What we eat has dramatic consequences for our environment. Animal agriculture is directly or partially responsible for many of the world’s most serious environmental problems. These include: global warming, deforestation, air and water pollution and species extinction. In the US alone, 260 million acres of forest has been cleared for beef production. 200 million acres could be returned to forest if the land was used directly to feed people instead of animals. Reducing or eliminating the consumption of animal products is one of the most effective ways any individual can stop harming the environment.
The United Nations Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently released a 400-page document called Livestock's Long Shadow . This scientific study revealed that animal agriculture causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the world’s transportation combined! In its discussion of global warming, the report states:
“The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport.”
This greenhouse effect is produced by a combination of methane from the cows, deforestation of the rainforest for grazing land, and the hugh consumption of fossil fuels from the factory farm to the slaughterhouse. It takes 8 times as much fossil fuel to produce animal protein as it takes to produce plant protein!
The United Nations Report is unequivocal in its Executive Summary, it states:
“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 findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.
Livestock's contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency. Major reductions in impact could be achieved at reasonable cost.”
Such a statement leaves little doubt about the environmental implications of an animal based diet.
For every 1 acre of forest cleared for parking lots, shopping malls, etc. 7 acres are cut for grazing livestock and growing the food to feed them. 260 million acres could be restored to forest if Americans were to stop growing the crops to feed livestock. It is estimated that 1 acre of trees are preserved each year by every individual who switches to a completely plant-based diet.
Over half the total amount of fresh water consumed in the US goes to irrigate land growing feed for livestock and to water them. It takes less water to produce 1 year's food for a completely plant-based diet, than to produce 1 month’s food for a diet with animal products. Factory Farms have the waste problem of a small city yet they have no sewage systems or wastewater management and most becomes runoff into our ground water and rivers. This nitrogen-rich waste causes bacteria levels in water to soar, causing algae to thrive and fish to die.
2,500 gallons of water yields:
- 1 pound of meat, or
- 50 pounds of fruit, or
- 100 pounds of potatoes.
In terms of an individual’s impact on the environment:
- Eating meat is like driving an SUV.
- A vegetarian diet is like driving a mid-sized sedan.
- A vegan diet is like riding a bike.
Fishing and the Oceans
Seventy five percent of the surface of our planet is made up of water. Of that water, ninety seven percent is ocean. The vast ocean at one time seemed protected from human activity. Unfortunately, pollution has penetrated the deep blue seas and no aquatic life is safe or free free from toxins. Huge “dead zones” have appeared in significant portions of coastal waters. Pollution in the form of fertilizer runoff from agricultural fields, wastes from livestock farms, discharge from sewage treatment plants, emissions from automobile and power plants and various toxic chemicals have created large anoxic (no oxygen) or hypoxic (low oxygen) areas where fish, invertebrates, seagrasses, and other organisms cannot live. Due to the bio-accumulation of toxins, as smaller fish are eaten by larger ones, even some deep sea fish test positive for PCB’s and mercury.
Over-fishing is having massive consequences on ocean life. Intensive fishing reduces spawning biomass below optimum levels and reduces genetic diversity of wild populations. Today’s factory trawlers are stripping the ocean of life. Miles of netting scrape the ocean floor, indiscriminately scooping up an array of marine life such as coral, kelp, juvenile fish, marine birds and marine mammals. Only about 20% of the catch is kept to sell, the rest of these now lifeless creatures is discarded.
Fish farming or aquaculture has its share of environmental issues as well. This intensive farming, crowding thousands of fish in small confinement pools, generates the same problems that factory farming creates for mammals. The unnatural conditions and confinement make the fish susceptible to sickness and as a result, fish farms have to add an arsenal of antibiotics and other chemicals to the water. The dumping of contaminated water, waste, feed and chemicals works to destroy much of the indigenous life around fish farms.