With the climate generally growing warmer, it becomes more urgent and imperative to slow climate disruption. Recently, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report after reviewing 6,000 scientific studies and references. The IPCC suggests that it is vital that we keep the temperature delta within 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to the preindustrial historical average. If we were to exceed that level, we may see runaway climate warming. This dire situation demands that we do everything possible to improve our path forward.
In this article, we cover the climate change connection to animal agriculture as well as other animal agriculture issues, such as biodiversity loss, acid rain, air pollution, topsoil erosion, and desertification.
In future articles in this series, we’ll cover other topics related to animal agriculture, such as freshwater use, freshwater quality, water pollution violations, fishes and other sea animals, ocean hypoxia, declining phytoplankton in the oceans, wildlife habitat encroachment and extinctions, concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) odors, financially marginalized communities, antibiotics produced in the US, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, veganic food production, world hunger, tax subsidies for animal agriculture, hidden costs of animal agriculture including subsidized fast foods, slaughterhouse PTSD and alcohol/drug abuse, domestic abuse, human rights issues, and more.
The Dominant Paradigm
Environmentalists are in a unique position to see and question the dominant paradigm because we do so regularly in this oil-coal-gas-nuclear world. Environmentalists regularly experience the mainstream media forcing a viewpoint that is inaccurate due to undue influence from an overbearing industry–government complex that subsidizes these outdated energy industries.
We understand the case for replacing these subsidized and inefficient industries with state-of-the-art renewable energy. We know what it’s like to swim upstream against the dominant paradigm. We know what it’s like to capture the urgency of a situation in the face of blank stares.
This article is about adding another item to the environmentalist’s set of desired outcomes, beyond a 100% renewable energy planet, something we need in order to help the planet remain sustainable. This additional construct promotes the process of ending animal agriculture and encourages everyone to live vegan. Environmentalists and vegans have a shared type of knowledge experience, which is like being the main character in a horror movie who has seen the demon but no one believes you.
Vegans face the same blank stares when making the case for a plant-based and vegan world that environmentalists face when we state that we could have 100% renewable energy now with current technology if only we had the collective political will for sensible energy investments. Both groups face a dominant paradigm influenced by tradition, culture, and a financially driven industry–media–government complex that perpetuates the status quo at the expense of reason.
Environmental activists call upon individuals in aligned groups to see through the haze across disciplines. Activists call upon individuals to become disruptors of every useless, anachronistic, dominant paradigm.
It is appropriate for environmental and renewable energy communities to look at our mutually desired shared outcome, which is a sustainable world, and join forces. This article and broader series explores other contributors to global warming, beyond fossil fuels, and ways that we as individuals can contribute to slowing this process. A significant change that could be made to effect such change is ending animal agriculture (ag, for short) and replacing it with plant-based food systems. This article explores the data, incentives, rationale, and opportunities for such a shift in modern society.
While veganism by definition incorporates all aspects of animal use, including entertainment, clothing, experiments, food, and other uses, this article primarily focuses on animals being used in animal agriculture, as this is the aspect of animal use that causes the most environmental degradation.
The information presented here about the environmental impact of animal agriculture and moving us toward a vegan planet is in no way intended to diminish our collective commitment to renewable energy. Both commitments are kept simultaneously by green vegans.
Climate Change & Greenhouse Gases (GHGs)
The studies and evidence have been mounting for decades. Animal agriculture is very damaging to the environment in many ways, including contributing damaging GHGs in significant volumes that contribute to climate change.
A CNN opinion piece titled “Go vegan, save the planet” starts with: “As public attention focuses on the impact of policy changes on the climate, we may overlook an important contributor to the climate crisis: our food systems and the daily food choices we make. It may sound hyperbolic that our roast beef sandwich is contributing to environmental degradation of the planet. But mounting evidence of the impact requires our attention and action as global citizens.
“And each of us can do something about it, today, by taking what we eat as seriously as we take climate change.”
In the UK’s METRO publication, the writer states: “a paper published in the journal Science found that adopting a vegan diet ‘has transformative potential,’ including reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 6.6 billion metric tons (a 49% reduction).
“An abundance of evidence backs this up, as the brutal environmental impact of our addiction to meat and dairy has been clear for some time.
“In 2006, the United Nations found that the animal agriculture industry is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the combined exhaust from transportation.
“Methane is 86 times more destructive than CO2 over a 10 to 20-year period, and a single cow produces between 250 and 500 liters [66 to 132 gallons] of methane per day.
