Rob Couto, Lauren Paduch, Alexis Cordaro, Kevin Chapman
Over recent years, the impact of animal agriculture on the environment has become a major concern. More specifically, meat production has been found to be one of the most destructive industries to the environment in terms of water usage, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions. The negative effects of animal agriculture are predicted to increase significantly before the turn of the century. Global meat production is projected to increase by approximately 100 percent between 2005 and mid-century. Although there are many human influences that contribute to global warming that also need alternative solutions, raising meat for human consumption is becoming increasingly concerning to the health of the planet.
Water usage in the animal agriculture industry is astoundingly high. In comparison to vegetable agriculture which typically requires 11,300 gallons of water per ton of vegetable product, beef consumes 145,000 gallons of water per ton of beef product. Livestock water use is needed for many aspects of both farming and production needs, including animal drinking water and animal waste disposal systems, respectively. In contrast, plants do not need to be slaughtered, a process which demands 132 gallons of water for each animal carcass. The water usage required for plant agriculture cannot be ignored as a large portion of crops are grown to feed livestock, making animal agriculture a two-fold setback in terms of water usage. It is estimated that if populations living in industrialized countries modified their diet to that of a vegetarian, the food-related water footprint of humans would reduce by 36 percent. Furthermore, if these populations took on a vegan lifestyle, this footprint would reduce by 52 percent.
Deforestation is another negative environmental impact of the meat industry as livestock require vast amounts of land. Approximately 45 percent of the Earth’s total land is occupied by livestock. For example, ninety-one percent of deforestation in the Amazonian rainforest resulted from clearing land for livestock purposes. Due to this, animal agriculture is eliminating vast quantities of plants/trees which would otherwise reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Furthermore, deforestation for land use causes habitat destruction which negatively impacts wildlife species. Many species are headed towards, if not already to the point of, extinction. It is estimated that up to 137 plant, animal, and insect species are lost each day as a result of deforestation. The Earth’s biodiversity is being destroyed to the point that we are seeing the beginning phases of the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history. Furthermore, the rate at which the mass extinction is progressing is 1,000-10,000 times that of the natural historic rate. With each cow requiring 2-5 acres of land, it is easy to see how the amount of land needed for animal agriculture accumulates and creates a serious issue, especially considering the limited space on our planet.
One of the most widely publicized impacts of the meat industry is the contribution of animals to greenhouse gases. Recently, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated, globally, that livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, multiple peer-reviewed studies approximated that agriculture emissions will account for the entire world’s carbon budget by the year 2050. It was confirmed that livestock production in particular is a major contributor to this figure. Given that it is impossible to eliminate every other sector of emissions sources, including industry, transport, and energy, we are on track to greatly exceed the allotted carbon budget. On this note, Bill Gates has been quoted as saying: “If all the cattle in the world joined together to start their own country, they would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases,”. Ignoring animal rights ethics for a moment, red-meat is a more important target in terms of sustainability as half of the greenhouse gases associated with animal agriculture come from cows. Cows are ruminant animals and therefore produce a significant amount of methane. Although CO2 is one of the most important greenhouse gases when it comes to global warming, methane has been reported to be 25-100 times more destructive than CO2 on a 20 year time-frame.
The overarching solution to the negative impacts of the meat industry on the environment is to eliminate the consumption of animals entirely. The most promising alternative at this point is clean-meat. There are many researchers, including Dr. Jayson Lusk at Purdue University, who are making strides in producing clean-meat that will outpace animal meat in taste and quality. Since it will take more time until these products go to market, a realistic adjustment is to decrease meat consumption. Reducing the amount of meat that is eaten will at the least reduce the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment. Lessening water usage, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emission caused by the meat industry will not only improve the quality of our planet, but it will improve the lives of all those living on it.
Clean Meat and Human Health
“Let food be thy medicine,” – Hippocrates
The most frequently quoted definition was put forth by the U.N.’s Brundtland Commission on sustainable development in 1987: “Sustainable development [meets] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization’s definition of sustainable diets:
Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts that contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.
A study of 8,000 people who ate all types of meat once or more per week were found to be 29% more likely to develop diabetes. By decreasing your intake of meat and replacing that protein with whole plant proteins may help lower the risk of heart disease and certain cancers while also lowering cholesterol and systolic blood pressure. Childhood obesity has been linked to overconsumption of meat, therefore a diet low in meat will also keep children healthier as they’re growing.
