Eating biodiversity

The meat and milk industry, at least in Sweden, are claiming that their business is good for biodiversity. They are selling milk and meat, branding it as “produced in Sweden” and telling the consumers that it help gaining biodiversity. This seems to be the main strategy by the lobby organizations right now.

The main argument as I see it, is that livestock keeps the pasturage from overgrowing into forest, thus destroying the environment for the species living there. That has some truth to it, which I will cover further down.

Can we eat our way to biodiversity?

I’m not specifically going to argue for veganism grounded on biodiversity here, I’m scrutinizing the use of the argument against promoting a vegetarian diet.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is typically divided into taxonomic diversity. How many different species do one find in a specific area? One way of doing this is to select an area in different biotopes and sample random positions, noting the existing in that position and calculate the diversity in the area. A different way of assessing biodiversity is to consider the ecological diversity, and then it’s not the number of species, but niches, complexity and trophic levels that are important.

There are many reasons for wanting to preserve biodiversity locally and globally, but I’ll mainly focus here on the argumentation that is used to promote animal industry.

The least diverse habitat possible is of course a monoculture where one grows only one species, usually a domesticated one.

How have humans changed the environment?

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 00.45.32.png
Image from : (SKOGSDATA, 2015). Legend translates “Portion of old forest”. Old forest here is defined as forest that is older than 120-140 years

Humans have changed the environment quite substantially where we live over the centuries. This is mainly by the introduction of agriculture and the practice of forestry. The majority of the non-urban environment, at least in Sweden seems to be created by humans. As you can see on the image above, the vast majority of the forest in Sweden is young, as forestry is a big industry in Sweden. Additionally to forests, which make up 69% of the Swedish area, 8% of land area is used for agriculture (SCB, 2013).

This has led to a change in the conditions for organisms that live in those habitats. Since agriculture isn’t really a new thing, new ecosystems has established and living in meadows, pasturelands, planted forests and so on. And it seems like most of the species threatened by human activity, is also living in environments that are in one way or another created by humans. Globally, around 12% of the land not covered by ice is cropland (Smil, 2011).

Quite strikingly is the image if we look on global biomass trends. The total biomass of domesticated animals in the year 1900 was 35 Mt C (megatons of carbon) and increased to 120 Mt C by the year 2000. If we look at wild terrestrial mammals the same numbers for the same period is 10 Mt C to 5 Mt C – a reduction by half (Smil, 2011). I don’t know how much, but I would think that this is a quite huge loss of biodiversity since the domesticated animals usually means a handful of species compared to the diversity of wild animals. 

What are the major threats to biodiversity?

We are currently losing an extreme amount of species on the planet. The extinction rate is estimated up to 10 000 times of the background extinction rate (De Vos, Joppa, Gittleman, Stephens, & Pimm, 2015). This high rate is mainly due to human activities. The major threats to global biodiversity are habitat degradation, overexploitation, invasive species and anthropogenic climate change. The threat is most imminent in subtropical and tropical areas (Groom, Martha, 2006). The Swedish environmental protection agency writes on their website that the loss of Swedish biodiversity is mainly due to modern agriculture and forestry, in contrast loss of pastureland is also threatening many species (Marissink, 2015).

What are the effects of current agriculture?

When discussing the biodiversity argument it’s mainly focused on cattle and sometimes sheep. However, in Sweden sheep farming does not constitute a large portion of agriculture, according to statistics (2014) by the Swedish Board of agriculture sheep meat production is around 1% of cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep. Pork and poultry does not contribute to biodiversity in any meaningful extent (“Kött och miljö,” 2015).

45% of the Swedish arable land is used to produce fodder for cattle, and 25% of the arable land is used to produce fodder for livestock in the Swedish milk industry (Mervärden i svensk mjölkproduktion, 2015). Around 30% of the pasturage in Sweden is grazed by dairy cattle (Mervärden i svensk mjölkproduktion, 2015). In Sweden, cattle are required by law to be on pasturage for 60-120 days depending on region (“Bete och utevistelse,” n.d.). This however, is debated among farmers, and some lobby organizations representing farmers want to remove this requirement to make Swedish dairy products more competitive (Haupt, 2015; Lönnaeus, 2015; SR, 2015). The long-term trends in using pasturage is very clear in Sweden, according to The Swedish Board of Agriculture, the area of pasturage is decreased by 90% since the 19th century (Wallman, Berglund, & Cederberg, 2014). However, the trend seems to have changed a bit.

Many interesting conclusions are found in a report made by the National Food Agency in Sweden: Miljöpåverkan från animalieprodukter – kött, mjölk och ägg” (Wallman et al., 2014). They write that 15% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) -emissions comes from the production of animal products. That is somewhat lower than what the FAO UN report estimated, which was 18% (Steinfeld, Gerber, Wassenaar, Castel, & Mauricio Cees de Haan, 2006). However, that FAO report was later revised with a GHG-emission estimation closer to 15%. Beef has the highest contribution followed by milk and cheese along with pork. There is no systematic difference between organic and conventional farming with regards to GHG-emissions. One third of the arable land on earth is used to produce fodder. They write that all animal production in Sweden is both positive for biodiversity in the sense of keeping pastureland open, but all animal production is also negative due to pesticide usage when growing fodder, release of fertilizer causing eutrophication and land loss outside Sweden due to importation of fodder. On a global scale one of the most serious threat to biodiversity is animal production (Wallman et al., 2014).