“Animal agriculture is also responsible for huge emissions (73% in the US) of nitrous oxide, a gas which is 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.
“There are countless other environmental impacts of meat and dairy.
“With the future of freshwater under threat, the United Nations warns that cattle rearing, in particular, has an enormous impact on water use.”
An article in One Green Planet states: “Among the major issues we face in the modern day are climate change, dwindling natural resources, global health epidemics, and the inhumane treatment of animals. What do all of these problems have in common? Each one is intrinsically linked to and largely driven by our global society’s dependence on animal-sourced protein.
“As developing nations have gained wealth and worldwide demand for meat and dairy has subsequently risen, the animal agriculture industry has mastered the art of producing animal products en masse in the cheapest, most ‘efficient’ way possible.
“As a direct result, the environment, our resources, and all life on Earth are now in grave danger. In fact, our obsession with cheeseburgers and chicken wings has gotten us into such a disastrous situation that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently labeled meat as ‘the world’s most urgent problem.’ And this is not an exaggeration, unfortunately.
“After all, industrial animal agriculture is responsible for producing more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector combined. Not to mention this destructive industry is to blame for widespread air and water pollution, plus mass deforestation, all of which are threatening species around the world and rapidly advancing global warming and resultant climate change.
“Given the magnitude of the problems associated with industrial meat and dairy production, scientific experts have emphasized that there is simply no way for us to meet the targets spelled out in the Paris Climate Agreement unless we significantly cut back the scale of animal agriculture on an international level.
The Pachamama Alliance adds: “Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions— more than the entire transportation sector. When you consider livestock and their byproducts, it accounts for 51 percent of global greenhouse emissions.
“The industry is more destructive to our global climate than most people realize. That’s largely because roughly 65 percent of Nitrous Oxide emissions (a greenhouse gas which is 296x more destructive than CO2) is a result of livestock.”
Loss of Biodiversity
Biodiversity, a term coined in 1985 by b Walter G. Rosen, is defined as the richness in variety and variability of a species of all living organisms in a given habitat. This includes plants, animals, insects, and other life forms. The Pachamama Alliance states: “Up to 137 plant, animal and insect species are lost every day because of the destruction of these biodiverse regions of our planet. Specifically, within the Amazon rainforest— the home for at least 10 percent of the world’s known biodiversity— 91 percent of deforestation is caused by livestock.”
United Nations and European Commission Urges a Plant-Based Diet
To stop global warming from exceeding above 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), we will be able to avert “rising sea levels, extinction of species, homes and habitats destroyed by flooding, loss of arable land, famine, and drought.” Angela Cropper, Deputy Executive Director of UNEP (UN Environmental Program) states: “To save the Earth, we are at the stage where the issue of sustainable consumption, which has long been talked about in the corridors and in the back rooms, but never frontally as an important item in public policy has now come to the fore, [and] is now very much on the tables of governments, and the United Nations system.
“… Assessing Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials identified two leading causes of environmental pressure: fossil fuels and agriculture, with specific attention given to the livestock raising sector.”
Edgar Hertwich, from Norwegian University of Science & Technology, a co-author of the report, states: “So, what I see is that actually … meat has a higher energy use per calorie produced or per kilogram [2.2 pounds] produced than vegetables.” Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker, former Chairman of the Bundestag Environment committee, states: “If we spread our limited resources too thinly, and hope that everything is profitable, we lose. We have to find priorities, and this report is about finding priority.”
In short, the UN study and its declarations suggest that shifting to a plant-based diet will help the environment in a primary and significant manner to retard the process of global warming.
Carbon Footprint Specifics
“Researchers at the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy products from [one’s] diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 percent.”
Perhaps a bigger issue than the carbon dioxide that we do not put into the atmosphere by avoiding animal ag products is the methane, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, nitric oxides, and other greenhouse gases and air pollutants that we avoid by living plant-based.
Animal agriculture manure and urine produces 400 separate air polluters, including carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrogen sulfide
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of different greenhouse gases vary. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is rated as the baseline 1. Methane (CH4) has a rating of 28 to 36 impact over 100 years.
Much of the emissions from animal farming is methane from animals belching, creating flatulence, and their accumulating and lingering excrement. What is less apparent regarding animal manure and urine is that it collects while the animals are alive, but lingers long after the animals have been killed and eaten. This residual voluminous manure and urine continue to off-gas methane, hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and carbon dioxide.
