Even before corporate players came to dominate American agriculture, farming was never especially natural or environmentally friendly. As plant geneticist Nina Fedorof has noted, "agriculture is more devastating ecologically than anything else we could do except pouring concrete on the land."...As practiced in the industrialized world, animal agriculture today is one of the least natural of all human endeavors. Factory farming now ranks with mining, oil production, and electricity generation as one of the most ecologically damaging industries on the planet. In fact, in a much-quoted study, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that among all industrial sectors, livestock production is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."
(excerpt from Meatonomics by David Robinson)
This page provides information on the environmental effects of animal agriculture, including the impact on climate change and air quality, water, land and soil, and wildlife/biodiversity.
"30 percent of the earth’s landmass is occupied by livestock or food being grown for livestock." 6
"It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat." (The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat by Mark Gold and Jonathon Porritt).7
"The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people—more than the entire human population on Earth." (The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat by Mark Gold and Jonathon Porritt)7
"2005: University of Chicago report states switching to a vegan diet will do more for the environment than switching to a hybrid car."11
"2013: Our Nutrient World report by the UN's Environment Programme suggests a "key action" to produce more food with less pollution involves reducing personal consumption of animal protein."11
"Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is needed to remedy this situation." (UN FAO)13
"Nearly 80% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to farmed animals to help promote growth and to compensate for [their] filthy, overcrowded conditions." (Pew Charitable Trusts 2013 "Antibiotic Sales Reach Record High")13
"Carnegie Mellon researchers found that we can do more for the planet by going vegetarian, even just one day per week, than by switching to an entirely local diet." (Environmental Science & Technology, 2008 Food-Miles and Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the U.S.) 13
Climate / Air
"The CO2 released today will still be in the atmosphere after thousands of years. This means that although CO2 reductions in the long run are imperative, and in the short run will avert INCREASED warming, no amount of investment in green energy, electric cars, etc. will actually begin to create cooling in this generation. However, we can in the short term reduce global warming by reducing those greenhouse gasses that dissipate quickly from the atmosphere. The "big three" of those - methane, tropospheric ozone, and black carbon - are significantly generated by animal agriculture. Providing education and promoting policies that move humans towards a plant-based diet will remove substantial amounts of these GHGs quickly, buying more time to pursue CO2 atmospheric scrubbing technologies and methods before a tipping point is reached."6
"Methane’s atmospheric lifetime, the time taken for a given amount of methane released into the atmosphere to reduce by a specific value (approximately two-thirds) is only 12 years. In other words, after just 12 years, most of the methane is gone, with the remainder gradually dissipating over a longer time period."6
"Given the short time period needed to bring about reductions in emissions, as per Dr. Crutzen and the Earth Policy Institute mentioned above, the fastest and least expensive way to begin reducing methane and ozone is to eat as close to a purely plant-based diet as possible."6
"Tropospheric, or ground level, ozone is the third most prevalent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane. Ozone dissipates out of the atmosphere in about 22 days,20 and has a global warming potential of about half that of CO2. Best known as a component of smog, it is created through a series of chemical reactions involving nitrogen oxide, methane, carbon monoxide and other non-methane volatile organic compounds.22 The cooling effects of methane reduction will be magnified as a result of correspondingly reduced ozone levels."6
"Black carbon, also known as soot, is 4,470 times more potent than CO2 at warming the atmosphere over a 20 year time frame, and 1,055- 2,240 times more potent over 100 years... The single greatest sources of black carbon, estimated at 42 percent are savanna and forest fires, 90 percent of which are anthropogenic... The biomass burning in central South America relates primarily to slash and burn agriculture, 70 to 80 percent of which is associated with cattle grazing in the Amazon, with much of the rest coming from the growing of soya crops which are exported for animal feed in Europe and elsewhere. This suggests that at least 35 to 40 percent of the black carbon in Antarctica is connected or attributable to livestock raising."6
"Perhaps one of the most under-reported climate change studies is the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency’s Climate Benefits of Changing Diet (2009) which evaluated how dietary changes could reduce the costs of addressing climate change. It showed that a diet without ruminant animals, which produce the most methane, would reduce the cost of climate change 50 percent. However, switching to a diet of no animal products, including no eggs or milk, would reduce the costs of mitigating climate change by more than 80 percent."6
"With organic, plant based nutrition available to the global human population, more CO2- sequesterable biomass would become available to absorb atmospheric carbon, in part through associated land use changes. The net effective carbon capture through biomass and soil sequestration available as a result of reforestation, the reinstatement of natural habitats and more sustainable soil management provided by a shift from meat and dairy to plant based foods represents an important and comparatively near-term carbon scrub."6
"The production of one calorie of animal protein requires more than ten times the fossil fuel input as a calorie of plant protein." (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)7
"Air pollutants generated by animal farms can cause respiratory illness, lung inflammation, and increase vulnerability to respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Emissions of reactive organics and ammonia from animal farming can play a role in the formation of ozone (smog) and air pollution." (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)7
"It takes, on average, 28 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of meat protein for human consumption, [whereas] it takes only 3.3 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of protein from grain for human consumption." That's 8.5 times as many calories! 9
"2006: United Nations' (UN) report Livestock's Long Shadow estimates that meat production accounts for 18% of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and further states that "livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems."11
"2007: National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science report concludes, "A kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home."11
"2008: The German Institute for Ecological Economy Research reports even if all animal agriculture operations were optimized to reduce their effects on the environment, the ideal dietary approach for the environment would still be to reduce overall meat consumption."11 In other words, a plant-based diet is best, even when compared to "sustainable" animal agriculture.
