Consumption of animal flesh, milk, and eggs is on the rise worldwide. This is especially true of areas with developing economies. Between 1970 and 2002, the meat consumption per person in developing countries rose from 11 kilograms (24 lbs.) a year to 29 kilograms (64 lbs.). All this “developing” is an ecological disaster. It’s important that people stop connecting affluence or luxurious living with eating animals and start promoting plant-based nutrition and delicious and attractive. It’s up to vegans to lead.
Until recently, global warming was primarily attributed to the burning of fossil fuels and industrial pollutants. But the authors of the report Livestock’s Long Shadow state: "The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."
The report, issued by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, serves as a wake-up call to those who had hoped that by buying the latest Smart Car, they could continue to eat animal products without a worry. Nearly a fifth of global warming emissions result from animal agribusiness. In total, it is responsible for 18% of human induced greenhouse gas emissions. That amounts to more emissions than all of the world's transportation combined.
Methane comes from cows’ and other ruminant animals’ digestive processes. It also comes from animal waste, rice paddies, dams, fossil fuel extraction, and landfills. It’s responsible for about 17 percent of the total of the climate changing gas we put into our atmosphere.
Although rice paddies create 10% of methane emissions, the rice is able to feed many more mouths per acre than animal farming can. And dams are built to meet agricultural demands -- especially for holding water for animal feed crops.
Animal farming is also a major source of water pollution. It sends waste and drug residues into rivers, lakes and oceans. It also uses up vast amounts of the world’s precious fresh water.
And raising animals as our commodities puts a lot of demands on the land that’s cleared for it. Animal agribusiness consumes natural resources, often destroys natural habitats, and usually causes farmers to engage in predator control -- killing wolves or coyotes, for example, in order to protect the monetary value of the domesticated cows, lambs, chickens, goats and pigs. These animals and the waste they produce emit gases, contributing to air pollution and bringing on climate change.
Furthermore, the carbon dioxide emissions produced through transporting feed to the animals, transporting the animals to slaughterhouses, and then distributing the meat to food distributors is enormous.
But that’s not all. The trees that absorb that same carbon dioxide are being cut away at a furious pace. And just cutting down the trees makes for 13% of climate changing gas -- through the release of the carbon dioxide that the trees had stored.
Not only does animal agriculture mean the killing of countless farm animals, it also means the loss of habitat for many free-living animals whose homes are destroyed in order to clear land. The unnatural rate of extinctions of free-living animals is a tragedy for us as well; it poses the greatest threat of all to continued human life.
Piece by piece, our planet and all of its life is being disrupted and destroyed due to our raising of animals whom we intend to kill and consume. We could use far less land and water if we concentrated simply on growing food - not feed.
In the United States, Professor Miguel Altieri has observed, people feed seven of every ten pounds of grain to the animals they breed into existence as food! We don’t have to do this, and we should stop it. We can get all the nutrition we need directly from the crops themselves, without putting crops into purpose-bred animals and then eating the animals.
More Inconvenient Truths
Al Gore’s call-to-action documentary An Inconvenient Truth recounts Gore’s personal connection to the land -- through growing up on a family cattle farm. The powerful connection to this land is clear, as is Gore’s desire to see rural landscapes like this one preserved for future generations.
The irony here? Gore’s romanticized piece of agricultural land is, in large part, directly responsible for dangerous levels of greenhouse gas, water pollution, and, ultimately, climate disruption. Viewers of the film are right to be concerned about carbon dioxide emissions from gas-guzzling automobiles, ancient refrigerators and furnaces, but what have they learned about farms like Gore’s family ranch? Will Gore ask why 70% of all land used in agriculture is actually controlled by animal agribusiness? Or would that be too inconvenient?
Some straight talk, friends. We can’t tell people to “eat less meat” to fix the situation. The authors of Livestock’s Long Shadow state that “[t]he environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening beyond its present level.” Meanwhile, the human population is rising. Did you know we increase our numbers by adding the equivalent of the population of Turkey each year? To pretend that we can find some correct level of animal agribusiness is game-playing. To take the environment seriously is to stop using more of it than we need, and that’s what all animal agribusiness does.
