Aside from the deplorable treatment of farm animals, consider for a moment that giving up beef alone can have more environmental benefit than giving up your car

By Mat McDermott 

 The meat industry has carefully cultivated a benevolent image of itself and worked hard to instill that image in our minds. We look out over the quintessential American family farm. A dog sleeps on the large, hospitable front porch of an old white two-story house. The warm orange first light of day rises beyond a distant treeline over a lush green landscape. Fog rises from a small pond. Facing us is a red barn with open front doors. Just visible are rows of cows, eagerly awaiting their keeper’s attention. The farmer, dressed in denim overalls, white t-shirt and rubber boots, carries a wooden stool and a milk bucket into a clean stall to milk a black-and-white Holstein, her udder bulging. She steps forward to meet him, and he takes his seat and begins milking. A dog barks in the distance, and we hear a woman’s voice. The scene fades as milk fills the bucket under the farmer’s deft hands.

Marketers of milk, eggs and meat want us to believe our food is produced by this kindly bucolic chain. It starts with salt-of-the-Earth people working on small farms, lovingly caring for their animals; it ends with a happy, healthy family seated around the dinner table. No doubt there are still farmers who deeply care about the animals they raise. But statistically this image is as much a relic of America’s past as paddle­-wheel boats, bustle skirts and the wild West. 

The reality of the livestock industry is grim. Undercover investigators and whistle-blowing farm workers have made countless videos documenting the depraved treatment received by farm animals. These have spread via the internet to millions on their mobile phones. While these videos clearly show the inhumanity of the industry, they do not show its impact on the environment, which equals or even exceeds the devastation caused by our use of fossil fuels for energy and engines. 

The Scale of the Problem

To understand the sort of damage being caused by intensive raising of animals, we need to grasp the prodigious numbers of animals involved. USDA data shows that in 2015 9.2 billion land animals were killed in the United States alone for their meat—8.8 billion chickens, 232 million turkeys, 115 million pigs, 28 million cows, 28 million ducks and two million sheep. That’s 28 animals killed for every US resident. Globally, according to statistics compiled by Compassion in World Farming, 70 billion land animals are killed for food by humans, an average of 10 per human, with two-thirds of them raised on factory farms. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) places the total weight of meat produced in 2015 at 350 million tons. 

When you include sea life, the figures are even more mind boggling. Again based on FAO data, each year some 2.7 trillion animals are harvested from the world’s oceans, totaling 90-100 million tons of fish—386 sea creatures per person. But for now, we will focus on land animals and leave the impact on the oceans for another article.

Who Raises What and Where?

Estimates for 2016 break down like this: Global cattle production (for meat and milk) is led by India, with China and Brazil roughly tied for second place. The United States follows, with approximately half the numbers of India. Argentina rounds out the top five. If we only consider beef production, the United States leads the world, followed by Brazil, the European Union, China and India. Global milk production is dominated by the European Union (still including England, at this writing) and India, with the United States, China and Russia occupying positions three, four and five. 

Poultry production rankings are similar: the United States leads the world, followed by Brazil, China, the European Union and India (which produces less than half the amount as the EU). Global production of pigs is dominated far and away by China, with the numbers quickly falling off to place the EU in second place, followed by the US, Russia and Brazil.

The number of land animals killed for food is rising quickly in most places. Globally, 10 billion more animals are now killed each year than just five years ago, as reported by Compassion in World Farming. Over the past 50 years, while world population increased by 41 percent, global meat production quadrupled. By 2050, the FAO forecasts that global meat production will reach 500 million tons per year, 70 percent higher than even today. 

Much of this increase is due to the growing urban middle class in Asia’s emerging economies, as they mimic the West and adopt more meat-centric diets. China, for example, has largely abandoned its ancient fresh-food, plant-centered dietary traditions. Per-capita meat consumption has increased sixfold since 1980, along with rapidly rising consumption of Western-style fare—and a corresponding rise in obesity and diabetes. Since the turn of the century, obesity in China has risen 500 percent, and levels of diabetes now approach those of the US.

Western trends are less bleak. Meat consumption in Europe is more or less flat; and in the US—despite the still-staggering numbers of animals killed each year—the recent trend is towards slaughtering fewer animals. Increasing numbers of people are learning how eating less meat will benefit their own health, animal welfare and the Earth itself. In Great Britain, analyses produced in 2014 show that more than 12 percent of adults are now vegetarian, a statistic that increases to 20 percent for people aged 16 to 24. That’s significantly higher than in the US, where slightly more than three percent follow a vegetarian or vegan diet—though here, too, more young people are vegetarian, with an estimated 12 percent of millennials abstaining from meat. 

These lower percentages are now typical of wealthy nations. India, where the world’s greatest percentage of vegetarians live (roughly 20-30 percent, depending on the survey), is also trending toward less meat. In the past ten years, the number of vegetarians in India has increased by roughly four percent. 

