Top 5 Ways Livestock are Wrecking the Planet

5 years ago

Helping the environment is just one reason for dumping animal products from your diet. But it's a big one. It may be the most powerful choice you can make to help our ailing planet. If carnivorous friends and family give you a hard time for sticking to veggies, tell them some of these surprising eco-facts about the havoc wrought by livestock.



1. LIVESTOCK DRIVE CLIMATE CHANGE The livestock sector is responsible for at least half of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions. That's according to two environmental-assessment specialists employed by the World Bank Group, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang. Their meticulous analysis is reported in their landmark Worldwatch article "Livestock and Climate Change". Check out this short summary of Goodland's and Anhang's work. See also "Diet for a low-carbon planet" by Alan Miller, for the same conclusion. How can livestock generate such a volume of GHG? Fermentation in the guts of livestock creates 37% of human-induced methane; methane is much more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Deforestation to graze livestock or to grow their feed is another major source of emissions. Goodland and Anhang also assess the carbon in livestock respiration. "Livestock (like automobiles) are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe."

2. LIVESTOCK WORSEN WATER SHORTAGES Nearly half of all the water used in the United States goes to raising animals for the dinner table, according to calculations by author John Robbins. Water usage is a major environmental concern, given that water shortages are cropping up all over the planet these days. Droughts due to climate change, and the booming human population, contribute to the problem. But the livestock sector is responsible too - using vast quantities of water to irrigate feed crops for livestock. One pound of beef requires 2,400 gallons of water to produce, while one pound of wheat requires only 25 to 108 gallons. Notice, that's the water for just one pound of beef. A typical "2 sides of beef" from one steer weigh 700 lbs when arriving at the grocery. You do the math.

3. LIVESTOCK DOMINATE ARABLE LAND Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land on the planet, and 30% of the land surface of the planet. Consider this in relation to the fact that the world's human population has expanded from 6 billion to 7 billion in just the last 12 years - more and more people needing to be fed. Expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America. 70% of previously forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and livestock feedcrops cover a large part of the remainder. In addition to deforestation, about 70% of grasslands in dry areas have been degraded by overgrazing, compaction, and erosion by livestock. These facts are all reported in "Livestock's Long Shadow," a 2006 research document from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.

4. LIVESTOCK POLLUTE Livestock is the world's largest source of water pollution, according to the United Nations' FAO. Major sources of pollution from livestock production include animal waste, antibiotics and hormones, fertilizers and pesticides used on their feedcrops, and sediments from eroded pastures or trampled streams. In the U.S., livestock are responsible for 55% of erosion and sediment, 37% of pesticide use, and a third of all N and Ph pollution of freshwater.

5. BIODIVERSITY SLAMMED BY LIVESTOCK A third of all mammal species are in danger of becoming extinct. A full 40% of the planet's mammals are victims of habitat loss and degradation. So reported the 2008 conference of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), a group that includes more than 1,000 government agencies and NGOs, conservation groups, and 11,000 scientists in 160 countries. And it's going to get a lot worse before the century is over. The causes of habitat loss and degradation? Livestock is a big one. Conservation International has identified 35 global hotspots for biodiversity, defined by species richness and high levels of habitat loss. Of those, 23 are affected by livestock production. Of 825 terrestrial eco-regions identified by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, 306 are threatened by livestock.

WANT TO HELP? Choose plant-based foods, and explain why to everyone you know. Average Americans eat between 216 and 246 lbs of meat per year, far more than residents of any other country. In the U.S., around 60% of our grain goes to livestock, a very inefficient use of our agricultural lands. Feeding the grain to people directly could feed up to 10 times more people than feeding the meat to people. Or, another way of looking at it—we could stop converting natural lands to agricultural lands if we made more efficient use of the farms we have now. What can you do? Simply eating less meat can help. Even a couple of meatless days a week will reduce your ecological footprint. Going vegetarian or vegan is even better. Check out the recipes and new vegan cookbooks reviewed on my site.

Sally Kneidel, PhD, is a biologist and author or co-author of 11 books about nature, science education, and sustainable living and dining. Find her at Veggie Revolution and

Image Credit: Sally Kneidel

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