of organic matter within soils. Key practices included such things as: returning organic wastes and nutrients close to where they were withdrawn; designing intercropping patterns to limit soil erosion; terracing steeply sloping land; rotating crops; and establishing complementary roles for small livestock populations. With livestock, this meant things like grazing on fallowed land and small pastures, scavenging crop stubble and wastes around households, and depositing organic material through manure to fields. Sustaining healthy soils was also an important basis for containing 'pest' species and retaining moisture, goals achievement of which could be further enhanced by planting multiple crops in mutually beneficial combinations, or intercropping. Another key to successful farming was to understand relations between pests and their predators, and find ways of maintaining adequate populations of the latter. In sum, while agriculture inevitably simplifies ecosystems and arrests succession, durable farming landscapes nevertheless had to be premised on functional diversity, and had to approximate relatively 'closed-loop' cycles of organic and inorganic materials and the key elements they contain.

This should not, however, imply an image of perfect equilibrium. First, agro-ecological knowledge was never static, and gradually advanced over time. Processes of learning, experimenting, accruing knowledge, and teaching were always guided by the goal of making improvements, starting with the selection of seeds and the breeding of animals. Secondly, short-term vulnerabilities could be reduced but were never eliminated, nor could this loop ever be entirely closed, particularly with respect to soil. The relationship between rates of soil loss and soil formation has thus been a crucial one historically; when managed effectively, societies could be stable over long periods, but when soils were severely depleted this had a powerful and recurring role in the decline of civilizations. So while many lessons and much applied knowledge about functional diversity can be taken from non-industrial agricultural systems, which can have great value moving forward toward sustainable futures, this is not something that should be romanticized either.

From creeping to careening: the accelerating pace and scale of ecological change

The friction of distance started to lessen following the rise of capitalism, as expansion into new resource frontiers both motivated and materially bolstered great innovations in transportation technologies and infrastructures. Advances in nautical engineering first began to reshape world agriculture by dramatically expanding the long-distance dispersions of plants and animals, most notably in the Columbian Exchange between 'Old' and 'New' Worlds. As will be discussed further in the following chapter, livestock were at the vanguard of ecological change across large areas of the Americas and Australasia, expanding quickly in both intentional and unintentional ways, along with the more deliberate establishment of crops like wheat, barley, oats, sugar, and coffee, while crops like maize, potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa, and tobacco moved from the New World to the Old. These transformations became tied, over time, to the increasing movement of tropical commodities from parts of the Americas, Africa, and Asia and temperate grain and livestock products from places such as North America, the southern cone of South America, Australasia, and the Indian Punjab. The expansion of European commodity frontiers into new landscapes involved sweeping dislocations of indigenous peoples, slavery and other forms of forced labor, and greatly accelerated the pace of deforestation, especially from the eighteenth century onwards. It also left behind enduring inequalities in land distribution.

The friction of distance began to lessen more dramatically after the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of coal and steam power in the nineteenth century and oil and the internal combustion engine in the twentieth century; what is sometimes referred to as the compression of time and space. As noted, the reliance on locally produced biomass for fuel was central to the heavy friction of distance that prevailed through most of human history, and this had also imposed limits on the productivity of human and animal labor. The mining of coal, oil, and natural gas – ancient biomass that had accumulated and compacted into dense bundles of energy over a long geologic period – exploded these limits. Suddenly centuries of biological productivity could be tapped. This shift from renewable to ancient stores of biomass for fuel, or from 'living' to 'dead' carbon, provided much of the energetic basis of global economic integration, as well as fundamentally altering the carbon cycle. Fossil-fuel-powered steamships and trains, and later transport trucks and airplanes, enhanced the scale at which new resource frontiers could be accessed, and fossil-fuel-powered machines, factories, and electrical utilities enabled tremendous increases in output per worker. These great advances in transportation and labor productivity were entwined with the rising scale and specialization of production and, in turn, staggering transformations of the world's forests, wetlands, and grasslands. Well over half of the world's arable land was plowed and converted to agricultural uses after i860.

