"Good planets are hard to come by," Steve Forbert has
been singing for years. Finally, it seems that global consensus is
building toward some fundamental truths regarding our precious orb. Just
a few short years ago, activists and academics who pleaded for attention
to the issues of impending global climate change and the environmental
devastation caused by livestock were marginalized voices. Despite sound
study and practice, serious environmentalists and vegans were dismissed
as tree-hugging dirt-worshippers.
Today, the jury is in: global warming is real,
disturbingly rapid and the result of human activity. In February, 2007,
a United Nations panel of climate scientists released a grim and
powerful assessment of the future of the planet. Scientists concluded
for the first time that global warming is "unequivocal" and that human
activity is the main driver, "very likely" causing most of the rise in
temperatures since 1950.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the United
Nations Environment Program, which administers the panel along with the
World Meteorological Organization said, "uncertainty was removed as to
whether humans had anything to do with climate change on this planet.
The evidence is on the table."
John P. Holdren, an energy and climate expert at
Harvard, said the report "powerfully underscores the need for a massive
effort to slow the pace of global climatic disruption before intolerable
consequences become inevitable."
Three months earlier, the another U.N. report found
that the foremost human activity contributing to global warming is
animal agriculture. In November, 2006, the Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) of the United Nations concluded that animal
agriculture is the leading source of greenhouse gases (even more than
transportation). The report, Livestock's Long Shadow," states:
"Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most
serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the
Beyond global warming, livestock, the U.N. concludes,
are a leading worldwide source of deforestation, desertification, water
pollution, loss of biodiversity on land and in the seas, acid rain and
euthropication (sediment chocking estuaries and deltas).
Among the daunting numbers sited by the U.N. are that
• Use 30 percent of the earth's entire land surface
Are now grazing on 70 percent of the former rainforests lands in the
• Causes 18 percent of overall human-related greenhouse gases
Accounts for 37 percent of human- induced methane (23 times as warming
• Produces 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide (at 296
times the global warming potential of CO2).
Other catastrophic impacts of the meat industry
*An estimated 4,000 gallons of water is needed to produce a one
day, animal-based food supply for an average American while a one day,
plant- based food supply would only require about 300 gallons. Each
vegan saves 3,700 gallons of water daily. By comparison, installing a
low-flow showerhead saves just 1,100 gallons in an entire year.
* Legally permitted within the National Wilderness
Preservation and National Park Systems, and subsidized by taxpayer
dollars to the tune of $100 million a year, livestock grazing is one of
the most ecologically destructive forces of the modern era.
* The main contributor to desertification in the Western
United States, livestock grazing transforms fertile land into a
desert-like environment by decimating native vegetation and accelerating
* In the United States alone, livestock grazing
adversely affects 22 percent of federal threatened and endangered
species, including the desert tortoise, pronghorn antelope and numerous
The cost of procrastination
A combination of climate events, increasing consumer
demands (lead by a global shift to more meat in the diet in
increasingly-affluent developing nations) and the dawn of the bio-fuels
era, have led to a sharp increase in food prices and tightening grain
supplies around the world. As these conditions afflict the world's poor
first and foremost, food riots have broken out in Haiti, Egypt,
Cameroon, Senegal and elsewhere.
Most media reports have focused on rising oil prices,
a spate of devastating climate events and a hunger for biofuels as
causes for the food costs crisis. Some reports have mentioned increased
animal agriculture in developing nations as a factor. No mainstream
media report has sited the livestock's ongoing consumption of nearly 30
percent of global grain as a factor. In developed nations, the majority
of grain goes to livestock. In the U.S., more than 70 percent of all
grain goes to animal agriculture production.
These occurrences only heighten a growing consensus
that global warming is worsening faster each time new real-world data
and new computer models are engaged.
"Global warming is accelerating three times more
quickly than feared," The UK Independent reported. According to a study,
published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, carbon dioxide
emissions have been increasing by about 3 percent a year during this
decade, compared with 1.1 percent a year in the 1990s.
This is much faster than even the highest scenario
outlined in the 2007 reports by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, and suggests that their dire forecasts of devastating
harvests, dwindling water supplies, melting ice and loss of species are
likely to be understating the threat facing the world.
The solution at hand: Feed people, make fuel, leave
While politicians have kvetched about the food supply
crisis, none has yet stepped forward with a sustainable measure to
address concerns. This year, as much as 30 percent of the U.S. corn
harvest may go to ethanol production and replace less than five percent
of oil consumed. Corn-based ethanol is now widely seen as an energy
policy blunder. If a 30 percent misuse of corn is recognized as a
blunder, how may one describe the waste of 70 percent of a harvest?
Once the current political maelstrom surrounding
ethanol is settled (corn ethanol will not come out on top) there will
remain a world-wide need to produce energy and feed people. According to
a Cornell University study, the amount of grain consumed by
U.S. livestock could feed over 800 million hungry
people. That is more than enough abundance to overcome the entire
world's caloric deficit, thereby ending world hunger.
If a global shift away from animal agriculture were to
occur, there is enough available farmland in production to allow for
meeting all human food needs, converting acreage to more effective
biofuels production, restoring significant tracts of land to natural
habitat and allowing room for responsible future development of human
habitat as the global populations increases toward an expected peak of
The solution to global warming, world hunger,
conservation of biodiversity and sustainable energy are all at the point
of our fork.
Note: Sources for facts cited are available
Go on to Next Topic
Return to Spring 2008 Issue