Meat-eating environmentalists and the Tooth Fairy have more in common that you’d think. Eating animal products, whether from a factory farm or “local, free-range” has an undeniably destructive effect on the Earth, and it is a fantasy to associate meat consumption and environmental sustainability in positive context. Factory farming is dramatically depleting our global resources, water, soil, medicines and rainforest land—all crumbling to satiate the whims of beef, chicken, dairy and egg eaters. Free-range and local animal products, however, have become the new rationalization for those who cannot deny the negative social and environmental effects of factory farming, but still want that burger.
This idea of locally raised dairy, eggs or meat as better for the environment is one that every vegan has likely heard at least once in their non-meat eating lifetime. When omnivores make this statement, it sometimes sounds like this, “I get my grass-fed steak from a local farm, which is obviously better for the environment than your vegetables that are transported in from wherever. So you’re a stupid head for not eating local meat.”
This sort of reasoning sounds plausible at first glance—food transported across long-distances doesn’t appear to be as ecologically friendly than eating locally, but it is lacking in facts, and this generalized perspective doesn’t hold up to inspection. Ultimately, idealizing a diet that includes animal products as environmentally neutral (or even beneficial) is part self-assurance and part denial. Assurance that eating animals is a greater good, better for its ecological impact, health, etc and part denial of the ethical implications of using animals for food. Increasingly common is the argument of free-range, local animal products as the environmentally responsible choice, yet this proposal is ultimately rife with the same destructive ecological consequences as factory farming. So how does factory farming and local, free-range shape up in terms of environmental and human impact? Let’s look at the facts.
Less than 30% of our Earth is above water, and according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, 11-12% of this land area is suitable for agriculture and grassland pastures occupy 26% of that number. Animals raised in factory farms consume 60% of the Earth’s wheat, barley, soy, corn, and various vegetable stocks (potatoes, cabbage, and legumes) grown on that 11-12% and utilize nearly 100% of available grazing land. Data from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the Council on Agricultural Science and Technology reveal that this annual sixty-percent of agriculture reserved for factory farming production could feed 6 billion people an approximate 3,000 calories per day.
More important than food is water and factory farming uses a whole lot of the resource, of which ultimately produces a small amount of beef. 1 pound of red meat requires a little over 850 gallons of water to produce, and cattle lives approximately 1.5 years. This is a conservative calculation, as dairy cows used for beef live longer, closer to 4 years (U.N. 2006 report, which is quite lengthy, so I’ve linked a summary.) Some perspective: one gallon of water is equal to a little less than 4 liters, which translates to an 8-ounce steak using a conservative 1800 liters of water. Meanwhile, in persistent drought third-world regions of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia or Latin America, the average woman of a household will spend hours each day collecting an amount of water that will not equal 20 liters.
The animals that live and die in factory farms leave a significant global ecological impact. In addition to the 26% of grazing land for livestock use, more space is necessary each year as factory farms expand. The Amazon of South America is broken hectare by hectare, 70% of its forestland is now pasture for livestock.
Greenhouse gasses released from factory farming are the most significant of any other source. According to the U.N., greenhouse gasses attributed to livestock make up 18% of global numbers (80% of the agriculture sector,) breaking down to 9% of carbon dioxide emissions, 37% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide. In this context, driving a Prius is just an anthropological status symbol—stop eating meat and you’ve taken real action towards slowing climate change.
Annually, food-borne pathogens like E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella kill an average of 1,809 people in the United States (CDC numbers from the last wide-report, in 1999!) Just to be absolutely clear, pathogens like E. coli and salmonella originate from animal products, i.e. feces and urine contamination. Despite this fact, vegetables and legumes show up from time-to-time as the source of food-borne illnesses. However, no sprout, spinach, strawberry or peanut needs to use the restroom at any time. Contamination of vegetables is strictly the result of animal waste runoff. Speaking of animal waste, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates 500 million tons of solid and liquid waste yearly (about 16 tons a second, if you are interested.) The facts on where that waste goes are staggering, according to a 2006 Tufts University report.
In factory farms, conditions are ripe for disease, given the animal’s constant exposure to their own feces and urine, and close “living quarters.” Antibiotics are a necessity to keep disease and infections to a minimum, and this requires an extensive number of antibiotics. In 2009, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) reported nearly 29 million pounds of antibiotics sold specifically for the use of livestock animals in the United States. That same year, the FDA shows human consumption of the same class of antibiotic medicines accounted for a little over 6 million pounds, approximately 75% of antibiotics used in the United States go directly to factory farm animals. A little more perspective: in 2011, the World Health Organization released a report of priority medicines for adults and children, listing antimicrobial/antibiotics like the 1,345, 952 million pounds of penicillin-class medicines used in livestock in 2009. In developing nations during the years 2000-2003, the WHO Child Health Epidemiology estimates that lack of access to simple antibiotics like penicillin to treat pneumonia claimed 2 million children under the age of 5 years.