What’s the Impact?

Raising all these animals, giving them grazing land and/or growing the crops required to feed them, requires an amazing amount of space. Nearly 80 percent of all agricultural land in the world is dedicated to livestock production in one way or another. One-third of the world’s arable land, amounting to 40 percent of the world’s cereal production, goes towards feed for livestock. Of non-arable land, slightly more than one quarter of the ice-free land in the world is used for grazing livestock. A disproportionate amount of this land goes to beef production. Even though humans consume more chicken and pork than beef, global beef production occupies 11.6 million square miles of land, while a total of only 1.5 million square miles is devoted to raising chicken and pigs. 

As we continue to put increasing acreage under cultivation, livestock production in particular has been decimating the world’s last remaining large forests, particularly the Amazon. According to the World Bank, animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91 percent of rainforest destruction worldwide. 

This destruction reduces habitat for forest-living humans and animal species; it increases carbon emissions and reduces the ability of the forest to store carbon dioxide. Moreover, the world’s equatorial rainforests significantly influence global weather. They cannot be destroyed without disrupting the weather patterns essential to the production of our own food crops. 

The livestock industry also creates enormous quantities of waste. The quantity of waste from a single dairy cow approximates that of 160 humans. USDA statistics show that in the US alone, seven million pounds of excrement is produced every minute by land animals raised for human consumption. A factory farm, with thousands of cattle confined to a small area, must use a prodigious amount of water to wash away the excrement. This water becomes so polluted that it can’t be sent into water treatment systems. Instead, it is often stored in large ponds—and some of this polluted water inevitably escapes the storage ponds to pollute our water supplies.
Where waterways meet the ocean, this pollution contributes to toxic algae blooms. 

All in all, up to one-third of all the world’s fresh water is devoted to animal agriculture. In the US this figure is even higher. There, 50-60 percent of available fresh water is used to grow feed for animals that will be slaughtered for their meat. 

The Production of Greenhouse Gases

Perhaps the worst form of pollution created by raising so many animals is invisible: increasing greenhouse gas emissions, in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. 

Calculating the contribution of animal agriculture among all of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions is somewhat complicated. Every aspect of the production cycle causes emissions: planting, growing, fertilizing and harvesting animal feed crops; transporting the crops to feedlots; raising and transporting the animals; slaughter, its associated refrigeration, transportation and waste disposal. Then there’s the transportation of the workers involved in all aspects of the process, as well as the energy required for marketing it all. 

There are many places in this production chain where the analysis could be stopped and still produce a reasonable assessment of the global warming attributable to meat eating, but there is no one standard place to do this. Estimates, therefore, are widely divergent. The most conservative assessments, coming from various reports from UN agencies, say animal agriculture causes 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s greater than all the emissions related to transporting humans around the planet. The highest estimate comes in a 2009 analysis done by the Worldwatch Institute. According to this research, which sets the widest boundaries of any study to date, fully half of all greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to raising animals for food. 

Threatening New Diseases

A more insidious problem is the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria caused by modern methods of raising farm animals. The unhygienic conditions impel farmers to routinely administer antibiotics to farm animals that are not sick, either as a preventative measure or simply to promote growth. Globally, more than half of all the antibiotics produced are given to farm animals. In the US, roughly 80 percent of antibiotics that could be used to treat infections in humans are instead given to farm animals. 

This overuse and misuse of antibiotics has hastened the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections. US Centers for Disease Control estimates that each year Americans incur at least two million antibiotic-resistant infections. Nearly a quarter of these are linked to food-borne pathogens. The seriousness of this situation has prompted the CDC to advise, “Antibiotics should be used in food-producing animals only under veterinary oversight and only to manage and treat infectious diseases, not to promote growth.” The threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria is so severe that the United Nations has characterized it as a global crisis. Only three other health issues have ever been the focus of high-level general assembly meetings: HIV, Ebola and noncommunicable diseases. All 193 member states have signed a declaration agreeing to combat the proliferation of antibiotic resistance. 

Your Actions Matter

Our personal dietary choices make a real difference, in some cases quite dramatically. Using carbon emissions as a proxy for overall environmental effect, and using average estimates of US patterns, a vegetarian diet is two-thirds less harmful than the standard American diet. A vegan diet—abstaining from all animal products—has an even lower carbon footprint. Eating only fish, eschewing all land animals, has a marginally higher carbon footprint than a vegetarian diet. 

Just by eliminating beef from your diet, your personal environmental impact is just slightly higher than a vegetarian diet. The impact of beef is so high, in fact, that giving up beef could be more beneficial for the planet than giving up your car. 

