Damage by Livestock
“Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation,” declares Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow.”
The United Nations FAO report warns that the livestock sector:
- Is projected to double global meat and dairy production from 2000-2050;
- Generates more greenhouse gas emissions than transport;
- Occupies 33% of arable land and 30% of total land surface;
- Drives deforestation to clear new pastures, especially in Latin America where 70% of the Amazon forests have already been turned over to grazing;
- Degrades the land: overgrazing, compaction and erosion affect about 20% percent of pastures;
- Pollutes the water and is “among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources.”
- Undermines biodiversity, with “15 out of 24 important ecosystem services are assessed as in decline, with livestock identified as a culprit.”
Despite these dire consequences, the report omits the benefits of reducing or reversing the alarming growth of livestock consumption, instead focusing on methods to increase the production efficiency and reduce environmental costs.
According to the 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent than all transport combined.
According to University of Chicago study by professors Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, a vegetarian diet uses less fossil fuel and is therefore more energy efficient and less polluting than the “mean American diet,” a mixture of plant and animal foods.
They found that adopting a vegetarian diet reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide per year – as much as switching from an SUV to a compact.
A meat-centered diet requires 10-20 times as much land as a plant-based diet. Nearly half of the world’s grains and soybeans are fed to animals, resulting in a huge waste of food calories and protein.
The extent of waste is such that even a small drop in US meat consumption would make sufficient food available to feed the world’s hungry. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but food supply is an issue. Find out more about the scarcity vs. distribution debate.
Animal agriculture destroys the world’s agricultural land. The process begins with clear-cutting of forests to create cattle pastures. Eventually, the pastures are plowed under and used to grow animal feedcrops.
Depletion of topsoil and minerals begins soon after the trees are cut down and escalates with tilling. Without the plant growth to hold it in place, topsoil, laden with minerals, fertilizer, and organic debris, is carried by the runoff of rain and melting snow into nearby streams.
The insatiable demand for animal feedcrops leads to the use of sloping land with greater runoff and arid land requiring irrigation. Irrigation accounts for more than 80% of all water available for human use, leading to widespread water shortages.
Animal agriculture turns forests and prairies into barren deserts. The process begins with clear-cutting of forests to create pastures for cattle and other ruminants. This is a major loss, because trees provide wildlife habitats, keep topsoil in place, replenish groundwater aquifers, absorb carbon dioxide, and stabilize climate.
As the pastures become overgrazed, they are plowed under and turned into animal feed croplands. With little or no plant growth to hold it in place, topsoil is carried by rain and melting snow into streams and lakes, and its productive capacity is lost forever. This process is accelerated by the use of marginal sloping lands to meet the insatiable demand for animal feed.
Animal agriculture dumps more pollution into our lakes, streams, and estuaries than all other human activities combined.
The cropland runoff contains soil particles, salts, organic debris, fertilizer, and pesticides. Soil particles smother fish eggs and bottom dwelling organisms and block stream flow. Salts, primarily sodium and potassium chloride, raise the salinity of the water, rendering it unsuitable for certain organisms.
Debris feeds microorganisms that deplete the water’s oxygen supply and kill the fish. Fertilizers spur algal blooms that smother or actually attack aquatic organisms. Pesticides kill all living organisms.
Animals raised for food in the US produce 130 times the amount of waste that people do. This waste, containing pathogens and hormones, is stored in huge open cesspools, euphemistically called ‘lagoons.’
Eventually, this waste winds up in the nearest waterway, killing aquatic organisms directly or through formation of algal blooms. Waste from mid-Atlantic pig and poultry factory farms has destroyed fisheries along the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the waste leaks into the ground, poisoning vital groundwater supplies.
Animal agriculture’s exceptionally high demand for land presses into service arid lands that require irrigation. Irrigation now accounts for more than 80% of all water available for use in the US and leads to critical water shortages, particularly in the Western states.
Commercial fishing, aquaculture, and angling are environmentally catastrophic. Commercial fishing is wiping out biodiversity, as miles of nets sweep up all the fish in their paths and take coral habitats with them. Commercial fishers have devastated the ocean’s ecosystem to the extent that large fish populations are only 10 percent of what they were in the 1950s.
Commercial fishing boats leave their ports in pursuit of specific species of fish, but their hooks and nets bring up thousands of pounds of other marine animals as well. Sharks, sea turtles, birds, seals, whales, and other nontarget fish who get tangled in nets and hooked by long-lines are termed ‘bycatch’ and are thrown overboard. They fall victim to swarming birds or slowly bleed to death in the water.
Scientists recently found that nearly 1,000 marine mammals, dolphins, whales, and porpoises die each day after they are caught in fishing nets. By some estimates, shrimp trawlers discard as much as 85 percent of their catch, making shrimp arguably the most environmentally destructive fish flesh a person can consume.
Read more: Fish Feel
Wind erosion from animal croplands is the largest source of airborne particles, which irritate respiratory passages and make them more susceptible to respiratory infections. Factory farms produce a stench that poses a major nuisance (and possibly hazard) to neighbors for miles around. Methane emitted by cattle and carbon dioxide generated by the power plants that operate factory farms are major contributors to global warming.