The 88% of GHG-emissions from Swedish milk is from the primary production of milk. The transportation, cooling and packaging constitutes together 12% (Nilsson & Lindeberg, 2011).

Eating animals to save biodiversity?

Globally, livestock is considered to be one of the major threats to biodiversity (Steinfeld et al., 2006). It’s quite clear that an increase in animal products is not the way to save biodiversity. Rather, a reduction and reformation is probably what’s needed from an environmental perspective.

An increase in diary and meat consumption does not automatically promote pasturelands (Wallman et al., 2014). This is likely due to that it’s more economically viable to feed animals more energy dense crops.

The issue as I see it, is that both globally and locally, livestock contributes to GHG-emissions, increased land usage and eutrophication. All of these factors are contributing to loss of biodiversity globally and locally. One has to weigh in the cost of producing livestock to the benefit of biodiversity locally. One issue as I see, is that if we increase our livestock production as it is, we will also increase the fodder imported – usually from monoculture- which instead contribute to a loss of biodiversity outside of Sweden.

It is clear that of all diets, diets including a high amount of products from cattle (meat and dairy), has the largest negative climate impact (Weber & Matthews, 2008). Cattle are also as we’ve seen above the only livestock that contributes to any extent to biodiversity in Sweden. The problem here is that increasing production, is increasing GHG-emissions, which in turn could negatively affect biodiversity in tropical and subtropical areas where biodiversity is a greater issue (Groom, Martha, 2006). Biodiversity loss is not just a local problem, but every nation has more control over the more direct factors such as land use.

In Sweden, dairy cows are the ones that get the least amount of nutrients from pasture (of cattle), while cattle for meat spend a little more. However, meat is much worse than dairy in many other aspects of climate- and environmental changes (Weber & Matthews, 2008; Kumm, 2011).

Additionally, livestock production is less efficient than producing food in lower trophic levels. It therefore requires more land, and one of threats to biodiversity is converting land into land for agriculture.


It is true that cattle in Sweden can contribute to mitigate loss of biodiversity in habitats associated to agriculture – such as pasturelands. However, I think that only a viable argument to be used for consumers to choose pasture fed animals products over cultivated fodder fed animals. I see problems with using it as a case against reducing or abstain from animal products arguing that it would promote biodiversity, since this is only true in certain cases, and if animal production is carried out specifically using pasture.

Since some Swedish farmers and lobby organizations wants to remove the rule of having animals on pasture for a minimum amount of days, it feels like the industry wants to keep to biodiversity argument, but act on doing the opposite. If they truly sympathizes with biodiversity, they should increase the time of pasture feeding.


Bete och utevistelse. (n.d.). Retrieved January 6, 2016, from

De Vos, J. M., Joppa, L. N., Gittleman, J. L., Stephens, P. R., & Pimm, S. L. (2015). Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction. Conservation Biology, 29(2), 452–462. doi:10.1111/cobi.12380

Groom, Martha, J. (2006). Threats to Biodiversity. In Principles of conservation biology (pp. 63–109).

Haupt, I. (2015, March 10). Mjölkbönder vill ta bort beteskrav. SVT Nyheter. Retrieved from

Kött och miljö. (2015). Retrieved January 6, 2016, from–miljo/miljo/miljosmarta-matval2/kott/

Kumm, K.-I. (2011). Den svenska kött- och mjölkproduktionens inverkan på biologisk mångfald och klimat. Retrieved from

Lönnaeus, O. (2015, February 18). Mjölkbönder vill lätta på betestvånget. Helsingborgs Dagblad. Retrieved from

Marissink, M. (2015). Biologisk mångfald. Retrieved January 6, 2016, from

Mervärden i svensk mjölkproduktion. (2015). Retrieved from

Nilsson, K., & Lindeberg, U. (2011). Klimatpåverkan i kylkedjan. Retrieved from

SCB. (2013). Mindre än tre procent av marken i Sverige är bebyggd. Retrieved January 6, 2016, from

SKOGSDATA 2015. (2015). Umeå. Retrieved from

Smil, V. (2011). Harvesting the Biosphere: The Human Impact. Population and Development Review, 37(4), 613–636. Retrieved from

(2015, March 27). Lantbrukare efterlyser nya regler för kornas grönbete. Retrieved from

Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., & Mauricio Cees de Haan, R. (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Wallman, M., Berglund, M., & Cederberg, C. (2014). Miljöpåverkan från animalieprodukter – kött, mjölk och ägg. Retrieved from

Weber, C. L., & Matthews, H. S. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology, 42(10), 3508–3513. doi:10.1021/es702969f



4 thoughts on “Eating biodiversity

  1. Surely there are many better ways to increase biodiversity that don’t involve animal exploitation, if that is indeed the goal. But of course we know that the primary goal is profit, and the biodiversity claim is just there to derail the true issue.


  2. Just found out about your blog. I’m currently studying ecology through online courses and was wondering if I could find another vegan interested in ecology. Great article and can’t wait to read the rest of your blog. Take care!


  3. Good article but I’m missing some things. You don’t really address the argument to keep cattle and pasture for biodiversity. How great is the biodiversity in those areas? Is it worth keeping? What alternative ways are there to cattle which does not contribute to as much GHG-emissions?
    Or do you have other reports focusing on the solution?


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