The Ecological Impacts of Animal Agriculture

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The Ecological Impacts of Animal Agriculture

By Mia MacDonald on foodfreedom.wordpress.com

If current trends persist, by 2050, 120 billion farm animals could be raised and slaughtered every year. But the realities of climate change, which will mean harsher conditions for agriculture in many developing countries, along with degradation of ecosystems, water, land, air, and species and a rising world population (set to top nine billion by 2050), make prospects for food security and environmental sustainability globally bleak.

Numbers sometimes tell a story better than words can. First: 86 million. That’s the number of acres planted with corn in the U.S. Next: 4.35 million — the total number of U.S. acres planted with vegetables (130,000 of those acres are broccoli). This means that the acreage of U.S. farmland apportioned to growing vegetables is a mere 5 percent of what’s devoted to growing corn. That’s a real problem, since a majority of that corn won’t feed people, but rather animals — specifically, the approximately 10 billion farm animals raised and slaughtered in the U.S. each year.

This monoculturization and intensification of U.S. agriculture has had dire effects on farm animals, almost all of whom are raised in factory farm systems. But it’s also had devastating effects on the environment. And, this system of mass-producing “cheap food” (at just about any cost) is spreading around the world. American agribusiness is looking for new markets, while emerging middle classes in developing countries are seeking to eat more meat and dairy — something they associate with affluence and the consumer lifestyle of the U.S. Americans, generally viewed as the richest people on Earth, each eat more than 200 pounds of meat a year on average.

If current trends persist, by 2050, 120 billion farm animals could be raised and slaughtered every year. But the realities of climate change, which will mean harsher conditions for agriculture in many developing countries, along with degradation of ecosystems, water, land, air, and species and a rising world population (set to top nine billion by 2050), make prospects for food security and environmental sustainability globally bleak. In a 2006 report, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that “The livestock sector emerges as one of the two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

For evidence, one has only to look at the U.S. It’s estimated that animals inside concentrated animal feeding operations (or CAFOs) produce 500 million tons of waste a year, far outpacing human levels. Pound for pound, pigs produce about four times as much waste as people. In 2007, corn and soy, both central to animal feed, accounted for 50 percent of harvested acres in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These crops require large quantities of pesticides and chemical-based fertilizers, much of which run off into waterways, and, in some cases, ground- and drinking water. Each year, 270 million pounds of pesticides and 21 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizer are used to grow corn and soy.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. agricultural facilities, including CAFOs, are a significant source of water pollution. The technical term for a body of water losing its ability to provide a full range of ecological services is “impairment.” States in the U.S. report high levels of impairment from agricultural wastes and run-off: nearly 175,000 miles of rivers, more than three million acres of lakes, and nearly 3,000 miles of estuaries.

Animal agriculture also requires huge inputs of water and energy. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. freshwater is used in agricultural operations, according to Cornell University professor David Pimentel. Much of this is for irrigation, with significant amounts consumed by feed crops. Another Pimentel study found that 420 gallons of water are required to produce one pound of grain-fed “broiler” chicken. In terms of energy intensity, meat ranks high. Using fossil fuel energy as the unit of study, Pimentel calculated that the average agricultural product in the U.S. requires three times as much energy to produce as it provides (so a ratio of 3:1). For meat, the ratio is up to 35:1.

Then there’s climate change. In 2006, the FAO concluded that 18 percent, or nearly one-fifth, of global greenhouse gases (GHGs) come from the livestock sector. That’s more than the GHGs from all the transportation systems the world over (about 14 percent) and just slightly less than those from deforestation (estimated at 20 percent). Global warming will have significant effects on weather patterns, and, by extension, land, water, forests, human communities, and other animals. Some of these are already being felt in multi-year droughts in the U.S. southwest and East Africa, and dire floods in Asia and, a year ago, in Iowa, where Farm Sanctuary rescued 69 stranded pigs, many of them gestation sows from factory farms.

A recent study done at Carnegie-Mellon University sought to unravel the “climate footprint” of food. While eating local to avoid the fossil fuels burned to transport food over long distances has gained currency as a climate cooling strategy, it turns out that meat and dairy consumption are the real diet “hotspots,” not distance. Fifty-eight percent of diet-related GHGs come from meat, dairy, eggs, and fish. Eating all of one’s food from local sources for a year — challenging to do in a cold climate — reduced an individual’s GHG emissions by the equivalent of 1,000 miles of driving. But eating vegetarian, with no dairy, just one day a week reduced those emissions even more: the equivalent of 1,163 miles of driving a year.

Still, livestock and climate aren’t mainstream issues in the public or policy discourses on global warming. At least not yet. There are some encouraging signs of a slight shift. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, who heads the main global climate change body, has urged people to eat less meat. Ezra Klein, an influential economics writer for the Washington Post recently urged Americans also to eat less meat as a powerful individual action against global warming – outweighing many of the other steps often recommended. “Compared with cars or appliances or heating your house, eating pasta on a night when you’d otherwise have made fajitas is easy,” Klein wrote.

Citizens, too, are taking stands in municipalities (see sidebar on NYC Foodprint resolution). But two final examples illustrate the work ahead. A recent report by the European Parliament sought to set ambitious targets for GHG reductions in industrialized countries: between 25 and 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 (and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050). However, while acknowledging the “substantial” GHG emissions from the livestock industry, the Parliament deleted a call for a cut in worldwide meat consumption, particularly in industrial nations. And, at a recent dinner for leaders of the G-20 countries, the world’s leading economies, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver cooked lamb; mint jelly was served on the side.


Mia MacDonald is the executive director of the public policy action tank Brighter Green (brightergreen.org), based in New York City, and a member of the Farm Sanctuary Board of Directors.