Veganism & the Environment
By KD Angle-Traegner / Updated October 15, 2018
Our environment is in serious trouble.
We are in the midst of terrible ecological devastation. Raising animals for food is the single greatest human-caused source of destruction to our environment. It’s the largest source of greenhouse gases and land use; the number one source of water pollution and rainforest deforestation. Plus, it’s a significant contributor to air pollution, ocean dead zones, habitat loss, and species extinction.
And when we include all the additional resources that go into raising animals for food – the land, fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides, fossil fuels, freshwater, and food – animal agribusiness is shockingly inefficient. Moreover, it’s a costly and wasteful use of our very limited natural resources.
Veganism is the solution.
A diet and lifestyle that include animal products don’t just come at a high price to the animals; they also come at a high price to our environment too. From the air to the land to the water, the resources of the world are being exploited to fuel animal agribusiness with absolutely catastrophic results.
Raising animals for food requires enormous, massive amounts of land. It uses 45% of Earth’s total land (1) and is responsible for a whopping 91% of all Amazon destruction, with one to two acres of rainforest cleared every second. (2) Those numbers are significant because the rainforest is a vital part of the world’s ecosystems.
The Amazon Rainforest covers more than a billion acres, encompassing areas in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. It’s so large if Amazonia were a country it would be the ninth largest one in the world.
Commonly called the “Lungs of our planet,” the rainforest provides twenty percent of the world’s oxygen, approximately 10% of the world’s biodiversity, and 15% of its freshwater. (3)
Deforestation is threatening the existence of the Amazon Rainforest
Of all Amazonia, Brazil has the most significant percentage of the rainforest. Satellite-based research has found that 277,607 square miles – 17.5 percent of Brazil – had been cleared by 2008, with 62 percent of the area deforested now occupied by cattle pasture. (4) Now the largest exporter in the world, Brazil supplies nearly one-quarter of the global beef market. (5) Pasture land outweighs planted cropland by five times. (6)
“For each hamburger that originated from animals raised on rainforest land, approximately 55 square feet of forest have been destroyed. (7)
After Brazil, Peru has the next largest expanse of the Amazon; nearly half is forested. The highest concentration of deforestation is in the Huanuco region. Here again, cattle ranching is the main culprit. Satellite images of the deforested area taken during 2013-2015 revealed Hunanuco lost nearly 20,000 acres of rainforest during those years. (8) As a comparison; one acre is roughly the size of a football field.
And it’s not just the rainforest. Here in the United States, more than 260 million acres of forest have been clear-cut for animal agribusiness.
Why Does Deforestation Matter?
Deforestation matters because trees play a critical role in mitigating climate change.
Removing trees deprives forests portions of its canopy, which cause multitudes of environmental problems. Trees help perpetuate the water cycle by absorbing rainfall and returning water vapor to the atmosphere; which they can’t do if they don’t exist. Without protection from the sun-blocking tree cover, forest soil drys out and former forest lands become barren deserts (because there are no trees to return water vapor to the atmosphere). The canopy also regulates temperature — blocking the sun’s rays during the day and holding in the heat during the night — and disruptions can cause extreme temperature swings. (9)
Of all the roles trees play in climate change, their role as carbon sinks might be the most important. A carbon sink is anything in nature that holds or stores more carbon that it releases. Like trees. They manage this by acting like a sponge and soaking up carbon and other greenhouse gases that would otherwise be free and wrecking havoc on climate patterns.
Then, using photosynthesis, trees convert the stored carbon dioxide (CO2) into sugar, cellulose, and other carbon-containing carbohydrates that they then use for food and growth. (10) Forests — particularly vast tropical forests like the rainforest — can store enormous amounts of carbon.
Unless the forest is deforested. Then, not only are the trees gone causing habitat loss and all sorts of environmental chaos, but all the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere too.
Deforestation releases nearly a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. (11)
Clearing the world’s forests would release more than three trillion tons of carbon dioxide, more than the amount of the global reserves of oil, coal, and gas. (12)
Other Effects of Deforestation
Forests are diverse, complex ecosystems that affect nearly every species on the planet. When degraded, it can set off a disastrous chain of events locally as well as globally.
- Habitat Loss & Species Extinction: Eighty percent of land animals live in forests and are losing their homes to deforestation. (13) Loss of habitat leads to species extinction, gradually dying over several generations.
