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)
- Cheese production is the largest food source of greenhouse gas emissions. (22) Just one pound requires 900 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