Picture a farm as it might be portrayed in a children’s story or a television commercial. A red barn. Perhaps a rolling hill with a lone oak tree at the crest. Cows, pigs and chickens dot the landscape, each one idly enjoying the sunshine and green grass. The subtext of these images is clear: This is a peaceful, happy place. It won’t come as any surprise to hear that for years, Animal Outlook has been pulling back the curtain on this false narrative. The truth is that American farms are far from peaceful. Today’s animal agriculture practices are places of cruelty, abuse and sometimes criminal acts. Whether it’s at a dairy farm, a chicken hatchery or an aquaculture facility, the stories are heartbreaking and tragic.
But the suffering caused by this industry is not limited to the animals trapped on these farms. In fact, animal agriculture is responsible for not only the suffering of cows, pigs and chickens, but for more than 24,000 endangered species worldwide. How? The environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, water pollution and habitat destruction. The shadow of this industry touches all parts of our lives and addressing its fundamental unsustainability is crucial to protecting both the animals on those farms and the future of the planet as a whole.
Let’s first look at greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists typically frame this issue around burning coal and fossil fuels for energy, often ending in appeals for wind or solar energy or the proliferation of electric vehicles. While those are important interventions that would yield net positives for the environment, the conversation about offsetting overseas flights and using less electricity conveniently leaves out the amount of greenhouse gases released in the effort to produce meat-centric meals. According to the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land, somewhere between “21-37% of total greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to the food system.” The true culprits of these emissions are easily identified once you examine how much pollution is created to provide 1000 calories of energy. Beef (36.44 kg of carbon dioxide per 1000 calories), fish, (7.61 kg) and cheese (6.17 kg) leave much larger footprints than the equivalent calorie intake of plant-based foods like tofu (1.17kg), apples (0.9 kg) and nuts (0.7 kg). Chicken, the most commonly consumed animal protein in the U.S., produces about 20 times the amount of methane it takes to produce a similar quantity of potatoes.
What about water usage? The western United States has faced unprecedented droughts and wildfires and drought conditions will continue to worsen. How does animal agriculture fare when it comes to ensuring plentiful, clean water? As it turns out, not so well. Agriculture accounts for nearly 80% of all water usage in the United States. And while that number takes every form of agriculture into consideration, all foods are not created equal. It takes massive amounts of water to raise animals for food – you could produce 72 lbs of wheat with the same amount of water that it takes to produce just one pound of beef. Even chickens, which require less water than cows or pigs, still take a disastrous toll on the environment at a rate of nine times the equivalent of a plant-based meal.
The risk to our water supply goes far beyond just how much of it is used to grow feed for, and provide water for, farmed animals. Runoff and sewage from animal farms are ruining local biodiversity and waterways. Waste from farms gets dumped into local rivers or sprayed into the air, and some farms store waste water in large open-air lagoons that leach into the soil, overflow into waterways and poison the local drinking water supply. Ammonia and nitrates from waste, especially on chicken farms, can spawn excess algae in rivers and streams, disrupting the underwater ecosystem for miles downstream from the farm. And monocropping to feed animals has led to the reduction in the number of wild plant species found throughout the country. It’s not hyperbole to say that animal agriculture is literally changing our landscape.
That’s especially true when you can see it play out in real time on satellite images. Farmed animals, like every other being on the planet, need food to survive. And the amount of land needed to feed these animals is shocking. In the United States alone, 41% of the land – about 781 million acres – is used to feed farmed animals. Using this land to feed farmed animals has led to native species of both plants and animals disappearing over the past few decades. As many as 24,000 of the 28,000 “red list” species have lost habitat as a result of animal agriculture. Amazingly, if everyone went vegan overnight, we would need less land, not more, to grow the food we need.
So how do we reckon with the fact that our food systems are destroying our planet? Well, it’s clear that full recycling bins and electric cars alone won’t save us. We need to quickly and dramatically reimagine the way we eat as a society. That includes trying to avoid meat, dairy and eggs in favor of plant-based meals. If you want to learn more about how animal farming is destroying the planet and what we can do about it, check out documentaries like Eating Our Way To Extinction, which paints an eye-opening portrait of what’s needed to reverse the damage our diets are doing to the environment. But we also need to get loud about a farming system that is cruel and unsustainable. Demand more oversight on farming practices. Demand fewer subsidies for animal agriculture. And demand that existing laws that protect our environment and punish animal abusers be enforced to the fullest extent possible. It could literally save the world.