While keeping meat intake low, it is also possible to see the beneficial side of meat. The present industrial meat industry isn’t glamorous with its unhealthy practices, however humane, organic, pasture-raised meats are found to be more wholesome. These meats are higher in Omega 3 content and vitamins E, A, and C. While they have lowered fat and caloric content, these practices also prohibit the unnecessary uses of veterinary pharmaceuticals. Saturated fats contribute to the development of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease (leading cause of death globally), while omega 3 may help lower risk of heart disease and arthritis. Lab grown meat brings the possibility to replace the unhealthy saturated fatty acids with the safer alternative omega-3 fatty acids.
Lab grown still needs antibiotics for protection during the process but this issue is being tackled as a closed, sterile system would be needed for sufficient protection, but that comes with upscaling the cultured meat industry. Lab technicians with sterile practices aren’t exposed to the unsanitary conditions of feeding operations. As meat and poultry are found to be the most common source of fatal infections by the Center for Disease Control, we are able to greatly reduce our risks of such bacteria making its way into our food and water. Stressed animals, like confined in small areas, release pathogenic E. coli bacteria in their waste which allows for contamination in their meat as well as their water runoff where E. coli can survive for up to 12 weeks.
Therapeutics applied for individual treatments in proper doses tend to control the emergence and propagation of antimicrobial-resistant strains, due to their comparatively short-term application and relatively small numbers of animals treated. Non-prescribed or unnecessarily extended antibiotic applications, for continuous, low-dose application, select for increasing resistance to the agent. Their use in large numbers of animals, as in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), augments the selection density of the antibiotic, namely, the number of animals producing resistant bacteria. An ecological imbalance results—one that favors emergence and propagation of large numbers of resistance genes. Resilient bacteria able to survive and reproduce despite the usage of antimicrobials increases the amount of these resistant bacteria while killing off susceptible individuals. As resistant strains persist on they make way for population densities to become too severe, while also increasing the risk of such bacteria to infiltrate nearby water systems.
Promoting these humane, organic, pasture-raised meats, reducing overall meat consumption, and introducing more whole plant proteins supports food production organizations that don’t negatively impact their crops or the communities around them. Organic crop producers are prohibited from use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, therefore there is no risk of these chemicals making their way into neighboring land or water. CAFOs produce large amounts of manure, emissions, and particulate matter affecting nearby communities. Reducing the need for such operations means neighborhoods will be less affected by these irritant, odors, and air pollutants that arise from such practices. Opting for food production that doesn’t emit these byproducts lowers the risk for experiencing respiratory problems, mental stress, and an elevated blood pressure.
Organic livestock must be raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior with specific requirements to meet such as: access to the outdoors, shade, clean and dry bedding, shelter, space for exercise, fresh air, clean drinking water, and direct sunlight.These organic management requirements reduce stress, reduce the incidence of diseases and supports animal welfare. Supply and demand work both ways—a shift in the food production landscape depends on a shift in our diets. We must be aware that our food choices ultimately impact more than just ourselves and primarily plant-based diets are best for both health outcomes and the environment.
The Ethical Side
In much of the developed world we have created a preconceived notion that livestock possess little to no intelligence and provide purely for utilitarian needs. This assumption however, had led to one of the most disastrous positive feedback loops on the planet. When you consider the billions of animals who are slaughtered yearly to feed the hunger and luxury of developed nations, it is difficult to not feel a sliver of compassion and doubt with the current path we are on with our glorified and mechanized meat industry. Using data collected over the years on animals emotional intelligence, coupled with the appeals to compassion from many farmers and butchers on the frontlines of these industries has led to the emergence of developing a new, sustainable alternatives to the environmental horrors of “Big Meat”. If one is willing to learn and accept the known data of animal emotional intelligence as well as the perspectives of those on the frontlines of the meat industry, they will have a difficult time excusing and/or justifying our current path of production. This does not mean that such evidence will be even remotely paramount to many (at times including myself) who partake and are very passionate about their meat eating habits. When comparing other metrics of this issue such as economics or environmental impact, Ethics seems from a factual standpoint, quite murky. The reality is that many do not view such treatment of animals as unethical at all. Many argue this is supplying man’s natural need for meat, however problematic the means of meeting those needs are. I offer those with such preconceptions an opportunity to understand and realize the sheer amount of pain and suffering that these animals must endure as well as insight into those how have to be the ones to bring such horror to the animals. One can easily imagine the beloved family dog in such conditions would be meant with ardant backlash. If such love and devotion can be manifested for man’s best friend, can the same be done for cows, chickens, sheep, and others?
