Henning Steinfeld, senior author of the United Nations’ report on livestock and the environment, attests that “livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.” A dramatic increase in global meat production over the past several decades has been conclusively linked to wilderness and biodiversity loss, deforestation, air and water pollution, soil degradation, and a variety of human health problems, including antibiotic resistance and certain cancers. A major contributor to climate change, the livestock sector “accounts for at least half of all human-caused greenhouse gases,” according to the Worldwatch Institute. The industrialized livestock industry, aided by state and federal government subsidies and poor enforcement of environmental regulations, systematically externalizes costs – environmental, health, and ethical – onto society. Our own state of North Carolina has experienced a multitude of public health and environmental catastrophes as a result of the explosive growth of the industrial hog and poultry industries here in the 1990s.
Raising animals for food is incredibly inefficient. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of animal flesh. One acre of land yields only 20 pounds of animal protein, while that same acre could produce 356 pounds of plant protein. Eighty percent of global soybean harvest goes toward feeding livestock while over 800 million people suffer from hunger worldwide. The widespread adoption of plant-based diets would allow for a more equitable distribution of food.
In 2010, the UN released a report advocating a global shift toward veganism as the only way to feed a rapidly-growing population and curb further environmental degradation:
“Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”
A few other facts:
- Livestock generate billions of tons of waste, the vast majority of which goes untreated.
- Over 1/3 of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the U.S. are used in animal production.
- The U.S. could feed 800 million people with the grain that livestock eat, according to world-renowned agricultural scientist David Pimentel.
- Livestock production emits more climate change-causing greenhouse gasses than all planes, cars, trains, and all other forms of transportation combined.
- More than half the U.S. grain and nearly 40 percent of world grain is being fed to livestock rather than being consumed directly by humans.
- A recent United Nations report concluded that a global shift toward a vegan diet is necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change.
- According to the United Nations, raising animals for food (including land used for grazing and land used to grow feed crops) now uses a staggering 30 percent of the Earth’s land mass.
- More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to create cropland to grow grain to feed farmed animals, and according to scientists at the Smithsonian Institution, the equivalent of seven football fields of land is bulldozed worldwide every minute to create more room for farmed animals.
- Nearly half of all the water used in the United States goes to raising animals for food.
- It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, while growing 1 pound of wheat only requires 25 gallons. You save more water by not eating a pound of meat than you do by not showering for six months!
- According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the runoff from factory farms pollutes our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined.
- Livestock grazing is the number one cause of threatened and extinct species both in the United States and in other parts of the world.
Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options – The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
Role of Global Food Consumption Patterns in Achieving Sustainable Food Systems and Food For All — UN Environment Programme
A Well-fed World — Feeding families/Saving animals
UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet — The Guardian
Escaping hunger, Escaping Excess — Worldwatch Institute