"2009: Article in World Watch magazine suggests that in 2006, the UN underestimated animal agriculture's role in GHG emissions, and states it's closer to 51%."11
2012: A study published in Environmental Research Letters warns that to avoid the worst consequences of future climate change, meat-eaters should cut their consumption by 50%."11
"If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains... the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as take more than half a million cars off of US roads." (Environmental Defense Fund)13
"A vegetarian diet is the most energy-efficient. The average American can do more to reduce global warming emissions by not eating meat, eggs, and dairy than by switching to a hybrid car." (University of Chicago Diet Energy and Global Warming)13
"Nearly half of all the water used in the United States goes to raising animals for food (The Food Revolution by John Robbins). It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat and only 25 gallons to produce one pound of wheat." (Water Inputs in California Food Production by Marcia Kreith)7
"To produce a day’s food for one meat-eater takes over 4,000 gallons (13 x vegan); for a lacto-ovo vegetarian, only 1200 (4 x vegan) gallons; for a vegan, only 300 gallons." (The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook) 7
"Animals raised for food produce approximately 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population and animal farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. Run-offs of animal waste, pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics are contributing to dead zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reef and health problems." (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).7
"According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, livestock waste has polluted more than 27,000 miles of rivers and contaminated groundwater in dozens of states."8
"The amount of manure produced on factory farms each year is three times greater than the amount of waste produced by humans." (Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, 2008, Putting Meat on the Table) 13
"It takes more than 420 gallons of water to produce one pound of grain-fed chicken." (Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, 2008, Putting Meat on the Table) 13
Land and Soil
"Seven football fields’ worth of land is bulldozed every minute to create more room for farmed animals and the crops that feed them." (The Smithsonian Institution)7
"Of all the agricultural land in the U.S., 80% is used to raise animals for food and grow grain to feed them—that’s almost half the total land mass of the lower 48 states (Major Uses of Land in the United States by Marlow Vesterby and Kenneth S. Krupa)7
"In the U.S., 70% of the grain grown is fed to animals on feedlots." (Plants, Genes, and Agriculture by Jones and Bartlet)7
"While 56 million acres of U.S. land are producing hay for livestock, only 4 million acres are producing vegetables for human consumption."10
Wildlife and Biodiversity
"The animals have gone, the forest is silent, and when the logging camps finally move, what is left for the indigenous people? Nothing." —Jane Goodall in Benefits Beyond Boundaries
"Around 30% of global biodiversity loss can be attributed to livestock production, such as the spread of pasture land or turning over forests and savannahs... to feed production."12
What You Can Do
While "sustainable" meats are not the answer to environmental problems with meat production, you do have the power to make a change. The answer is simpler than reading meat labels and visiting local farms, and more cost-effective than donating to environmental groups.
In Al Gore's handbook, Live Earth, it says that not eating meat is the "single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint". The process of converting grains or vegetables to meat is very inefficient. Cut out the middleman (animal) and center your diet around vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
Make an empowering change today - transition to a vegan diet to help protect the earth.
- Environmental Protection Agency
- The carbon footprints of raising livestock for food. Raloff, Janet.
- Allison, Richard. “Organic chicken production criticised for leaving a larger carbon footprint.” Poultry World. 1 Mar. 2007. Web. 13 Dec. 2011.
- Avery, Dennis. “Confined Livestock Better for the Planet.” Center for Global Food Issues. 6 Jul. 2010. Web. 13 Dec. 2011.
- Reducing Shorter-Lived Climate Forcers Through Dietary Change Report by World Preservation Foundation
- Natural Resources Defense Council
- David Pimentel, Cornell University
- U.S. Department of Commerce, Census of Agriculture
- Compassion Over Killing
- World Wildlife Foundation UK. (2013). FAO reports highlights opportunity to cut emissions from livestock sector. [Press Release]. Reported in The Guardian.
- Compassion Over Killing Pamphlet "Eating Sustainably – Fight Global Warming with your Fork"