For the sake of simplicity in such a large and pervasive industry, I will be focusing on cows as a vehicle for analysing the plight of farm animals as well as their emotional intelligence. This is also due to how cows beat all other animals in their environmental impacts. There are two main ways in which cattle is generally utilized in the meat industry: Traditional and Factory farming. Factory farming results in extremely cramped conditions, poor quality food such as corn feed, and an overall treatment of an extremely unhealthy lifestyle in order to “better prepare” the meat. This is the most extreme example of the two. In traditional farming, although cattle are given more space, grass fed, and for the majority of their live live relatively content lives. That is until they are brought to the slaughter, where they are rounded up into cages, tooken to the slaughterhouse, and are killed as painlessly as possible. Despite the degree of humane divide within these two practices, the treatment of these animals both provide horrific means to horrific ends. Although a cow will have considerably better life in a more traditional setting, there suffering and final moment of anxiety while being loaded into that cage only shows that we are only willing to put off avoidable suffering for these animals. When delving into these perspectives, one starts to realize the comparison many environmentalists use to the meat industry as some form of animal holocaust. According to Animal and Behavior Cognition.org, much evidence in the way of significant intelligence can be provided to better paint the picture as to how these cow interpret themselves and those around them. One of the first findings in the analysis of these research was as to how needless the methods of factory farming are when feeding people even when factoring in our current carrying capacity. Instead, these methods are utilized purely as a means of maximizing profits for multinational corporations. This, for the egregious actions, removes the notion that factory farming is a necessary evil. Although very limited in scope due to cow’s commodified place in our society, considerable tests have been done to test cow’s awareness. For instance the Krushinski test, in which a cart is pushed from one end of the tunnel to the other and tests if the animal checks the other side. Unsurprisingly, cows passed this test with flying colors, proving cows can interpret and anticipate future events. Cow have also been proven to display an adept ability at object discrimination and can remember humans who have treated them well and treated them poorly. This leads into their ability to distinguish between individuals, a precursor to actual individual recognition. If cows can know and remember horrific actions aimed at them from humans, is it not also reasonable to assume it is because they remember that pain and anticipate such pain returning?
Many have questioned our current way of providing for the masses, but none seem quite as powerful or influential than the farmers themselves. A wonderful mini-doc entitled 73 cows depicts an english farmer, Jay Wilde, and his struggle with depression in trying to transition out of the cattle business. Wilde simply describes the whole process as “heartbreaking” and feels he is leading the animals on in their life when he treats them kindly, only to be slaughtered in the end. It took many years, but Wilde was eventually able to sell his cattle to animal sanctuary with the help of The Vegan Society and their grown green campaign to help transition farmers to stock free farming. Over the next few years or so, the Vegan Society will be helping Jay and others like him in becoming plant based farmers who can plant crops such as hemp or fava beans. Although a small success story for the meat industry, the experience and journey that Jay and others like him have gone through could help provide a road map to more sustainable and ethical sound food production.
Globally, the amount of meat being consumed has more than tripled over the past 10 years . As a society as a whole we have a tendency to rely heavily on meat for a great portion in all of our daily meals. Although tasty and nutritious, it is very unsustainable to be consuming the amount of meat at the rate that we are currently consuming at. There’s more of an urge to cut back on our meat intake due to ,the prices for the product are skyrocketing, cows are expensive to raise, and the preparation for meat requires large quantities of water.
According to Aussieabattoirs.com, the typical slaughter age for a beef cow is eighteen months. Assuming they are well nourished and feed on a regular daily basis, than the costs for food and grooming can get expensive. According to www.drovers.com, “The cows are asked to pay fair market value for both grazed and fed feed. When pasture, cornstalks and hay are calculated in at market value, feed costs for the cow herd can easily be north of $550 per cow.” Although pricey, some may argue the expenses are worth it due to the revenue the meat industry is able to obtain. Based on the economic studies from, Meatpoultry.com, by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), “the meat and poultry industry contributes $1.02 billion to the economy while creating 5.4 million jobs that generate wages of $257 billion.”
The meat industry is a gateway to infinite opportunity. With meat being a main component in the average person’s dishes, the production of this product is constantly in high demand making the meat industry able to hire more people and create more available jobs. One of the problems that sustainability models will have to overcome is the profit that meat brings. This enables massive economic growth. As unsustainable as the large consumption of meat is, the facts are that this largely popular industry generates a lot of revenue and provides job opportunities. Meat requires large quantities of water in order to properly prepare the meat. According to news.cornell.edu, David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences explains how, “ Grain-fed beef production takes 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of food. Raising broiler chickens takes 3,500 liters of water to make a kilogram of meat.” Water shortages are becoming more problematic and taking place in a variety of areas around the globe. As the population continues to increase, there is a growing demand for more water to sustain all of our needs, especially in the agricultural field. In conclusion we as a society need to decrease our consumption of meat products in order to be more sustainable.