This article has examined only the environmental impact of livestock production. Other important considerations include the inhumane treatment of animals in factory farm conditions, the health benefits of following a plant-based diet, and the benefit of viewing diet from a spiritual angle, rooted in ahimsa—striving to reduce the suffering caused by our actions. Demanding of special mention is the global hunger issue: 20 million people die of malnutrition per year, including one child every 2.3 seconds. One hundred million people could be adequately fed using the land freed if Americans reduced their intake of meat by a mere 10%. Considering all this, the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet are many and compelling.

Eating is a daily reminder of the biological, philosophical and spiritual interconnectedness of existence. At every meal of every day, most of us have the luxury of choosing which foods we will eat. Even if that choice has become habitual, dictated by tradition, cost or other factors, it is still a choice. In making that choice, we can either ignore the harm it may cause to other beings and our shared planet—or we can choose to lessen harm, to lessen suffering, to support planetary and personal well being and to allay global food shortages by freeing up land and water resources for crop production.

Hindu Scriptures Say

How can he practice true compassion
who eats the flesh of an animal to fatten his own flesh?
— Tirukural 251

If the world did not purchase and consume meat,

no one would slaughter and offer meat for sale. — Tirukural 256

Greater than a thousand ghee offerings consumed in sacrificial fires
is to not sacrifice and consume any living creature
. — Tirukural 259

The purchaser of flesh performs violence by his wealth; he who eats flesh does so by enjoying its taste; the killer does violence by actually tying and killing the animal. Thus, there are three forms of killing. He who brings flesh or sends for it, he who cuts off the limbs of an animal, and he who purchases, sells, or cooks flesh and eats it, all of these are to be considered meat-eaters. — Mahabharata Anu. 115.40

Bhishma said: “That man who wishes to increase his own flesh by the meat of another living creature is such that there is none meaner and more cruel than he. In this world there is nothing that is dearer to a creature than his life. Hence, one should show mercy to the lives of others as he does to his own life. Forsooth, O son, flesh has its origin in the vital seed. There is great sin attached to its eating, as, indeed, there is merit in abstaining from it.” — Mahabharata 116.11-13 

Leaders Try for Change

As global dietary trends are changing (more meat in some places, less in others), a few governments are taking the lead to encourage more plant-focused eating. 

Turin, Italy

Turin is located in a region of Italy famous for meat-based dishes, but last summer the new mayor, Chiara Appendino, made promoting vegetarian and vegan diets “a priority,” citing those dietary choices as fundamental for environmental protection, personal health and the wellbeing of animals. Change is seldom easy, however. She has received serious pushback from meat producers and ridicule on social media.

Denmark’s Proposed Meat Tax

In Denmark, which has one of the higher per-capita levels of meat consumption in Europe, the Danish Council of Ethics has proposed an increased tax on beef, to be extended in the future to all red meat. Recognizing the tremendous extent to which climate change is driven by beef production, the Council said that if the nation is to meet its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they cannot simply rely on their citizens to make the ethical choice to stop consuming beef.

Is a Positive Relationship with Farm Animals Even Possible?

 Is it possible for humans to embody the highest ideals of ahimsa and still use animals in agriculture, either as draft animals or for dairy and other products that don’t involve killing them? Is it possible to raise animals other than pets in ways that are mutually respectful and mutually beneficial?

Considering the massive environmental problems now caused by animal agriculture and the increasingly well-documented abuses caused to animals by industrialized farming, this is not a mere academic question or one for hard-core ecological and animal-rights advocates. Nor is it intended as a rhetorical question, with the implied answer being, “Of course not; all animal agriculture is exploitative”—a reply sometimes given by vegan activists. 

Today we have living examples of communities and organizations attempting to raise animals in ways that uphold the spirit of nonviolence. The Bishnoi community in India is a classic example. They maintain amazingly positive and interactive relationships with both wild and domesticated animals. In Europe and North America there are ongoing attempts by Hindu organizations to produce milk on farms that eschew the usual cruel practices, such as selling off male calves for beef, forced pregnancy schedules, and sending older animals to slaughter when they no longer produce milk in the desired quantities.

These examples show that small-scale alternatives to the current norm of animal agriculture can be functional. Perhaps we should ask, is it possible to have a respectful, mutually beneficial and nonviolent relationship with farm animals at the scale needed to meet the nutritional needs of seven billion people? What would such a system look like? Could anything approaching the current milk production be sustained by such a system? Could it be  compatible with a rapidly urbanizing human population?   

Collectively as a species, we are in unknown territory, and the answers to these questions are simply unknown. Moving to a plant-based diet is one obvious solution. Even mainstream medicine is finally making that recommendation, simply from the standpoint of human health. There may be hope for change in the recent investment by USA’s biggest meat producer, Tyson Foods, in the vegan company Beyond Meat. But unless enough of us begin to take responsibility for our dietary choices—with a strong focus on our health and the health and welfare of animals, other humans and the planet as a whole—continued harm will remain the order of the day.