The livestock industry is one of the most significant contributors to today's serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. Switching to a plant based diet is the single most effective choice that an individual can make to combat the effects of climate change.
Most people today recognise the importance of reducing their own ‘eco-footprint’. Many have begun to switch to water saving and power saving devices, hybrid cars, renewable energy sources and are even driving less. However, one of the simplest and yet most significant choices we can make to reduce our environmental impact has been mostly overlooked.
Switching to a vegetarian diet is arguably the most effective way to ‘go green’. Research has found that being veg can halve your dietary greenhouse gas footprint.1 Not only does livestock production require more land, water, fossil fuels and other resources than the production of edible crops, the U.N. has also identified the livestock industry as ‘one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems’, including global warming, loss of fresh water, rainforest destruction, spreading deserts, air and water pollution, acid rain, soil erosion and loss of habitat.1That’s not all—80% of the deforestation in the once mighty Amazon2; 64% of all the acid rain-producing ammonia; and 15 out of the 24 global ecosystems that are in decline can be attributed to the effects of livestock production.3
Internationally, the livestock industry is responsible for more global warming than all the planes, trains and automobiles in the world combined.3 Most of the related emissions are in the form of methane from livestock—a gas that is 21 times more harmful than CO2. In fact, senior NASA Climate Change modellers now think that controlling methane could be a critical first step in attacking climate change.4
According to experts, 1Kg of beef is the equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions as driving roughly 170Km in a large family vehicle.5
More than one billion people worldwide already ‘lack enough safe water to meet minimum levels of health and income’.6 And worldwide water shortages are a growing threat.
The consumption of animal products is playing a critical role in depleting and polluting the world's scarce freshwater resources, as these products have a larger water footprint than plant crops.16
The average meat eater’s diet requires fifteen times more water than a plant based diet. That means that switching to a plant based diet can save roughly 5 million litres per year.7 That's more water than you'd use for showers in two lifetimes!
Land destruction & deforestation
In Australia, 58% of the land is used for agriculture and principally for grazing animals and the production of crops used in animal feed.8 Worldwide, livestock now use 30% of the earth’s entire land surface.3 According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), ‘the number of people fed in a year per hectare ranges from 22 for potatoes and 19 for rice down to 1 and 2 people respectively for beef and lamb’.
To create grazing land, trees and vegetation must be cleared, and habitats must be destroyed. Livestock trample or eat any remaining native vegetation.9
“Every second of every day, one football field of tropical rainforest is destroyed in order to produce 257 hamburgers.”
According to many experts on desertification, the Sahara Desert—a once lush and fertile region—was caused by slashing and burning, primarily for animal grazing—the same method used throughout the world today, and now being used in the Amazon.9
Globally, livestock now produce 130 times the amount of waste that humans do. This waste is usually untreated and unsanitary, bubbling with chemicals and disease-bearing organisms.10
A farm with 5,000 pigs produces as much waste as a town of 20,000 people and yet this waste remains untreated. This in turn pollutes the soil, surface water, runs off into oceans and pollutes underground drinking water.11
It's not only land that livestock effluent pollutes. This waste runs off into oceans and can destroy entire ecosystems, creating ‘dead zones’.
Dead zones are areas in the world’s oceans where marine life cannot be supported due to depleted oxygen. They are primarily caused by increases in chemical nutrients in the water, such as from chemical fertilisers and livestock effluent. Research has identified more than 400 dead zones in the world’s oceans, affecting a total area of more than 245,000km2 -- an area bigger than Victoria.12 A huge dead zone has developed at the mouth of the Mississippi at the Gulf of Mexico, where waste from most of the US's midwestern agribusiness waste drains off. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone fluctuates in size, reaching as high as 21,756km2 in size13, and can be seen from space.
Emptying the oceans
Trawling is one of the most common forms of commercial fishing in the world. As large trawling nets grind over the sandy ocean floor, hundreds of different sea animals are killed, including the destruction of hundreds of year old coral.
Non-target animals caught in indiscriminate trawling nets called ‘bycatch’ are simply tossed back. Of those that aren't already dead, many will die.
Over fishing can lead to a dramatic reduction in marine populations, destroying the balance of marine ecosystems, the effect of which can be devastating. The CSIRO expects fish catches to drop by 70,000 tonnes per year (around 35%) by 2050 due to overfishing in the 1980's and 1990's.14 Fish farming or ‘aquaculture’ is having a similarly devastating affect, due to the need to catch masses of fish from the oceans to feed captive fish in farmed enclosures.14
The World Health Organisation estimates one in three people are affected by malnutrition—a factor in at least half of the 10.4 million child deaths each year.15 Yet, between one third to one half the world’s edible harvests are fed to livestock.6
Worst of all, land in developing countries that could be used for production of crops for hungry humans is instead used to produce and export crops to feed to farmed animals in developed countries. At the height of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, they were still exporting feed crops to Europe. During severe food shortages in North Korea in 1997, they still exported 1,000 tonnes of maize to Japan for poultry feed.5 And Brazil (the world’s main agricultural exporter) clears vast expanses of rainforest to grow soya beans to feed to chickens in Europe and Japan. Meanwhile the FAO reports that 16.7 million people in that country are undernourished.16
Conservative estimates predict that a 50% reduction in meat consumption in developed countries could save 3.6 million children from malnutrition.6 When these estimates are projected to all people in extreme poverty (not just children) it is estimated that 33.6 million people could be saved from malnutrition.
The evidence is clear: the production of livestock for human consumption is having a devastating impact on the planet and its people. Switching to a healthy vegetarian diet not only saves the lives of animals, it may even save ourselves, and the planet.