The Effects of Intensive Animal Agriculture on the Environment

‘it’s an environmental disaster that’s being ignored by the very people that should be championing’

Demosthenes Maratos,

The Sustainability Institute, Molloy College

Climate change, due to global warming has become big news over the past decade. 

Despite the efforts of a few stubborn deniers, most scientists agree that the emission of greenhouse gases through human activity is a major cause of global warming. 

If left unchallenged scientists have predicted that climate change will have wide-ranging global and local impacts, including;

·      melting of the polar icecaps

·      rising sea levels

·      more frequent and extreme weather events, such as droughts and storms.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) worst case scenario predicts that such changes will occur within the next 10 – 20 years.  These climatic changes could cause;

·      increased risk of flooding and rising sea defence costs

·      agricultural disruption affecting food availability

·      spread of tropical diseases and pests

·      land loss due to rising sea levels causing mass population migration

·      environmental damage, human injury, ill health and loss of life.

Many people have accepted this view and committed to combat climate change by reducing the use of fossil fuels and have embraced recycling and car pool schemes, low energy light bulbs and other energy efficiency measures.

Energy conservation has become a familiar part of many peoples lives as they‘do their bit’ to save our planet.

Whilst the main focus of the anti-climate change movement has been to reduce the global use of fossil fuels, the issue of animal agriculture and it’s effect on the environment has received little attention.  In response to the question “What about animal agriculture?” senior environmental leaders have been known to respond with ”Well, what about it?”

However, in the last two years following the release of the popular film ‘Cowspiracy’ documentary, the environmental effects of intensive animal agriculture are receiving the attention they so desperately demand.

So how does intensive animal agriculture have such a huge environmental impact?

Intensive animal agriculture is responsible for the release of around 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.  This is more than every plane, car, lorry and boat put together.

Not only this but 37 percent of those emissions are methane and 65 percent are nitrous oxide.

There is a strong argument that intensive animal agriculture is the number one contributor to climate change, even though the release of CO2 through the burning of fossil fuels accounts for 57% of global greenhouse gases.

This is because methane and nitrous oxide are 86 times and 296 times respectively, more damaging than CO2.

In addition, the huge quantities of antibiotics routinely fed to farm animals, to counter their unhealthy and unsanitary living conditions are driving the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  The leaching of animal waste, contaminated with antibiotics, threatens our clean water sources.

The use of water in the meat industry is also hugely unsustainable. The UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) claims that it takes up to 20,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of meat.  Raising livestock for food uses 34 trillion gallons of water per year in the USA.  In comparison the US fracking industry uses just 100 billion gallons.

The IME estimate that 30-50% (1.2-2bn tonnes) of all food produced is "lost before reaching a human stomach".  There are multiple causes including unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, buy-one-get-one free and Western consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with inadequate infrastructure and poor storage facilities.

Much of this waste is due to poor agricultural practices, especially the inefficient conversion of plant food into meat.  For every 100 calories of crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in meat. This means the meat industry is operating with an unsustainable 70 percent loss rate. Fifty percent of the Worlds supply of grain is used to feed livestock.  That is more than enough to end starvation across the globe.

Additionally, land is required to grow these grains. Clearing land for the purpose of growing grains for the meat industry is the number one cause of deforestation and drying of wetlands, accounting for 91 percent of the destruction of the amazon rainforest.  Using soya for animal feed has been a huge environmental catastrophe.

With the ever rapidly increasing human population and the adoption of a “Western” diet in developing countries, our demand for meat and other animal products is set to increase by 88 percent by the year 2050. This is just not sustainable.

In some less well informed circles there is still a social stigma around those who choose to maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet.  “Are you a vegetarian?” is a common put down aimed at “overly sensitive, animal-loving, hippies”, often emanating from the overweight and less healthy.    Some meat eaters argue that humans are meant to eat meat as “we are at the top of the food chain”.  It would be interesting to see that viewpoint tested with a Great White Shark.

There can be little doubt that the world needs to make big changes across a variety of sectors to mitigate climate change.  That could include increasing the use of public transport, eating only locally grown organic food, avoiding palm oil and plastic, living off-grid, avoiding 'fast fashion' – all significant challenges for the average person.  In contrast reducing or avoiding consumption of intensively farmed meat is an easy change with an immediate positive impact.  Methane has an atmospheric lifetime of only 12 years compared to 100 to 1000 years for CO2.

The reality is that when you look at the massive environmental damage caused by intensive animal agriculture, it is almost impossible to defend.  That’s before an examination of it’s effects on human health and animal welfare which we will look at in future articles.

In the UK a record one in eight adults have ditched meat and fish and a staggering 20% of 16 to 24 year olds follow a vegetarian diet. It seems that at last many forward thinking people are coming to the conclusion that…..

‘you can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products, period.’

Howard Lyman, American farmer and animal rights activist