The environment is greatly affected by our dietary choices. According to a 2006 United Nations report, the meat industry is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global" as it wastes valuable natural resources, pollutes our air, decimates our forests, poisons our water supply, and produces greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change. Fortunately, we can do our part to stop help our ailing planet and all its inhabitants through our food choices. Read more about the environmental effects of factory farming.
Climate ChangeIn 2009, a report produced by The Lancet and University College London, UK, called climate change "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century." Raising and slaughtering animals for food is one of the leading sources of deadly greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
According to the United Nations, measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, animal agriculture generates 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, including nine percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 37 percent of methane emissions, and a staggering 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions worldwide. Methane, a byproduct of animal digestion, is more than 23 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere. Nitrous oxide, from fertilizers used to grow feed crops, is about 296 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As these greenhouse gases accelerate climate change, scientists say they will increasingly lead to catastrophic disasters around the world — like droughts, floods, hurricanes, rising sea levels, and disease outbreaks.
AirAnimal agriculture is a major source of air pollution, releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere and contributing to serious public health problems, widespread environmental degradation and climate change. That's because the amount of manure produced by animals raised for food in the U.S. is roughly 100 times the amount of sewage sludge treated by our municipal wastewater plants. Even worse, this manure is not processed through any sort of waste treatment facility like human waste is. As it decomposes, urine and manure from farm animals release hazardous gases into the atmosphere. These gases are emitted from confinement buildings, manure lagoons and the cropland on which manure is spread or sprayed.
Air pollution is particularly problematic for industrialized factory farm operations in which tens of thousands of animals are confined in small areas where these noxious gases become concentrated. But since factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, are considered to be "farms," they are currently exempt from the industrial emissions standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Consequently, factory farms release tons of highly toxic and unregulated pollutants and greenhouse gases into the air we breathe every single year.
The EPA reports that roughly 80 percent of ammonia emissions in the U.S. come from animal waste. Atmospheric ammonia can disrupt aquatic ecosystems, ruin soil quality, damage crops, and jeopardize human health. In North Carolina, where there has been a boom in large hog operations, studies have revealed that ammonia measured in rain doubled in only decade, bringing home the harsh reality of this problem.
Factory farms also produce massive amounts of dust and other particulate matter that pollutes our air. Particulate matter, formed when gases like ammonia react with other compounds, can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular complications, increased hospitalizations and even premature death. A study conducted in Texas found that animal feedlots in the state produce more than 14 million pounds of particulate dust every year, "[containing] biologically active organisms such as bacteria, mold, and fungi from the feces and feed."> And, in 2001, EPA inspectors caught Ohio's Buckeye Egg Farm releasing about three times as much particulate matter per year as the federal air-quality reporting standard.
Released from manure lagoons, hydrogen sulfide is another toxic gas that can lead to serious health complications and death. Monitoring at a medium-sized factory farm in Minnesota revealed regular hydrogen sulfide emissions high enough to cause nausea, headaches and diminished quality of life among neighbors. This colorless, highly toxic gas is among the most dangerous pollutants emitted by factory farms. Even exposure to levels well below the thresholds for irritation or toxicity can be harmful, while high level exposure can be fatal.
As if the chemicals and particulate matter from animal waste weren't bad enough, the meat and dairy industries often knowingly add to the air quality crisis. When the cesspools holding tons of urine and feces reach capacity, factory farms sometimes get around water pollution limits by spraying liquid manure into the air — which is then breathed in by people in neighboring communities. Research indicates that long-term exposure to particulate matter from factory farms can lead to persistent respiratory problems including asthma, coughing, chest tightness, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis, or "farmer's lung."
LandRaising animals for food is extremely inefficient as it takes much more land to grow food for farm animals than it does to grow crops to feed people directly. According to John Robbins, the author of Diet for a New America, a 3.25 acre parcel of land can be used to feed one average meat-eater for a year ... or 20 vegans for a year. That's because farm animals require many times more calories (in the form of grain, soybeans, oats, and corn) to live than they can possibly return in the form of meat, dairy or eggs. Nearly 80 percent of the agricultural land in the U.S., and more than 70 percent of American grain, is used to feed farm animals rather than people.
But sadly, instead of looking at more efficient ways to produce food, vast tracts of land continue to be destroyed to meet the world demand for meat, dairy and eggs. In fact, scientists at the Smithsonian Institute say that the equivalent of seven football fields is bulldozed every minute for animal agriculture. Ancient pine forests in China and tropical rainforests in Brazil are being turned into cattle ranches or clear cut to grow crops to feed farm animals. And hundreds of millions of acres of forests and rainforests worldwide, including 260 million acres in the U.S., have already been cleared for livestock grazing or animal feed.
