The Problem: Animal Agriculture and the Environment

The Problem: Animal Agriculture and the Environment

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports by the year 2100, we can expect sea levels will rise up to 4 feet, the global temperature to rise by several more degrees, and increasing changes in extreme weather. With sufficient evidence we have learned it is our behavior and actions as humans that is causing this growing destruction. We are on a path to destroying our environment to a point of no return.

As we begin to recognize the current state of our environment and plan to address this crisis, we need to consider the current systems in place that contribute to the loss of natural ecosystems and human health and well being. Often transportation and fossil fuels come to the front of this conversation. We as a society are advised to recycle, cut down our shower time, bike instead of using a car, but often enough our diet and food system is not called into question as a source of environmental degradation. Animal agriculture is not completely recognized as a strong contributor to climate change. Yet, some studies argue that the life cycle and supply chain of domesticated animals raised for food accounts for at least half of all human-caused GHGs. This may seem like a large claim to make but as we consider the amount of CO2 exhaled from livestock, the methane produced from cow’s digestion, the energy and resources used to raise them, the energy used to transport them, the energy used to keep it fresh once produced, and the energy lost from each trophic level we can begin to recognize the raising of livestock for human consumption as an extremely strong contributor to environmental degradation and the greater issue of climate change.

Vegetarian and vegan diets have been continuously on the rise. As of today, 6% of Americans identify as vegetarian and 3% identify as vegan. This movement is often pushed by the growing concern and awareness of animal rights. Animal equality alone is a strong argument to switch to a plant based diet and this type of diet is even more convincing when you consider the environmental, social, and economic benefits. One of the strongest cases one can make for the benefits of veganism and vegetarianism is in consideration of trophic levels. Meat eaters act as secondary consumers whereas vegetarians and vegans act as primary consumers. By receiving their food directly from primary producers, vegetarians and vegans avoid the inefficiency of conversion of plant calories into meat calories. As much as 90% of the energy at each trophic level is lost as it transfers to the next level. Humans as primary consumers are more energy efficient. On top of the energy transfer loss through trophic levels, raising livestock requires excessive land, energy, and further crops that is used as feed. A population of secondary consumers requires far more resources than a population of primary consumers. Research from the Plantrician Project has shown that a standard American diet that consists of meat and dairy requires over 10 times as much land, over 10 times as much water, and over 10 times as much energy than a plant based diet. The demand and use of all of these resources from such a large population contributes heavily to the progression of climate change. Primary consumers live a more sustainable lifestyle that doesn’t stress the supply of our earth’s resources.

Over the next few months I will be exploring the effects of animal agriculture on the environment, human health, and social justice with specific reference to climate change. I will further analyze the current food industry while considering the true qualities of a sustainable system.

We can define something as sustainable if it’s initiatives, actions or impacts serve to meet the social and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. This can be accomplished through:

  • reducing resource use, encouraging re-use, and minimizing waste while protecting and restoring the health of natural systems and biodiversity, reducing pollution, and addressing global climate change
  • equitable economic development that empowers people to meet their own needs rather than exploiting them
  • an elevated and dignified standard of human well-being for all people including but not limited to improved health and access to basic human rights.

Our current food system does not follow these essentials to being sustainable but as we educate ourselves and our communities we can begin to change the way our food is produced and on a greater scale prevent and prolong the foreseeable disastrous outcome of our environment and our society.

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