Stop Supersizing our Global Footprint

Industrial livestock production flies under the radar when we talk about saving the environment

By Kristen Wacker

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference was initially heralded as a victory for the planet by environmentalists and world leaders alike. Conference attendees agreed to work to prevent a global temperature increase surpassing 2 degrees Celsius and to achieve net-zero anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to curb climate change. Slowly, however, experts are realizing that these goals are unreachable by the tenets of the agreement. What occurred at this conference was not much better than the lack of agreement that characterized previous summits: an overall commitment to non-immediate, lofty, and vague plans of action. And yet many pundits and environmentalists considered this summit a success, solely because an intent to save our planet was expressed. We love to hear empty intents to preserve the earth, especially when it demands nothing from us in terms of lifestyle changes. Nowhere is this ideological hypocrisy more evident than in the sphere of animal agriculture, one of the most environmentally destructive human industries, whose effects are found in nearly all aspects of our current environmental crisis.

With respect to climate change, we pay attention to the emissions of the energy sector through the burning of fossil fuels and natural gases, but often overlooked is the immense contribution animal agriculture makes to the warming of the globe. Anywhere from 14.5 percent to 51 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from raising livestock for food. The true number likely falls somewhere in between, but even assuming the smallest estimate, this is still more than the entire global transportation industry (13 percent) and matches the emissions of the world’s second-largest emissions-producing nation, the United States (14 percent). Greenhouse gases from livestock are particularly dangerous—ruminants emit copious amounts of methane, which has a 72 times greater global warming potential over 20 years than CO2, and manure releases nitrogen dioxide, which has a 289 times greater warming potential than CO2. Raising animals for food also impairs the Earth’s ability to take CO2 out of the atmosphere naturally to prevent warming. Food animals need crops, and crops need open space—anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of the razing of the Amazon rainforest was done to grow crops for Western animal agriculture, eliminating extremely dense forests which otherwise could contain CO2.

In addition to warming our world, animal agriculture is an enormous consumer of our water supply. When the persistent California drought began receiving national attention in 2014, Mother Jones published an article illuminating the supposedly horrific amounts of water certain crops require. In particular, the almond became a scapegoat for the drought for requiring a gallon of water per nut. Curiously, the water requirements of animals and animal products were overlooked even though these are far more egregious. Growing a single pound of beef consumes 1850 gallons of water. A single pound of pork needs 720 gallons and a single pound of chicken takes 520 gallons. As a reference, the average American shower uses 17 gallons of water—this means, in terms of water usage, eating a pound of beef is roughly equal to 3.5 months of showering. In the United States, meat consumption accounts for a shocking 30 percent of our water footprint, and this figure does not even take into account the footprint of animal products. Eggs and cheese require 395 and 380 gallons of water per pound, respectively. At-home efforts to limit water usage, like turning the faucet off while brushing your teeth and taking shorter showers, are meaningless when we continue to engage in animal agriculture.

Water isn’t just consumed by raising animals for food; it is also destroyed. Lax regulations on the industry allow lagoons of manure to remain untreated, which poisons fresh groundwater. These waste lagoons are also liable to leak or spill, running off into rivers and oceans and decimating fish populations while causing algal blooms from high concentrations of nutrients. The fishing industry plays a great role in the destruction of marine ecosystems as well. Over the past 45 years, the raw number of fish and other marine animals has been halved according to the World Wildlife Fund, with the number of some food fishes falling by 74 percent. Fishing is a very non-selective practice: hundreds of non-target species including sharks and turtles are picked up by nets intended to capture particular fishes, and these bycatches are discarded dead or nearly dead. Overfishing is the primary cause of population collapse in the oceans, but climate change (aided by our consumption of terrestrial animals) also contributes.

We may not want to think about it, but eating animals is destroying our planet. Animal agriculture contributes to global warming, obliterates rainforests, depletes and poisons water supplies, and kills off half the ocean’s animals, in some cases beyond the hope of rehabilitation. Voluntary participation in this process is unethical from numerous additional viewpoints, but the threat the industry presents to our planet alone necessitates a boycott of animal agriculture. There is no true environmentalist who eats animals, and there is no social change without personal transformation. If we really want to combat the realities of climate change, individuals need to change their lifestyles.

Kristen Wacker is a third-year in the College majoring in biology.