GrazingAs if clear cutting rainforests for the purpose of livestock grazing wasn't bad enough, beef production also wreaks havoc on native habitats and is recognized as one of the most ecologically-destructive forces of the modern era. According to Philip Fradkin of the National Audubon Society, "The impact of countless hooves and mouths over the years has done more to alter the type of vegetation and land forms of the West than all the water projects, strip mines, power plants, freeways, and subdivision developments combined." A main contributor to desertification in the Western U. S., livestock grazing decimates native vegetation and animal populations, and accelerates soil erosion, transforming once fertile land into desert-like environments.
Despite the fact that livestock grazing is a leading cause of threatened and extinct species in the U. S. and has a host of negative ecological consequences, it is still permitted within the National Wilderness Preservation and National Park Systems and subsidized by taxpayer dollars to the tune of $100 million a year. In the U. S. alone, livestock grazing adversely affects 22 percent of federal threatened and endangered species, including the desert tortoise, pronghorn antelope and numerous bird species. Additionally, vast numbers of coyote, prairie dogs and other native animals who "interfere" with or are perceived as "threats" to livestock or human activity, are killed every year by the federal government.
WaterIt's no secret that livestock production is a rather inefficient way to produce calories — especially when it comes to the use of water. For example, in order to produce just one calorie of beef, it takes roughly seven times more water than it does to produce one calorie of grain. The production of animal products wastes so much water, in fact, that you can save as much water by not eating a pound of beef as you can by not showering for almost six months. And, putting this further into prospective, producing just 10 pounds of steak requires the same amount of water as is used by an average household for an entire year. From providing drinking water for billions of farm animals and watering the crops used to feed them to cleaning up manure on factory farms, transport trucks and slaughterhouses, valuable fresh water is squandered at every stage of meat production. Industrial milking centers that use manure flush cleaning and automatic cow washing systems can also use as much as 150 gallons of water per cow per day! And, whereas an estimated 4,000 gallons of water is needed to produce a one day, animal-based food supply for the average American, a one day plant-based food supply would only require about 300 gallons. As you can see, the numbers really speak for themselves.
Fecal ContaminationBut the problem with animal agriculture isn't just wasted water — it's waste in the water too. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agriculture is the single largest source of water pollution in rivers and lakes, and the waste from factory farms is a significant part of the problem. American factory farms produce an estimated 788,000 tons of manure per day — nearly 3 tons of fecal matter each year for every household in the U. S. This is especially troubling considering farm animal waste is much more dangerous than human waste. According to a contamination study conducted by Minnesota agricultural extension engineer, John Chastain, "the pollution strength of raw manure is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage." In fact, waste generated by factory farms has already polluted more than 35,000 miles of river in 22 states and has contaminated groundwater in 17 states. Unfortunately, there are no federal regulations governing the disposal of the trillions of pounds of farm animal waste produced each year. Typically, this untreated waste is left to rot in manure lagoons or sprayed over fields where it contaminates soil, crops and groundwater, killing fish and other wildlife and threatening human health. Manure from factory farm operations contains pollutants such as antibiotics, pathogens, heavy metals, nitrogen, and phosphorous, which, through manure lagoon leaks or spills, enter into the environment and threaten water quality across the country.
Often finding its way into the ground water supply, manure can also contaminate and lead to dangerous levels of nitrate in drinking water. Among other serious health complications, high nitrate levels can greatly harm infants by reducing the amount of oxygen carried by their blood. A Scripps Howard synopsis of a Senate Agricultural Committee report on farm pollution issued this warning about animal waste: "[I]t's untreated and unsanitary, bubbling with chemicals and diseased. ... It goes onto the soil and into the water that many people will, ultimately, bathe in and wash their clothes with and drink. It is poisoning rivers and killing fish and making people sick. [...]Catastrophic cases of pollution, sickness, and death are occurring in areas where livestock operations are concentrated. [...] Every place where the animal factories have located, neighbors have complained of falling sick."
Dead ZonesLeading causes of soil and groundwater contamination, factory farm lagoon breaches and fertilizer spills are incredibly common. As farm animal waste makes its way into our streams, rivers and groundwater, the nitrogen and phosphorous found in this material robs water of oxygen, killing massive numbers of fish and other animals and destroying ecosystems. An example of the havoc such spills can wreak is the 1995 hog factory breach that resulted in 25 million gallons of rotting hog waste to enter into a North Carolina river, causing the immediate deaths of as many as 10 million fish. Although this was a large spill, even small amounts of waste runoff can have devastating effects.
Sadly, pollution from factory farms is adversely affecting the world's oceans too. In the Midwest, most farms are located on or near streams and rivers that carry excrement into the Mississippi River, which ultimately deposits this hazardous waste into the Gulf of Mexico. The nitrogen from farm animal waste and fertilizers used to grow crops for farm animals causes algae populations to soar, depleting the levels of oxygen in the water and killing fish and other aquatic organisms. In a 7,000 square mile "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, severe oxygen depletion from animal manure pollution has killed off virtually all the plants and sea animals.