The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was the most detailed and authoritative review of the state of the biosphere ever undertaken, drawing on the work of over 1,300 scientists, and it concluded that 'the structure and functioning of the world's ecosystems changed more rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century than at any time in human history.' The magnitude of this change is sometimes expressed in terms of the rising human appropriation of net primary production (HANPP), which relates to both the volume of biological materials consumed, directly and indirectly, and the fact that land use changes have almost always tended to decrease total photosynthetic activity. Infinitesimal for almost all of the history of our species, humans now appropriate between 24 and 40 percent of the total NPP occurring over the earth's land surface. This in turn implies a massive reduction in the biomass available to other species and in food webs more broadly.

At the center of this is deforestation, particularly the sharp decline in old-growth or climax forests, what esteemed ecologist E. O. Wilson calls 'one of the most profound and rapid environmental changes in the history of the planet.' Tropical rainforests are the world's greatest storehouses of biodiversity, and not long ago comprised 12 percent of the earth's land surface. Over millennia, rainforests were home to both hunting and gathering and swidden agriculture (clearing small patches of forests for short periods), which at low densities had small impacts. But nearly half the world's rainforests have been cleared for permanent uses in a mere century, most of this in the past half-century, and if current rates of deforestation continue a large share of what remains today will be destroyed in only two or three more decades. Further, because a significant amount of the rain that falls in the tropics comes from the forests themselves, as they shrink there are great risks that declining transpiration will lead to powerful feedbacks of reduced cloud cover, lower rainfall levels, heightened temperatures and aridity, worse fires, and accelerated erosion, which are magnified by climate change. The Amazon is by far the world's largest tropical rainforest, and if recent rates of clearance and desiccation continue, roughly half of the remaining Amazonian forest could be lost in the coming decades, causing large declines in regional rainfall. Experts warn that this amounts to a fast-approaching 'point of no return' that might be as near as a decade away, beyond which the momentum of positive feedbacks greatly reduces conservation prospects.

The clearing of old-growth forests is a major driver of climate change, destabilizing the carbon flux between the biosphere and the atmosphere in two basic ways. First, there is a short-term burst of CO2 and methane released into the atmosphere as forests are cleared. Secondly, subsequent land uses, predominantly agriculture and pasture, then sequester much less carbon in organic matter. Further, large-scale clearance reduces transpiration, moisture, and cloud cover, and in turn solar reflectivity. Thus, while estimates vary as to the precise share of GHG emissions attributable to deforestation since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, it has indisputably been a major force in climate change.

Agricultural expansion has also been the principal cause of declining fertility in the world's drylands, about 10 percent of which are considered to have been 'degraded' as a result of reduced vegetative cover, erosion by wind and water, compaction, and the effects of excessive irrigation such as salinization, waterlogging, and nutrient leaching. The most extreme form of dryland degradation is desertification, and though there are debates over definition, measurements, and data, it is generally recognized that severe damage to soil fertility in arid regions tends to be irreversible on the time scales of human civilizations, and that Africa and Asia are most susceptible to desertification at present. Though natural grasslands have much lower primary productivity than do forests, desertification also contributes to climate change, as carbon is released from vegetation and soils and sequestration capacity declines, as well as negatively impacting the quality of habitats for other species.

Another momentous change, particularly over the past half-century, has been the alteration of freshwater and oceanic ecosystems. There are now more than 45,000 large dams in the world, the great majority of which have been built after 1950, and more than three-quarters of the world's flowing water is altered to some degree by human engineering. Overfishing has inflicted staggering losses to higher trophic levels across the world's oceans, and all of the world's open ocean fisheries peaked before the end of the twentieth century. In addition to fleets moving farther and farther offshore, aquaculture production has soared. Between 1980 and 2000, the volume of fish, crustaceans, and molluscs produced in intensive aquaculture systems increased by a factor of 7, rising from 5 to 36 million tonnes, and aquaculture now accounts for nearly half of the world's total fish consumption. This raises a range of environmental problems, including the sourcing of feedstock (which pulls on resources elsewhere, with links to industrial agriculture), increasing disease risks, and the quickening destruction of coastal ecosystems such as mangroves.


Excerpted from The Ecological Hoofprint by Tony Weis. Copyright © 2013 Tony Weis. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: meatification and why it matters
1. Contextualizing the hoofprint: global environmental change and inequality
2. The uneven geography of meat
3. The industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex
4. Confronting the ecological hoofprint: towards a more sustainable, just, and humane world

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