We talk a lot about reducing greenhouse gases, climate change, pollution, and emissions from vehicles and industry, and we lament the destruction these are causing to the environment. We tell ourselves to save water, and we get upset about the destruction of the world’s rainforests. Many of us, however, forget that even what we choose to put on our plates has an impact on the environment that’s even more devastating than some of these other factors.
Those greenhouse gases
Animal agriculture isn’t usually included in the catalog of destructions mentioned above, but it is in fact the most destructive industry impacting the planet today. Using the measures and impacts of the causes above, it’s the production of animals for human consumption that’s destroying our world. Animals being raised for food create 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, as opposed to 13 percent from transport. Livestock are responsible for more than half of nitrous oxide emissions worldwide, and nitrous oxide is 24 percent more destructive to our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide makes up only 0.03 percent of the atmosphere, so it isn’t a real greenhouse gas, because unlike methane and nitrous oxide, it’s heavier than air, so it doesn’t float into the upper atmosphere.
And there’s more . . .
And that’s only the beginning of our planet’s woes. At present, it’s calculated that one-third of Earth’s total land has been turned into desert because of livestock. For example, the deserts of the Middle East are to a large extent the result of overgrazing by sheep and goats over millennia. Desertification is also caused when land is cleared and trees are removed, which increases erosion by wind and water. It also aids the encroachment of wind-blown sands from deserts. It isn’t a desert yet, but the Amazon basin is currently being cleared at a horrendous rate, almost entirely for animal grazing and the planting of palm oil trees. And the same thing is happening in Indonesia and other Asian countries.
Livestock currently take up 45 percent of what remains of Earth’s total usable land, and demand is increasing exponentially thanks to our appetite for meat. Admittedly, a proportion of current grazing land cannot be used for farming. But 22 acres of land are required to feed one person on a meat diet as opposed to one acre of land that’s needed to feed one vegetarian. The largest contributing factor (91 percent) for deforestation is the desire for more land for animal agriculture! With a big proportion of deforestation occurring in the Amazon rainforest, species extinction is compounding the problem.
Trouble at sea
A similar situation exists in the marine world, where for every pound of fish caught for human consumption, five pounds are discarded as “bycatch.” With 80.4 million metric tons of fish pulled from the oceans each year, there're a lot of species unintentionally and needlessly caught and killed!
Two-thirds of planet Earth is covered by water, of which 97 percent is salted and 2 percent is frozen. So only 1 percent of all the world’s water is available for human consumption, but, sadly, we’re doing a great job of polluting it. Most of the pollution doesn’t come from the manufacturing industry, as you may think; it comes from the animal-rearing industries. Such nutrient-rich runoff is destroying Australia’s amazing Great Barrier Reef.
For example, a study in the United States showed that seven million pounds of excrement are produced every minute from animals raised for food. Waste from 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a human population of more than 400,000 people! A significant amount of animal waste gets washed into our waterways, because unlike cities, which have effluent plants to deal with human excrement, some farms, particularly dairy, have, at best, oxidation ponds, which are not as effective.
At the same time, water pollution from nutrient runoff as a result of animal agriculture also causes “dead zones” (or hypoxia) in our oceans and waterways, which is a reduced level of oxygen in the water that causes marine life to either die or leave.
Best use of limited resources
And speaking of water, are you aware that the meat and dairy industry uses one-third of the earth’s fresh water? It takes 800 gallons of water to produce one hamburger patty (including the time it takes to grow the cow to slaughter stage and then process the patty to eating stage). That’s the equivalent of two months worth of showers! If you chose to continue to enjoy long showers and brush your teeth with the tap on but reduced your meat consumption, you would save infinitely more water than by simply taking “navy” showers (where you turn off the flow of water in the middle portion of the shower while lathering).
As you can see, the single most comprehensive factor leading to the destruction of earth’s environment and the breakdown of the biosphere that supports life is the production of animals for human consumption. In purely arithmetic terms, this world could support 27 times its current population if we were all vegetarians! A plant-based diet would cut your carbon footprint by 50 percent, making our planet a healthier place to live in—an amazing addition to the personal health benefits of a vegetarian diet.