According to One Green Planet: “People often believe that animal manure is harmless, but in truth it can be quite hazardous. Factory livestock facilities pollute the air and release over 400 separate gasses (sic), mostly due to the large amounts of manure they produce. The principal gases released are hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, and carbon dioxide. Gasses (sic) can be dangerous air pollutants that threaten both the environment and human health. Nitric oxides are also released in large quantities from farms through manure application, and are among the leading causes of acid rain.”
Animal Agriculture Increases Acid Rain
The acid rain connection is explained here by One Green Planet: “Another problem with the animal waste collecting in the massive lagoons is that the waste breaks down and forms ammonia gas. This then breeds bacteria, which combines with other pollutants in the air to form nitric acid. The nitric acid builds up in the atmosphere and then returns to the surface of the earth as acid rain, harming soil, forest habitats, and water ecosystems.”
Air Quality Impact from Animal Agriculture
Regarding air pollution from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and manure lagoons, Christine Ball-Blakely in her CAFOs: Plaguing North Carolina Communities of Color report states: “CAFOs produce emissions that fuel climate change and diminish ambient air quality. Indeed, between the animals themselves and the degrading waste in lagoons and on sprayfields, CAFOs cause asthma, acid range, and climate change by releasing the following into the air: 400 volatile organic compounds (VOC), particulate matter (PM), methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, ozone, endotoxins, and noxious odors.
“These emissions are so concentrated that it can be dangerous even to approach a lagoon—particularly in hot summer months. ‘The oxygen-deficient, toxic, and/or explosive atmosphere which can develop in a manure pit has claimed many lives.’ There are multiple tales of farm workers who entered lagoons to make repairs and succumbed to the emissions. Some died from hydrogen sulfide poisoning, while others asphyxiated in the oxygen-starved air. Others died after collapsing during rescue attempts.”
Truth or Drought, a science-based animal-environmental group, shares the following graphic and caption:
John Robbins, heir to part the Baskin-Robbins fortune who left the family business to become a vegan activist and educator, states in his groundbreaking book Diet for a New America that a vegan can be sustained on 1/18th as much land as an animal eater. If we adopted a plant-based food model for humans, this would free up land for wildlife habitat, which has been reduced significantly in the recent century due primarily to animal agriculture.
The Independent states: “Meanwhile, if everyone stopped eating these [animal-based] foods, they found that global farmland use could be reduced by 75 percent, an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined.
“Not only would this result in a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, it would also free up wild land lost to agriculture, one of the primary causes for mass wildlife extinction.”
Topsoil Erosion and Desertification
According to the United Nations Knowledge Hub: “A third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year, according to a new United Nations-backed study that calls for a shift away from destructively intensive agriculture.”
More from The Guardian: “‘As the ready supply of healthy and productive land dries up and the population grows, competition is intensifying for land within countries and globally,’ said Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) at the launch of the Global Land Outlook.”
The Guardian article continues: “The Global Land Outlook is billed as the most comprehensive study of its type, mapping the interlinked impacts of urbanization, climate change, erosion and forest loss. But the biggest factor is the expansion of industrial farming.”
Lumen states: “Grazing animals wander over large areas of pasture or natural grasslands eating grasses and shrubs. Grazers expose soil by removing the plant cover for an area. They also churn up the ground with their hooves. If too many animals graze the same land area, the animals’ hooves pull plants out by their roots.”
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization claims: “Livestock on grazing lands. … About 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land is grazing land, supporting about 360 million cattle and over 600 million sheep and goats.” This animal model is paid for by people who buy animal products. The farmed animal presence on the land displacing wildlife habitats and harming the plants and ecosystem are entirely optional, and unnecessary.
The World Wildlife Fund states: “Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. In addition to erosion, soil quality is affected by other aspects of agriculture. These impacts include compaction, loss of soil structure, nutrient degradation, and soil salinity. These are very real and at times severe issues.
“The effects of soil erosion go beyond the loss of fertile land. It has led to increased pollution and sedimentation in streams and rivers, clogging these waterways and causing declines in fish and other species. And degraded lands are also often less able to hold onto water, which can worsen flooding.”
Subsequent articles in this series will cover freshwater use, freshwater quality, water pollution violations, fishes and other sea animals, ocean hypoxia, declining phytoplankton in the oceans, wildlife habitat encroachment and extinctions, concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) odors, financially marginalized communities, antibiotics produced in the US, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, veganic food production, world hunger, tax subsidies for animal agriculture, hidden costs of animal agriculture including subsidized fast foods, slaughterhouse PTSD and alcohol/drug abuse, domestic abuse, human rights issues, and more.