- Soil Erosion: Tree roots anchor soil. Without them, the dirt can wash or blow away. This leads to vegetation growth problems. After clearing forest, crops like coffee, soy, and palm oil are planted which have no root strength to hold onto the soil. The more extreme the soil erosion is, the more extreme the flooding and landslide issues will be.
- Water Quality: Speaking of soil erosion, it can lead to silt entering water sources like lakes and streams. This addition of sediment to the freshwater decreases overall water quality and contributes to poor health for people in the affected areas.
- Quality of Life & Livelihood: Many native tribes live in the rainforests of the world. There are over 350 indigenous communities that depend on the rainforest throughout Amazonia alone. (14) Destroying these forests also destroys the homes and way of life for them.
The Amazon Tipping Point
Animal-based food production causes great harm to the Amazon Rainforest. Without action, its impact will get far worse as the world population rises and more people eat meat-rich diets.
“We know food choices are very personal, and that behaviour change can be difficult to encourage, but the evidence is now unequivocal – we need to change our diets if we are to have a sustainable future. The fact that it will also make us healthier makes it a no-brainer.” – Professor Peter Smith at the University of Aberdeen (15)
How much deforestation could occur before the rainforest’s natural water cycle would stop supporting its ecosystem? The answer is shocking: there isn’t much time before 50 percent of the Amazon Rainforest becomes a degraded savannah. Deforestation in the Amazon over the past 50 years has impacted nearly 17 percent of its vegetation. If the remaining three percent are wiped out, the rainforest will become unsalvagable. (16)
Science & Research
The science and research done on the environmental impacts of animal agriculture is always growing. Here are a few articles and academic papers to note for further exploration and additional information:
- 2018 – This research article covers the most comprehensive analysis to date and combines data from every country to assess the food system’s impact on the environment. Considerable reductions in meat-eating are essential to avoid catastrophe. In western countries alone, beef consumption needs to fall by 90 percent and replaced with five times more beans and legumes. Continue to the full article >> Options for Keeping the Food System Within Environmental Limits
Water scarcity is the lack of sufficient available water resources to meet the demands of water usage, and it affects every continent. More than 1.2 billion people — almost one-fifth of the world’s population — lack access to clean drinking water. Another 500 million people are approaching the same situation. (17)
Shamefully, much of the fresh water available for global consumption finds itself used for animal agribusiness. The amount of resources it takes to produce animal products is just astonishing.
Here are some fast facts:
- Animal agribusiness is responsible for 80-90% of water consumption, more than any other activity in the United States. (18)
- They’re also responsible for 20 – 30 percent of all freshwater use in the world. (19)
- Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56 percent of the water. (20)
- In the US, five percent of water consumed is by private homes whereas animal agribusiness consumes 55 percent. (21)
- Producing one pound of beef requires 2,500 gallons of water. (21)
- One pound of eggs requires 477 gallons of water. (21)
- One gallon of milk needs roughly 1,000 gallons of water. (21)
Global production of animal products is rapidly increasing. Soaring demand puts pressure on the environment, particularly on water quality. There’s more solid and liquid manure from livestock — more than 85 percent of the world’s poop is from chicken, cattle, sheep, and pigs (23) — more nutrients, feed additives, hormones, antibiotics, heavy metals, agrochemicals, and sediments that flow into waterways as a result of expanding production of livestock and animal feed.
Here in the U.S., fecal waste from factory farms contaminated groundwater in seventeen states and polluted more than 35,000 miles of rivers in twenty-two. (24)
Widespread use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers in the production of feed crops poison waterways, creating dead zones in the oceans. (25) Dead zones are areas in large bodies of water — typically in the sea but occasionally in lakes and even in rivers — that don’t have enough oxygen in the water to support life.
