March 22, 2013
Eating for the Environment
More than 70 billion land animals were raised for food in 2010 alone, resulting in far-reaching environmental impacts. Animal agriculture is a key contributor to climate change, deforestation, water pollution and water use.
The sector accounts for nearly one-fifth of global, human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Climate-changing gases are released into the atmosphere at nearly every stage of meat, egg, and milk production, potentially disrupting weather, temperature, and ecosystem health.
Worldwide, we use more land to raise and feed farm animals than for any other single purpose. More than 97 percent of soymeal and more than 60 percent of the barley and corn produced globally are fed to farm animals.
Farm animals have degraded approximately one-fifth of global pastures and rangelands. In addition, 70 percent of deforested areas in the South American Amazon have been converted to pasture, while the other 30 percent is used largely to grow animal feed. Land degradation can have a profound impact on our ability to sustain the planet’s vital natural resources, for example resulting in shrinking water supplies and the loss of plant and animal species.
Furthermore, on factory farms, where thousands of animals are confined indoors, the amount of manure produced can exceed the ability of the surrounding land to absorb it. Factory farms threaten our water, soil, and air by spraying minimally treated or untreated waste on fields.
The farm animal sector is also a major consumer of scarce water resources, making up 29 percent of the global agricultural water requirements. Animal products generally have larger water footprints than non-animal products. For example, even in terms of protein, the water footprint is six times bigger for beef, and one and a half times larger for chicken, eggs and milk, than it is for legumes.
Mitigating the serious problems requires immediate and far-reaching changes in current animal agriculture practices and consumption patterns. Each one of us can lessen our environmental footprint by reducing our consumption of meat, egg, and milk products. In the U.S., an average household shifting from a red meat and dairy to a vegetable-based diet just one day a week reduces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving about one thousand miles less per year. And adopting a completely vegetarian diet can reduce your food-related water footprint by nearly one-third.
Explore HSI’s Guide to Meat-Free Meals for delicious vegetarian recipes, and to learn how vegetarian eating can improve your personal health and reduce animal suffering while helping to protect the environment.
Mekonnen MM and Hoekstra AY. 2012. A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products. Ecosystems 15:401-15.
Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. 2008. Putting meat on the table: industrial farm animal production in America. http://www.ncifap.org/bin/e/j/PCIFAPFin.pdf. Accessed May 18, 2010.
Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, Castel V, Rosales M, and de Haan C. 2006. Livestock‘s long shadow: environmental issues and options. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Weber CL and Matthews HS. 2008. Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology 42(10):3508-13.