Factory farming is not a profitable business—but it’s made profitable with your tax dollars. Factory farms could not weather the cost of antibiotics, waste cleanup, feed costs, water, shipping and land without massive handouts from the U.S. Government (i.e. you.) In feed prices alone, factory farms walked with 3.9 billion dollars a year between the years of 1997-2005.
Those who profess the benefits of eating local, free-range meat claim that their animal products avoid the problems of factory farming. Idealistic scenarios of wide grasslands, dotted with happy cows and chickens with nary a single environmental negative are rapidly spun, with a curious lack of evidence. As we would suspect, the facts do not support these claims. The simple measurement of “how far my meat/eggs/dairy” need travel is often the sole explanation from omnivores making this argument, but as we have already explored, the environmental impact of animal products are much more complex than the miles covered from the farm to the plate.
No matter where a farm raises a cow or chicken, they will still need to go to the bathroom, and have the same need for water and food—waste management and water consumption is not significantly improved in the free-range farm. Free-range cows are often grass-fed, which does eliminate the need for many grains and vegetables as feed. Yet, as we’ve already seen from the U.N., factory farms already occupy 26% of the free space on Earth for livestock grazing. Grass-fed beef would require much, much more space designated strictly for feeding livestock. According to the USDA, cattle population as of July 2011 is 100.1 million. If we assume an ultra-conservative estimate of 2 acres per cow to covert to the utopia of eco-friendly grass-fed livestock, this equates to a US cattle requirement of 200 million acres. Or, 312,500 square miles, which is a little over 8% of the total square miles of the United States. That is a lot of local space, and that is only accounting for the United States!
A 2008 study from The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on agriculture environmental burden found that free-range livestock production increases land use by 65% to 200%. With 26% of the total land on Earth space used for grazing pasture, and soil erosion affects 70% of this area, exactly where are these local pastures supposed to be developed? Soil erosion is a serious challenge to grass lands in the United States; annually 6 tons of soil is lost per hectare, according to a 2003 report by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. The Cornell report also gives explicit comparison in water use between producing equal amounts of protein from meat vs. grain—animal protein requires 100 times more water to produce than consumed for same value of plant-based protein. Just in case you are wondering, the Cornell University report also arrived at the end conclusion that meat and lactovegetarian-based diets were unsustainable in the long term.
Realistically, how many people would free-range feed? According to the USDA, in 2008 the average American omnivore ate 61 pounds of beef a year, 46 pounds of pork, and (as of 2000) 66 pounds of poultry. In 2010, the USDA reports that 34 million beef cattle, 110 million pigs and 8.9 billion in poultry (chickens, turkeys and ducks combined) were slaughtered for meat for the US alone. The image of local, grass-fed farms is one of smaller stature and production. The suggestions that such a farm could manage the land and water resources necessary, not to mention the slaughter rate necessary to supply the demand for animal products is an exercise in denial.
What of the greenhouse gas comparison of free-range local meat to that of a plant-based diet (whether local or not?) The amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses emitted in transportation of any food represents no more than 11% of consideration (4% factor in the transportation from farm to the grocery store,) based on a 2008 Carnegie Mellon University report published in Environmental Science & Technology, while the production of food accounts for over 80%. With this in mind, the same report notes that beef production is 150% more greenhouse gas intensive than poultry or fish. The least intensive greenhouse gas contributing foods were fruits, vegetables and grains—cutting out meat from your diet has a much greater positive environmental impact than would be possible under a scenario of which you bought everything you eat locally.
We could address in this debate of many more issues; the risk of disease from livestock is a continuous, global peril. Pollution from factory and free-range animal feces and urine is an astounding health risk to all, herbivore or omnivore (the Natural Resource Defense Council also discusses this danger at length.) Nevertheless, the end emphasis is clear, whether factory farmed or free-range, animal products will never equal the sustainability and efficiency of a plant-based diet.
The final point to make—global warming is destroying our planet, and whether omnivore, vegetarian or vegan, this fact should be indisputable. Animal products, specifically meat consumption, are radically reshaping our land, water, and ecosystem on a global scale. There is no possible argument to defend meat consumption in environmental terms. If you want to make a real change that will have an undoubtedly positive ecological effect, walk the green talk and go veg.
Photo credit: Agnie