- My first post on the effect of eating meat on the environment
(see below) provoked quite a bit of discussion, so in honor of Earth Day,
I thought I should follow up with more information about how our natural
resources (e.g., air, water, and soil) are depleted and devastated by animal
- Of course, Earth Day is also a good time to remember
that animal agriculture only exists at these levels because people are
purchasing vast quantities of chicken, beef, pork, and fish. The market
for meat (i.e., we, the consumers) drives the depletion and destruction.
- * Excrement produced by chickens, pigs, and other farm
animals: 16.6 billion tons per year -- more than a million pounds per second
(that's 60 times as much as is produced by the world's human population
-- farmed animals produce more waste in one day than the U.S. human population
produces in 31Z2 years). This excrement is a major cause of air and water
pollution. According to the United Nations: "The livestock sector
is... the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication,
'dead' zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health
problems, emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others."
- * Water used for farmed animals and irrigating feed crops:
240 trillion gallons per year -- 7.5 million gallons per second (that's
enough for every human to take 8 showers a day, or as much as is used by
Europe, Africa, and South America combined). According to the UN: "[t]he
water used by the sector exceeds 8 percent of the global human water use."
As just one example, "[O]n average 990 litres of water are required
to produce one litre of milk." So drinking milk instead of tap water
requires almost 1,000 times as much water.
- * Emissions of greenhouse gases from raising animals
for food: The equivalent of 7.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year,
according to the UN report. Concludes the UN: "The livestock sector
is... responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions.." That's about
40 percent more than all the cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships in
the world combined (transport is 13%). And "The sector emits 37% of
anthropogenic methane (with 23 times the global warming potential -- or
GWP--of CO2)... It emits 65% of anthropogenic nitrous oxide (with 296 times
the GWP of CO2). These figures are based on the power of these gases over
100 years; in fact, over 20 years -- a more important timeframe for dealing
with global warming -- methane and nitrous oxide are 72 times and 289 times
more warming than CO2. And Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC (which
shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore) has been saying that the 18%
figure is probably an underestimate.
- * It takes more than 11 times as much fossil fuel to
make one calorie of animal protein as it does to make one calorie of plant
- * Soil erosion due to growing livestock feed: 40 billion
tons per year (or 6 tons/year for every human being on the planet -- of
course if you don't eat meat, none of this is attributed to you; if you're
in the U.S. where we eat lots more meat than most of the world, your contribution
is many times greater than 6 tons/year). About 60% of soil that is washed
away ends up in rivers, streams and lakes, making waterways more prone
to flooding and to contamination from soil's fertilizers and pesticides.
Erosion increases the amount of dust carried by wind, polluting the air
and carrying infection and disease.
- * Land used to raise animals for food: 10 billion acres.
According to the UN: "In all, livestock production accounts for 70
percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of
the planet." And "70 percent of previous forested land in the
Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feedcrops cover a large part of the
remainder." And "About 20 percent of the world's pastures and
rangelands, with 73 percent of rangelands in dry areas, have been degraded
to some extent, mostly through overgrazing, compaction and erosion created
by livestock action."
- * According to the UN, animal agriculture is a leading
case of water pollution. The main water pollutants in the US are sediments
and nutrients.. Animal agriculture is responsible for 55 percent of the
erosion that causes sedimentation, and for a third of the main nutrient
pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorous. On top of that, animal agriculture
is the source of more than a third of the United States' water pollution
from pesticides, and half of its water pollution from antibiotics.
- * Livestock are also responsible for almost two-thirds
of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid
rain and acidification of ecosystems.
- * Grain and corn raised for livestock feed that could
otherwise feed people, according to the UN: 836 million tons per year (note
that the more commonly used figure, 758 million tons, is metric). That's
more than 7 times the amount used for biofuels and is much more than enough
to adequately feed the 1.4 billion humans who are living in dire poverty,
and the number doesn't even include the fact that almost all of the global
soy crop (about 240 million tons of soy) is also fed to chickens, pigs,
and other farmed animals.
- * An American saves more global warming pollution by
going vegan than by switching their car to a hybrid Prius.
- * Razing the Amazon rainforest for pasture and feed crops:
5 million acres of Amazon per year. Former Amazon rainforest converted
to raising animals for food since 1970 is more than 90% of all Amazon deforestation
- * According to the UN: "Indeed, the livestock sector
may well be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity. .."
And "[l]ivestock now account for about 20 percent of the total terrestrial
animal biomass, and the 30 percent of the earth's land surface that they
now pre-empt was once habitat for wildlife." And "Conservation
International has identified 35 global hotspots for biodiversity, characterized
by exceptional levels of plant endemism and serious levels of habitat loss.
Of these, 23 are reported to be affected by livestock production. An analysis
of the authoritative World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened
Species shows that most of the world's threatened species are suffering
habitat loss where livestock are a factor."
- United Nations scientists, in their 408-page indictment
of the meat industry, sum up these statistics, pointing out that the meat
industry is "one of the ... most significant contributors to the most
serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global,"
including "problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution,
water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. "
- Perhaps it's time to explore vegetarianism. Click here
for tips http://www.huffingt onpost.com/ kathy-freston/ one-bite- at-a-time-
a-begi_b_ 422 11.html>. Happy Eating!