The cause of dead zones is usually eutrophication, an increase in chemical nutrients in the water. Excess nutrients can stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which then sinks and decomposes in the water. It’s the decomposition process that consumes the oxygen and depletes the underwater supply for other marine life. (26)
While they do occur around the world, dead zones primarily occur near areas where heavy agricultural and industrial activity spills nutrients into the water and compromises its quality. There are now more than 500 nitrogen flooded dead zones around the world as a result of livestock operations. (27) The largest human-caused dead zone in the global ocean is in the Gulf of Mexico along the Louisiana and Texas coast. It measures a whopping 8,776 square miles, as large as the state of New Jersey. (28)
Science & Research
The science and research done on the impact animal agriculture has on water is always growing. Here are a few articles and academic papers to note for further exploration and additional information:
- 2018 – Industrial agriculture is one of the leading causes of water pollution, where it has overtaken contamination from settlements and industries as the major factor in the degradation of both inland and coastal water. Here in the U.S., agriculture is the main source of pollution in rivers and streams, the second source of pollution in wetlands, and the third main source in lakes. Continue to the full article >> More People, More Food, Worse Water? A Global Review of Water Pollution from Agriculture
- 2018 – Three-quarters of large U.S. meat processing plants discharge their wastewater directly into streams and rivers, violating pollution control permits and dumping as much nitrogen pollution as small cities. The largest polluter, a slaughterhouse in Illinois, releases 1,850 pounds of nitrogen on average every day into a tributary of the Illinois River. Between 2005 and 2014, pollution from hog farm operations there killed at least 492,000 fish. Continue to the full article >> Water Pollution from Slaughterhouses
Is Eating Meat Bad for the Environment?
There’s no way around it: a diet and lifestyle that include animal products cause harm to the environment. From the air to the land to the water, the natural resources of the world are being exploited to fuel animal agribusiness with catastrophic results.
Habitat Loss & Species Extinction
Tragically, nearly every action we take as humans contribute to habitat loss and displace animals. From urban sprawling shopping centers to cutting down trees in yards, animals and their families are continually forced out of their natural homes, disrupting what remains of an already fragile ecosystem.
Animal agribusiness not only depletes natural resources at an alarming pace, but it also contributes to habitat loss. It does this through deforestation and the poisoning of waterways.
There’s a monumental amount of habitat destruction as a result of deforestation. Forests are teeming with a vast diversity of life; eight of ten species found on land live in them. Trees outside of woods — like the ones in residential neighborhoods for example — are also home to many animals. Little thought is given to where all these animals will go when the trees are cut down, or if they and their families will even survive.
In addition to clearing forests and converting land to grow feed crops for grazing pastures, the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers used in feed crops poison waterways, rendering them also uninhabitable.
Finally, and perhaps more insidiously, is the relationship between animal agribusiness and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Wildlife Services (WS). Animals don’t only lose their homes; they can also lose their lives.
USDA APHIS Wildlife Services (WS)
Who is the USDA APHIS Wildlife Services (WS)? According to their website, they are a branch of the U.S. government established in 1931 to “provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.” By, resolving “wildlife damage to a wide variety of resources.” (Whatever that means.)
What’s their connection to animal agribusiness?
In a nutshell, Wildlife Services kills predators and free-living animals deemed competition for the land because of the perceived threat to livestock. More than thirty million free-living animals – many endangered – have been killed by them.
Each year, Wildlife Services spends millions of tax-payer dollars killing native carnivores and predators of farmed animals like coyotes, wolves, bears, mountain lions, and many others. Methods of removal include gassing, being torn apart by trained dogs, strangled in neck snares or leg-hold traps, and gunned down from helicopters.
“It makes no sense to spend tens of millions of dollars to kill predators, especially in the way that it’s done, to the extent that it’s done, when it can have cascading effects through the ecosystem, unintended consequences, and nontarget consequences.” – Bradley Bergstrom, Professor of wildlife biology at Valdosta State University and chairman of the American Society of Mammalogists conservation committee (29)
Together with the outright removal and killing of competitor free-living animals, Wildlife Services also kills tens of thousands of “non-target’ animals each year. Collateral victims include a menagerie of more than 300 species like the federally-protected Golden and Bald eagles, beavers, armadillos, badgers, great-horned owls, skunks, antelope, porcupines, ducks, turtles, vultures, weasels, red tail hawks, black bears, cranes, foxes, and river otters, to name a few.
Earth is in the middle of the sixth mass extinction (30), caused primarily by animal agribusiness. The impact on land use is “likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions,” and it’s a problem that researchers think will only get worse. (31)
Science & Research
The science and research is always growing, but researchers continually come to the same conclusion: raising animals for food is the number one cause of species extinction.
