The meat industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change in the world. Animal agriculture requires large amounts of food, water, energy and land, and is responsible for more greenhouse gas production than all of the world’s transportation systems combined. Many people believe the key to combatting climate change is to implement more solar panels or purchase electric cars, and while these small changes may be helpful, in reality the root of the problem is our meat and dairy consumption.
1. The Impact on Resources
Animal agriculture uses massive amounts of food and water that instead could be given directly to the world’s population. According to PETA, it takes 683 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk and 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. On the other hand, it takes 244 gallons of water to produce one pound of tofu, and by consuming a vegan diet one person could save 219,000 gallons of water every year. It also takes 10 pounds of grains to produce one pound of meat, and in the United States alone, 56 million acres are used to grow feed for animals, while only 4 million acres are used for producing plants for humans to consume. Even a 25% reduction in animal agriculture would provide 14 million acres of land that could be used for agriculture, nature preserves or housing.
2. Waste Production
Farms produce large amounts of waste that pollutes rivers, lakes, and the air for those who live nearby. Animals on US factory farms produce 500 million tons of manure each year, which gets stored in waste lagoons or sprayed over fields. Waste runoff from lagoons and fields is one of the leading causes of pollution in rivers and lakes, while the manure that is sprayed creates a mist that is carried away by the wind, exposing people that live nearby to toxins and pathogens. According to PETA, a report by the California State Senate noted “studies have shown that animal waste lagoons emit toxic airborne chemicals that can cause inflammatory, immune, irritation, and neurochemical problems in humans.” Aside from the environmental impacts, these chemicals can be detrimental to one’s health.
Additionally, commercial fishing methods have negative impacts on the environment. Methods such as bottom trawling and long-lining often clear the ocean floor and destroy coral reefs while killing thousands of dolphins, sea turtles, and sharks along the way. Fish farms also release waste and pathogens into sensitive marine ecosystems, and farm raised fish are often fed large quantities of wild-caught fish. While some fish farms are improving their methods to decrease their environmental impact, not all farms have been as attentive, and they’ve altered or destroyed many natural habitats of marine life.
The United Nations states that a shift towards a vegan diet is necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change, but strictly adhering to a vegan diet is probably not a reasonable solution for everyone. However, there may be a way to reduce the environmental impact of meat production without completely cutting out animal products.
In an article from Stanford Medicine News, nutrition scientist Christopher Gardner, PhD, discusses his paper on the environmental impact of the meat industry. In his paper, he modeled the impact of individuals consuming 25% less protein and changing 25% of their remaining protein intake to plant sources. This change would result in a 60-40 split, with the majority of their protein still coming from animal products. From Gardner’s estimates, this would result in a 40% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from food production and a 10% decrease in water usage, about 3.1 trillion gallons. This small change to our diets could result in climate benefits almost immediately. It would also promote a shift towards a healthier population since a more plant-based diet is consistent with the recommendations of public health organizations for improving our health.
Written by: Savannah Linares, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern