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Farm Sanctuary: Environmental Impact

Cultivating Destruction The global impact of industrial cruelty
By Cara Hoffman

Your mother was right. You should eat your vegetables. But she may not have told you why. She may not have told you the consequences of maintaining a diet based on animal products would lead to widespread environmental destruction, resource depletion and a global health crisis unparalleled in human history. That kind of reasoning you would have been sure to remember.

To her credit, dietary advice on the subject of global warming and environmental health was never as definitive as it is today. But with the recent release of several international reports on global warming, the most pressing issue of our time has become impossible to ignore. The United Nations has called on governments and individuals to open their eyes to climate change, calling it "the most serious challenge facing the human race." More than any other factor, how we meet that challenge will depend on what we eat.

Wasting Away

According to a 2006 UN-sponsored report titled "Livestock's Long Shadow," factory farming plays a major role in every aspect of environmental collapse, from ozone depletion to ocean dead zones. Though the report has been reinforced by further studies over the past two years, it gained greater momentum in 2007 with the push to track the "carbon footprints" of corporations and individuals.

Factory farms, which hold tens of thousands of animals per facility in windowless warehouses throughout the country, are responsible for more than 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This vastly outstrips the carbon footprint of the transportation industry. Thirty-seven percent of those gases are derived from methane (which has 23 times the global warming impact of CO2).

Emissions from industrial farming aren't just caused by cow burps. They are also caused by the one billion tons of waste (including 64 percent of ammonia emissions, the primary producer of acid rain) produced by suffering animals held in extreme confinement.

Containing high levels of hormones and pesticides, this untreated toxic waste is converted into concentrated liquid sewage, known as "slurry." Stored in vast 25-million-gallon lagoons, this endlessly increasing waste releases gases into the atmosphere before it is used to fertilize feed crops. The leading cause of soil and groundwater contamination, lagoon breaches and fertilizer spills are incredibly common.

Because these industrial operations are considered "farms," or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), they are not subject to industrial emissions standards required by the Department of Environmental Conservation and Environmental Protection Agency.

Even as industrial farms produce more emissions than transportation, they are also responsible for a majority of emissions produced by all transportation functions. Most food animals travel hundreds of thousands of miles in their lifetimes as they are transported between various operations such as stockyards and slaughterhouses. Maintaining the support industries of factory farming also takes a toll on local environments. Planting, fertilizing, irrigating and harvesting feed crops, continually pumping water and sewage, running packing plants and slaughterhouses, (which kill 250 cows an hour), all rely on heavy machinery and fossil fuel consumption.

Because of the deforestation, soil erosion and desertification these support industries cause, they are fundamentally unsustainable and have an extremely negative impact on the environment. Thirty percent of the earth's land is now occupied by livestock, with another 33 percent devoted to GMO feed crops, and this number is expanding every year. Seventy percent of previously forested land in the Amazon has been converted into cropland and pastures, destroying biodiversity, introducing carcinogenic pesticides, and playing a primary role in pushing species toward extinction at a rate 500 times of that we ought to be experiencing according to models based on fossil records.

Protecting the Source

In the context of the global water supply, the impact of animal agriculture threatens utter catastrophe. Factory farming is responsible for 37 percent of pesticide contamination, 50 percent of antibiotic contamination and one-third of the nitrogen and phosphorus loads found in freshwater.

Poisoning water is bad enough, but depleting the supply borders on the suicidal. The majority of the earth's water is now used to support animal agriculture, and much of it cannot be reclaimed. It takes thousands of gallons of water to produce one pound of factory farmed beef. This means a single person can save more water simply by not eating a pound of beef than they could by not showering for an entire year.

But it's not only fresh water sources that are at risk; ocean waters are also imperiled. Dead zones, vast stretches of costal waters in which nothing can live, are created by untreated hormone-, nitrate- and antibiotic-laden agricultural waste seeping into the soil, groundwater and rivers before contaminating the ocean, the source of all life on earth. According to the EPA, 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and groundwater in 17 states has been permanently contaminated by industrial farm waste.

Despite these horrifying statistics, global production of meat and milk is projected to double in the next 10 years.

With the average American already consuming more than 200 pounds of meat per year, the choice to support industrial farming is devastating from an environmental perspective, exacerbating global warming and jeopardizing a plentiful food supply for future generations that today we take for granted.

The Compassionate Revolution

While factory farming's role in ecological degradation is not news to many animal advocates, few environmental organizations have based their call to action on the direct link between the cruelty of the "food animal industry" and our current ecological crisis.

A groundbreaking partnership between Farm Sanctuary and the international environmental group Brighter Green intends to change that. Brighter Green, an action and research organization advancing public policy on the environment, equity, animals, and rights, was founded last year by Mia Macdonald, a senior fellow at the World Watch Institute, and Martin Rowe, author and co-founder of Lantern Books. The organization's focus is to work across various sectors to advance research and public policy on the root causes of crucial environmental concerns.

Farm Sanctuary President Gene Baur says the collaboration with Brighter Green is only natural. Farm policy, he says, not only concerns animal rights advocates, but also those invested in issues of economic justice, human health and the environment.

"The price we're paying for denying the links we share to all living things is obviously an economy and a culture based on ecological collapse," Baur says. "The lack of laws to protect farm animals has lead to a rise in practices that are not only unconscionably cruel, but completely unsustainable from a global perspective."

This summer, Farm Sanctuary and Brighter Green are co-sponsoring a whitepaper on the $90 billion congressional Farm Bill, a piece of legislation used to subsidize corporate agribusiness. Baur says the whitepaper is expected to have a major impact on public policy and public debate. Its release marks a new holistic approach appropriate to the sweeping impact of the environmental crisis.