- 2018 – Humans are only 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals. The biomass of humans and livestock — dominated by cattle and pigs — far surpass that of wild mammals. While the total biomass of wild animals decreased, the total mass of mammals increased approximately fourfold from the vast increase of the biomass of humanity and its associated livestock. Continue to the full article >> The biomass distribution on Earth
- 2017 – Academics warn that the rapid rate of species loss could ultimately result in the sixth mass extinction of life saying, “We’re losing species we have never heard of, those we’ve yet to put a name to and industrial agriculture is very much at the spear-tip of that.” They want to declare a new age of Earth: the Anthropocene, since “the fossils of soon-to-be-extinct animals will form a line in the rocks of the future.” Continue to the full article >> Industrial Farming is Causing the Sixth Mass Extinction on Earth, says leading academic
- 2016 – Research shows that overexploitation and agricultural activity are the “most prevalent threats facing 8,688 threatened or near-threatened species at rates” and that “cannot be compensated for by reproduction or regrowth.” Continue to the full article >> Biodiversity: The ravages of guns, nets, and bulldozers
- 2015 – According to researchers, “Livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss” and recommend a shift to plant-based foods as “90% of food consumed.” Continue to the full article >> Biodiversity conservation: The key is reducing meat consumption.
How does animal agriculture cause species to go extinct?
Species extinction happens because converting previously unfarmed land for animal agriculture via deforestation — both for grazing and growing their food — destroys huge amounts of habitat. Equally important, the waterways are full of wastewater, rendering them also inhabitable. Not to mention, competitor animals are routinely killed by groups like Wildlife Services.
The Humane Myth
There’s an idea propagated by industries who make money using animals, and, sadly, some animal welfare organizations, that it’s possible to farm animals in a kind, compassionate way.
This idea is called The Humane Myth.
Sonny rescued by Farm Sanctuary. New York, USA. (Photo: JoAnne McArthur / weanimals.org)
The Myth of “Humane” Farming
You’ve seen them popping up in advertisements and on meat packages at the store; labels with words like “Cage-free,” “Free-Range,” or “Humane-Certified.” These labels are meant to sell the idea of “humane” farming by evoking compassion in consumers to make them feel better about purchasing animal products.
Here’s the humane myth these labels are selling: Some ranchers and farmers treat their animals with care, implementing the best livestock husbandry practices that protect animals’ health and well-being. They raise animals on pasture land, allowing them to move freely and engage in select instinctive behaviors, consume a natural diet, and avoid the stress and illness associated with confinement and factory farming. Then, they’re sent to slaughter to be “humanely” killed.
Though, the label is less specific about that.
The Smoke and Mirrors of “Humane” Farming
“Many organizations spend their time-fighting sprawl and championing agriculture a benign use of the land. If a similar amount of effort were directed toward reducing agricultural production, we would produce far greater protection and restoration for declining species, endangered ecosystems, and ecological processes.” (32)
Setting any ethical, environmental, or health-related arguments about “humane” farming aside, it just isn’t doable on a practical level. Confinement factory farming methods dominate global animal agriculture. Even so, farm animals still use 45% of the Earth’s entire land surface. (1) The United States has 2.3 billion acres of land. However, the 375 million acres in Alaska are unsuitable for agricultural production. Subtract that, and it leaves roughly 1.9 billion acres in the lower 48 states. (32)
Let’s say we pasture feed all of the 103 million cows (33) in the United States as “humane” farming advocates suggest. Grass-grazing requires 2 to 20 acres of land per cow. If we raised all the cows on grass (all 103 million of them) cattle would need (using an estimate of ten acres per cow) a tremendous amount of land. And that’s not counting the space required for pastured chicken, pigs, and other farmed animals.
Nothing about this is sustainable; we don’t have enough resources for an agricultural system of that size.
Isn’t it better to buy “humane” animal products?
Presently, over 50 billion animals are killed annually worldwide. That’s a big number. Resource-wise, it’s impossible to meet the needs of each. Ethically speaking, one cannot kill someone who does not want to die and call it humane. So, yes, it’s important to care about how the animals are treated. Don’t let the labels dupe you, the best way to do that is by rejecting animal products (which reduces demand) and living vegan.
It’s real. And it’s not opinion, it’s science.
Animal Agribusiness Drives Climate Change
Whenever the causes of climate change are discussed, fossil fuels usually top the list. Oil, natural gas, and coal are substantial sources of human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases.