Animal Farms and Fossil Fuels
Animal use requires much more energy than plant agriculture. Pumping irrigation water, ploughing, producing fertilizer, harvesting, and transport all demand extensive energy. In plant agriculture, the process ends there; but in animal farming, feed production is only one stage in a long line of energy-consuming processes. Animal farms use up energy for artificial ventilation, conveyor belts, slaughtering, electric lighting, and veterinary services. The transportation of animals from farms to slaughterhouses and then eventual transportation of their meat in refrigerated transport trucks also consumes large amounts of fossil fuels.
Starting right from the point of sowing the feed crops and all the way down the line, enormous amounts of energy are required in order to put animal products on the table. And our tax money subsidizes it.
According to a 2001 World Bank report, global meat production is projected to approximately double over the 30-year period leading up to 2030. Milk output is projected to more than double over the same period of time.
As the demand for animal products increases around the world, so does the land being consumed by animal agribusiness, and, ultimately, so does the global temperature. Some people and animals are already feeling the devastating effects -- Pacific islanders, for example, and the polar bears. Once a tipping point is reached, we are all headed for similar experiences. This is a very serious matter and it demands serious change, today, starting with each one of us.
Animal farming is growing faster than any other segment of the world’s agricultural economy. It provides livelihoods to about 1.3 billion people and contributes about 40 percent to global agricultural output. No wonder it’s often touted as a boon to the economy, putting money into the pockets of farmers and lower income workers. But now we know where this is all leading. There are many other ways for humans to work which would provide a far healthier balance of prosperity and environmental health.
First, we must note that “free-range” or “cage-free” animal products are no solution. They’d cause the expansion of animal agribusiness over the landscape -- obviously not what we should be promoting. All animal agribusiness does serious damage to our environment. University of Chicago geophysicist (and former cattle farmer) Gidon Eshel has pointed out that free-range cattle in some cases emit more methane per animal than do their grain-eating counterparts. And the soil loss associated with grazing is significant.
What about fish? The above-mentioned University of Chicago study showed that eating fish is as big a contributor to global warming as is beef. The completely vegetarian (vegan) diet turned out to be the most energy-efficient, whereas fish and red meat virtually tied as the least efficient. Most fish eaten in our culture requires energy-intensive long distance voyages for harvest. Farming fish wastes lives and energy: Raising salmon, for example, requires about three times the weight in ocean-caught fish as the salmon flesh it yields!
Is hunting efficient? No way. With today’s world population, if everyone hunted, it wouldn’t take long before the only animals left on the planet were humans.
Eating flesh, dairy products, eggs and fish is just not compatible with a healthy ecology. Direct crop growing to feed humans (rather than the vast, single-crop plantations used to grow animal feed) is also much better positioned to avoid the use of chemical pesticides. The research indicates that plant-based diets are healthful way to go: for people as well as for the planet.
Morally and logically, the answer is to opt out of animal use entirely, to the full extent that we are able to secure alternatives to it. If you are reading this site, alternatives are available to you and we will help you find them and tell others about them.
This article was researched and reported by Lee Hall and Heather Steel for Vegan Means, and relies on the following references:
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options” (published Nov. 2006).
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Production Yearbook 1989 (published 1990).
De Haan et al., “Livestock Development - Implications for Rural Poverty, the Environment, and Global Food Security” - World Bank (Vol. 1; 2001).
“Study: Vegan Diets Healthier for Planet, People Than Meat Diets” - The University of Chicago News Office (2006).
Gwynne Dyer, Biofuel Mania Ends Days of Cheap Food - New Zealand Herald (10 Jul. 2007).
“Put to the Test, Vegan is Best” - The Satya Interview with Gidon Eshel (Feb. 2007).
Brad Knickerbocker, "Humans' Beef With Livestock: A Warmer Planet" - Christian Science Monitor (2007) (citing figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).
Lee Hall, Playing with Your Food: The Gene Engineers - ActionLine (Spring 2005).
Julia Whitty, “Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth's Vanishing Biodiversity” - Mother Jones (25 Apr. 2007; partially reprinted here).