By Andrea Alban-Davies, the Rye Garden Club Conservation Committee
Getting those hamburgers, chicken wings, nachos, omelets, and fish sticks that we all love to our tables is one of the leading causes of climate change.
A simple Internet search yields dozens of studies and reports illuminating the monumental, calamitous impact of animal agriculture on our environment.
On average and conservatively, it takes roughly 2,500 gallons of fresh water to produce one pound of beef.
I recently made a startling discovery – there is actually a topic that even most conservation groups don’t want to talk about. That’s right, organizations that are constantly advocating extremely unpopular positions — live in smaller homes, drive less, fly less, consume fewer products — are reticent to touch on one subject. And this isn’t a subject that has a peripheral impact on the future viability of the human race on our planet. On the contrary, it is the factor with one of, if not <the>, largest impact.
What single thing could be so profoundly destructive, you ask? Animal agriculture. Yup, getting those hamburgers, chicken wings, nachos, omelets, and fish sticks that we all love to our tables is one of the leading causes of climate change. (That goes for 100% pasture-raised, “certified humane” organic products, same as it does for those that are factory-farmed in detestable conditions.)
Animal agriculture is the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases, the second-leading cause of worldwide deforestation, and is <the leading> cause of ocean dead zones, destruction of wildlife, and the pollution and depletion of our fresh water resources. Given the facts, it’s hard to believe that this isn’t even on the radar of most individuals that consider themselves conservationists, and I include myself in that statement. I considered myself an environmentalist through and through; but I fed my family chicken <every day>, ate a breakfast chock full of eggs and dairy multiple times <every week>, invited friends over for steak barbeques <every weekend>… I mean, for the past two years, my husband’s and my donation to the auction at our kids’ school has been a dinner party described as an Argentinian-style all-you-can eat meat extravaganza. (I’m serious.)
I know now that, although this information wasn’t being publicized by most environmental groups or hitting headlines the same way that single-use plastic bag and bottle reduction was, the only reason I didn’t know about it is because I wasn’t looking. A simple Internet search yields dozens of studies and reports illuminating the monumental, calamitous impact of animal agriculture on our environment; the evidence is everywhere. Worse yet, it’s been known for a long time. I’m talking not only about studies conducted by organizations like the Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN or the EPA, but also about statistics coming out of the USDA, an organization whose mission statement includes words like ‘helping rural America’ and ‘promote agricultural production’.
Said USDA, whose main concern is the threat that climate change presents to U.S. farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners (not the other way around), puts the figure of global greenhouse gas emissions attributable to global agriculture – overwhelmingly dominated by livestock production and the grains grown to support it — at a staggering 24%-30%. That figure includes emissions caused by related deforestation and land-use change. Studies conducted by the UN estimate that the total greenhouse gas emissions <directly> attributable to livestock production (without including the knock-on effects that the USDA did) is approximately 15%. If this seems low to you, consider that this level is more than the exhaust emissions attributable to the <entire> transportation sector.
Some of the other micro-level and macro-level statistics are breathtaking. It’s tough to pick just a few, but even a small selection gives a view into the scope of the problem. On average and conservatively, it takes roughly 2,500 gallons of fresh water to produce one pound of beef. The figure for one gallon of milk is 1,000-2,000 gallons of water. (While some quibble over the exact numbers, and it’s true that all food production requires water and land, one thing is clear and irrefutable: animal agriculture requires more – much, much, much more! – even when it’s stacked up on a protein basis.) The World Bank has found that animal agriculture is responsible for approximately 90% of the razing of the Brazilian Amazon, the “Lungs of the World”. In our country, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office, about 130 times more animal waste is produced than human waste. Run off from animal agriculture operations pollutes our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. The same excrement also pollutes our air, filling it with toxic gases; for example, approximately 80% of ammonia emissions in the U.S. come from animal waste, according to the EPA. Domestic governmental organizations have decimated the wolf populations in the Pacific Northwest and rounded up masses of wild horses primarily in order to protect the interests of the livestock industry, whose animals graze on public lands. The list just goes on and on.
Obviously, this is an urgent and pressing issue for a number of reasons, not least of all because we can each change it tomorrow. It’s as simple as making different choices the next time we go to the supermarket. This was tough information for me to learn – my family loved eating all of the foods that I mentioned – but, ultimately, it filled me with hope. Hope because, together, we can easily make an immediate, huge difference. All that’s required is what I’ve come to consider, in the grand scheme of things, a small change in habit.
In the next four Greenspace articles, I will share more of what I’ve learned about the widespread effects of animal agriculture as it pertains to our environment – the air we breathe, the we live on land, our waters (both ocean and fresh supplies) – and the simplicity of the solution, which conservationists the world over have embraced.