- United Nations statistics and quotes come from the FAO
report "Livestock's Long Shadow" http://www.fao. org/docrep/
010/a0701e/ a0701e00. HTM>. Other statistics come from the American
Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2003); the World
Bank (Marglis, "Causes of Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon,"
2004); and Earth Interactions Journal (Eshel & Martin, "Diet,
Energy, and Global Warming," 2006). Other non-attributed statistics
were calculated by Noam Mohr, a physicist at New York University Polytechnic
- RED MEAT VS CHICKEN: AN ARGUMENT AGAINST THE FALSE DISTINCTION
By Kathy Freston Huffington Post April 14, 2009
- http://www.huffingt onpost.com/ kathy-freston/ red-meat-
vs-chicken- an-ar_b_1866 04.html
- Nicholas Kristof's column on Wednesday http://www.nytimes.
com/2009/ 04/09/opinion/ 09kristof. html> discusses the recent work
by animal activists on behalf of chickens and pigs, and the degree to which
"animal rights are now firmly on the mainstream ethical agenda"
in the United States, as they have been for some years in Europe. I am
delighted to see from Mr. Kristof yet another thoughtful essay about a
moral issue that is, until recently, not widely discussed, and even more
pleased that in discussing the cruelties of modern intensive farms, he
is focusing on birds.
- You see, people often tell me that they've given up eating
red meat out of concern for animals, the environment, or their health (or
all three). Of course all efforts to make the world a kinder and less polluted
place should be applauded. But here's the thing: cutting out red meat while
still eating chicken doesn't address the whole problem.
- Here's why: Both choices -- beef and chicken -- badly
damage the environment, so choosing one or the other is sort of like the
difference between driving a huge SUV and a Hummer. That's also why I'm
a little baffled when some environmental organizations say that cutting
out beef is advisable, but eating other meats is "relatively"
ok. It's really not.
- On the issue of global warming, all animal agriculture
is a nightmare, relative to producing grains and beans. In a 400 page report
from the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization, Livestock's
Long Shadow, scientists conclude that the business of raising animals for
food is responsible for about 18 percent of all warming -- in fact meat
causes about 40 percent more warming than all cars, trucks, and planes
- That is in part because turning animals into meat requires
many stages of (energy intensive and polluting) production (i.e., transporting
feed, animals, and meat; running feed mills, factory farms, and slaughterhouses;
refrigerating carcasses during transport and in grocery stores -- chickens
are at least as energy consumptive as cattle for all these stages), compared
to plant foods.
- Environmental Defense calculated that if every American
skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead,
the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a
million cars off of U..S. roads. Imagine if we dropped all meat from our
- And it's not just global warming, of course: In a story
about chicken waste pollution, the New York Times reported in November
that "[a]lthough the dairy and hog industry in states near the bay
produce more pounds of manure, poultry waste has more than twice the concentration
of pollutants per pound." I assume that's in part because poultry
are given a lot more drugs than pigs and cattle -- because they're kept
in even worse conditions and thus require more drugs.
- When you have the attorney general of a state like Oklahoma
battling poultry producers over the industry "wreak[ing] havoc in
the 1-million-acre Illinois River watershed, turning it into a murky, sludgy
mess," it seems pretty clear (to me) that environmentalists might
want to think again about putting that product into even a "relatively"
- So it makes more sense to cut down on meat altogether,
in favor of a more plant based diet, rather than trying to sort out which
meats are relatively better or worse. And we can do so in stages.
- For example, after looking at the health and environmental
problems associated with chicken, beef, and pork, New York Times food writer
Mark Bittman (in his superb new book Food Matters) suggests eating exclusively
plant-based foods until 6 p.m., and then eating whatever you want for dinner.
I know people who have tried this sort of plan, and they find -- quickly
-- that they're eating more and more vegetarian food, even during the times
when they eat whatever they want. Writes Bittman, "By reducing the
amount of meat we eat, we can grow and kill fewer animals. That means less
environmental damage, including climate change; fewer antibiotics in the
water and food supplies; fewer pesticides and herbicides; reduced cruelty;
and so on. It also means better health for you."
- Similarly, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health
leads the "Meatless Mondays" campaign, which is supported by
28 other public health schools. Their goal is to cut Americans' meat-consumption,
in order to lessen our risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity,
and so on. And of course, they rightly impugn all meat, not just "red"
- Although he vigorously advocates vegetarianism, the much
adored Buddhist monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, writes in his latest
book that "[i]f you're not able to entirely stop eating meat, you
can still decide to make an effort to cut back. By cutting meat out of
your diet ten or even five days a month, you will already be performing
a miracle -- a miracle that will help solve the problem of hunger in the
developing world and dramatically reduce greenhouse gases."
- These suggestions from Bittman, Johns Hopkins, and Thich
Nhat Hanh strike me as much better half-measure alternatives to picking
between various meats.
- For those who want to do well by the environment, have
more robust health, and consider the welfare of animals, the solution is
not to just give up eating red meat, but rather lean away from eating animal
products - chicken included - altogether.
- A few things to remember:
- * for animals the poultry industry is much worse than
the beef or pork industries;
- * for your health, it's a toss up at best;
- * and for the environment, the poultry industry may not
be quite as bad on global warming, but it's still bad, and it appears to
be even worse in categories like water and air pollution.
- NHNE Factory Farming Resource Page: http://www.nhne.
org/tabid/ 451/Default. aspx
- NHNE's Climate Change Resource Page: http://www.nhne.
org/tabid/ 490/Default. aspx
- NHNE's 1000 Most Recent Climate Change Articles: http://www.nhne.
org/tabid/ 1050/Default. aspx
- http://www.huffingt onpost.com/ kathy-freston/ an-earth-