But even when combined, their carbon footprint is still lower than that of animal agribusiness:
It takes more than 11 times as much fossil fuel to produce one calorie from animal protein as it does to make one calorie from plant protein. (1)
- Methane is 25 – 100 times more destructive than CO2 (carbon dioxide) (9)
- Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day. (9)
- Methane has a global warming power of 86 times that of CO2 (carbon dioxide) (9)
- Livestock is responsible for 65% of all emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas 296 times more destructive than CO2 (carbon dioxide) which stays in the atmosphere for 150 years. (9)
In a landmark UN report, the world’s leading scientists warned that there are just twelve years to keep global warming under 1.5 celsius or we significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, and extreme temperature changes. (15)
Livestock’s Long Shadow
Livestock’s Long Shadow is a widely-cited 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizations (FAO) which estimates that 18% of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to animal agribusiness. (14) But a report by environmental research organization Worldwatch Institute observes that this percentage is much too low. They assert that raising animals for food has been vastly underestimated as a source of greenhouse gasses, saying, “Our analysis shows that livestock and their by-products actually account for at least 51% of annual worldwide emissions.” (15) The differences are a result of overlooked areas of animal agribusiness such as respiration by livestock, land use, under-counted methane, and other factors such as documented cases of frequent under-counting in official statistics.
Is Climate Change a hoax?
The connection between world hunger and personal food choices may not seem readily apparent. However, animal-based food productions are directly responsible for many factors affecting hunger, starvation, and even poverty.
All of which cycle back to hunger.
82% of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals, and the animals are eaten by western countries
Of the planet’s nearly 7 billion humans, roughly 1 billion people are malnourished and 6 million children starve to death every year- that's more than 6,000 children every day, or 250 every hour. (18) Feeding half of the world's edible grain crop to farm animals is a grossly inefficient use of protein, and it also imperils impoverished communities where food and natural resources are already scarce and families cannot afford to feed and provide water to farm animals.
Dr. Richard Oppelander, researcher and author of the book Comfortably Unaware, talks about the correlation between animal agribusiness and world hunger:
“The correlation between animal (livestock and fish) based food production systems and world hunger is, of course, fueled by the demand for these products and can be found in generalized global factors as well as on a very local basis or regionally within countries where hunger rates are high. Together, these two categories of factors (global and local) insidiously manifest themselves in many ways.
There are two primary groups of people suffering from this poverty-hunger cycle—about 33% are those living in more urban settings (this is the case with those found in the U.S. and other developed countries), while the other 2/3 are those in rural settings and more undeveloped nations.
For both groups, the raising and eating of animals (livestock and fish) by our global community ultimately affects food prices, food availability, policy making, and even education to improve agricultural systems in those developing countries. Global factors include control of seed manufacturing and pricing primarily for livestock feed crops by large companies such as Monsanto and DuPont (Pioneer), buying and selling of grain including futures by Archer Daniel Midland and Cargill, and through the processing/slaughterhouses and packaging by Cargill, Swift, Tyson, and JBS. These few but very large and powerful companies control over 65% of all seed and grain and over 80% of all final animal products in the world. It is a very monopolized production and economic system, manufacturing seeds at one end and spewing out meat at the other.
Because of the global demand for meat (all livestock), cultural, social, political, and economic influences remain strongly supportive of the continued dominance of these large companies and the meat, dairy, and fishing industries in general, which then drives how global resources are being used (land, water, rainforests, oceans, atmosphere, biodiversity, etc.), how money is spent, and how policies are determined. The demand for animal products in developed countries drives resource depletion in developing countries as well as exacerbating poverty and hunger." (12)
Food insecurity also affects farm workers, from the laborers that grow and pick our produce to the ones that work on factory farms and even in slaughterhouses. Despite the pivotal role these workers play in the stability of our food system, many of them work in unsafe conditions every day in exchange for a salary far below the national poverty level. Often, the workers cannot afford the very food they help produce.
Please learn more about the ways animal farming contributes to global food insecurity and hunger by visiting the following sites:
Could veganism help end world hunger?
Truth in Advertising
I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. Meticulously researched, the topic explored in this guide contains knowledge available at the time of publishing. Reviews and updates happen when new material becomes available.
Please contact me if you find incorrect data.
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REFERENCES FOR INFOGRAPHIC "VEGANISM & THE ENVIRONMENT"
1. Cowspiracy. "Facts." Retrieved April 17, 2015
2. Sustainable Table. "Animal Feed." Retrieved April 20, 2014
3. HSUS. "2013 Animal slaughter statistics." Retrieved April 17, 2015
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7. Climactic Change. "Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK.” Retrieved April 17, 2015
8. The Environmental Working Group. “Meat eater’s guide to climate change and health.” The Environmental Working Group. Retrieved April 17, 2015
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