"The problems and issues we are facing today all have multiple entry points," Macdonald says. "Globalization, public health, sustainability, poverty, gender issues, are all key elements in putting together policies that will truly be effective. Factory farming is not just a concern because it produces toxic waste. The environmental impact of factory farming is a direct result of animal cruelty. The concerns of animal rights activists have an equal place at the table when discussing environmental policy and strategy."

Among the recommendations in the co-sponsored report is a call for Congress to end the Farm Bill's silence on farm animal welfare, support small and organic farms, eliminate programs that promote the spread of factory farms, and ensure the protection of wildlife habitats.

Baur and Macdonald are calling on every sector of our society to look closely at the causes and the end results of industrial farming. They both acknowledge that in an immediate sense, adopting a meat-free diet may be the most rewarding and effective step an individual can take to help save the planet.

"Viewing any animals as commodities has had a profoundly negative impact on understanding the world we live in," Baur says. "There is no more important task at hand than combating the false notion that the entire natural world is economically quantifiable or exists simply for our purposes alone."

"An animal, an ocean, a forest, a species, are not separate, but intimately connected in every way," he adds.

Baur admits that all environmental groups have an uphill climb. But he says the philosophical approach Farm Sanctuary and Brighter Green are taking is rooted in "patience, persistence and the belief that at heart we all want the same thing."

"Every living thing shares common interests and concerns," Baur says. "No one likes blood and violence and gore. No one wants to see gratuitous suffering of any kind prevail."

While groups like Brighter Green and Farm Sanctuary continue to make the point that the leviathan of industrial agribusiness must be confronted by a broad international coalition that represents various interests throughout the environmental movement, they also believe deeply that an individual has the power to make a difference.

"Factory farming represents a race to the bottom for all species," Baur says. "But fortunately there is another choice, a simple one that everyone has the power to make: don't eat meat."

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A UN report, released by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations reveals the devastating impact and cost of industrialized animal agriculture on the environment.  

In 2007, the United Nations published a report on livestock and the environment with a stunning conclusion: 'The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.' It turns out that raising animals for food is a primary cause of land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and not least of all, global warming. 

According to the UN report, almost a fifth of global warming emissions come from livestock, which equals more emissions than come from all of the world's transportation combined. To someone who hasn't heard these statistics before, it could be hard to imagine how this is true, until you become aware of the vast scale of the animal industry. 

The United States alone slaughters more than 10 billion land animals every year... . Land animals raised for food make up a staggering 20% of the entire land animal biomass of the earth. We are eating our planet to death. 

Then there is the fact that feeding animals for meat, dairy, and eggs requires around ten times as much grain as we'd need to feed the population a plant-based diet. When you add the environmental cost of transportation and refrigeration, it turns out that a calorie of meat protein requires ten times as much in the way of fossil fuels as a calorie of plant protein. On top of that, the production of that same calorie of protein releases more than ten times as much carbon dioxide. 

The researchers found that, when it's all added up, the average American does more to reduce global warming emissions by going vegetarian than by switching to a Prius. 

Kathy Freston goes on to discuss the vast quantities of land required for animal farming. 

Animal agriculture takes up an incredible 70% of all agricultural land, and 30% of the total land surface of the planet. As a result, farmed animals are probably the biggest cause of slashing and burning the world's forests. Today, 70% of former Amazon rainforest is used for pastureland, and feed crops cover much of the remainder. 

As the forests of the planet are designed to absorb carbon dioxide from the air, burning them not only destroys the very systems that are designed to process all the gases we are producing, but it also releases all the stored carbon dioxide, "in quantities that exceed by far the fossil fuel emission of animal agriculture."

And of course, most people are aware now that as well as carbon dioxide, there are other greenhouse gases that are produced in large quantities by huge herds of farmed animals. According to Freston's article, methane and nitrous oxide have "23 and 296 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, respectively… while animal agriculture accounts for 9% of our carbon dioxide emissions, it emits 37% of our methane, and a whopping 65% of our nitrous oxide."

She goes on to explain how farming food animals is also one of the biggest causes of some of our other global environmental problems:  

Animal agriculture accounts for most of the water consumed in this country, emits two-thirds of the world's acid-rain-causing ammonia, and is the world's largest source of water pollution--killing entire river and marine ecosystems, destroying coral reefs, and of course, making people sick. 

All of these statistics seem to add up to one profound conclusion: We simply cannot go on like this. The ethical question of vegetarianism in regard to the animals who are the innocent victims of our eating habits has been debated for centuries, leading to a growing population of ethical vegetarians and vegans. Now there are other issues to be considered, issues which are extremely time-sensitive when it comes to the future of our planet and the human population.

It seems that we have created a situation for ourselves where, if we want to turn this global catastrophe around, we simply must re-examine our old ways of thinking, and the biggest thing we need to address is the way we eat. Fortunately, in today's society, the options are plentiful, information is readily accessible and the choice is easier than it has ever been. 

Act now, go vegan.  

Interesting reading: 

The Impact of Animal Agriculture on Global Warming and Climate Change – HSUS report
Eating our Future – World Society for the Protection of Animals
Industrial Animal Agriculture – Part of the Poverty Problem, a WSPA report 

Human overpopulation is the real problem.  I’m sure there will come a time when we will cease to exist as a species. 

December 20, 2013 Tax meat to cut methane emissions, say scientists

December 2, 2015 Vegan Signs Dominate Climate Marches Vegans dominate in April 2017 Toronto march

Read: human population

Advancing humanity; choosing a plant-based diet; thou shalt not kill