Factory Farming / Water Eutrophication / Bio Accumulation / Nitrogen Pollution / Manure / Acid Rain / Water Usage / Top Soil / Energy / Inefficiency of Meat / Global Warming / Meat - Guilty / Wildlife / Desertification / Species Loss / Fishing / Fish Farming / Conclusion / References
Global warming is increasing, the hole in the ozone layer is getting bigger, rainforests are disappearing, deserts are expanding, fossil fuels are running out and seas are dying.
So what's this got to do with diet? Everything!
The meat industry directly contributes to all the major environmental catastrophes facing our planet. The number of farmed animals in the world has quadrupled in the last 50 years, and this puts an incredible strain on the environment. Food production no longer nurtures the land; instead both animals and soil are pushed to their limits and beyond in an effort to satisfy the voracious appetite of the western world. It is an appetite for both food and profit.
The current buzz word is 'sustainable' and yet modern agriculture is manifestly unsustainable. Rainforests are still being chopped down either for grazing or to grow crops to feed to animals. The crops require pesticides and fertilizers that then leach into waterways, causing massive pollution. The increased numbers of animals means more manure, which contributes to acid rain, pollutes rivers and lakes and renders drinking water unsafe. Soil is pushed beyond its fertility limits, is not replenished or fallowed and becomes prone to erosion. Top soil, the very stuff of life, is now a rapidly disappearing commodity. Oceans are being destroyed by overfishing, which is devastating entire marine ecosystems, while coastal fish farms are causing extensive pollution and wildlife decline.
That, in a nutshell, is what confronts us, and it is a pretty depressing picture. Despite an abundance of scientific evidence that the world's life support systems are being seriously eroded, the situation is getting worse, not better, as the scale of decline accelerates.
We will show the many ways that growing grains has a negative impact on the environment. Growing grains to be fed to animals significantly increases the problems because it takes more grain to produce the same amount of food from animals as it would to eat the grains directly.
More animals need more crops to feed them so there is pressure on agricultural farmers to increase crop yields. Over 70% of grain produced in the U.S. is fed to livestock and 29% of the landmass of the U.S. is currently used as grazing land, primarily to feed cattle (1). A typical steer will consume about two tons of grain while it is at a feedlot, just to gain 400 pounds in weight (2).
Animal feed crops are often products of monoculture - a practice that involves growing the same crops in the same field year after year with no fallowing or rotation. Soil cannot sustain such intense demands, so chemical fertilizers are used to promote crop growth as a matter of course. Growing feed for industrial animal agriculture systems changes land use, harming biodiversity through habitat loss and ecosystem damage (3).
Improper grazing has caused extensive environmental damage and rangeland degradation in the Western U.S.; topsoil erosion is a serious problem in the U.S. and to a large extent is caused by the monoculture of corn and soybeans for the pig and chicken industries (4).
Without its hedgerow and woodland habitats, wildlife has gone into serious decline and natural predators of crop-pests have been decimated, allowing the pests to thrive. The answer is to kill them with chemical pesticides. Weeds, which compete with crops for nutrients, sunlight and moisture, are also destroyed, with herbicides. This constant saturation of our countryside with poisons has led to some insects and weeds developing resistance to the chemicals. So what happens? Even more powerful concoctions have been developed.
Chemical warfare has been declared in a vicious circle of madness. Seven hundred and fifty million pounds of some twenty thousand different pesticides are poured over the U.S. landscape annually (5). Some are carcinogenic, while others promote allergies, birth defects and various health problems (6).
This process is called
eutrophication and even the seas are not safe from it. In 1981, 83
and 86, large quantities of flatfish were found dead in the North
Sea where this process had led to an 80 percent oxygen decrease in bottom
waters (7). A dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico of up to 7,000
square miles that can no longer support most aquatic life is linked to
nutrients from farm runoff including animal waste.
Fish are fed to chickens, used as fertilizer or are eaten by humans, and the residues continue to concentrate up the food chain - and the higher you go, the larger the dose of toxins you receive. A similar process takes place with livestock, who consume vast quantities of residue-containing food. It is particularly marked in dairy products, which can contain 14 times more contaminants than plant foods. The way to reduce your level of ingestion of these chemicals is to choose your diet from low down the food chain - from plants - preferably organic plants.
Nitrogen can also transform into nitrites, which can combine with proteins in food to form nitrosomines, which are carcinogenic - cancer promoting. Throughout chicken country, as many as one-third of all wells exceed EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) safe drinking water standards for nitrate, a form of nitrogen concentrated in chicken waste that seeps into groundwater, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey (9).
The USGS has also found trace amounts of arsenic in the Pocomoke River (which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay), which is probably the residue of arsenic added to chicken feed to destroy parasites and promote growth. The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America and is home to approximately 3,000 species of plants and animals (10).
There is obviously a simple equation - the more animals, the more manure. Both have increased dramatically (11). In 1992, the waste from livestock was 13 times as much as from humans in the U.S. (12). In 1998 the amount of animal manure produced was 2.6 trillion pounds (13). Ammonia emissions from manure can settle on plants and soil, resulting in toxicity and biodiversity loss; spreading manure on land can lead to nitrates in groundwater, posing health hazards; manure can accumulate heavy metals, contaminating crops and increasing health risks (14).
The University of California studied water use in their state, where most agricultural land is irrigated, and they place water use for vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes and carrots in the 20 to 30 gallon range for an edible pound of food. It takes 441 gallons of water to make a pound of beef (15). Sixty four percent of U.S. arable land is used for livestock feed.
Fresh water, once a seemingly abundant resource, is now becoming scarce in many regions and that poses a real threat to the stability of the world. Numerous countries are in dispute over water supplies, and the seeds of future wars are clearly beginning to germinate.
Between 1940 and 1980, world-wide usage of water has doubled and 70 percent of it goes into agriculture (16).
In the 20th Century alone, the US has lost half its topsoil and 7 billion tons a year continue to be eroded (17). Its structure has been so distorted that wind and water can simply carry it away (18). With luck, topsoil is replenished at a rate of 2.5 centimeters every 100 years.
Some 85 percent of
top-soil loss is attributed to livestock rearing (19). Around the world,
topsoil is being eroded at rates 16 to 300 times faster than it can regenerate
In fact, the more
a cow is milked, the more grain concentrates she needs (22).
A vegetarian - or even better a vegan - diet is capable of feeding the entire population of the world - and then some (23)!
The concentration of carbon dioxide, methane or nitrous oxide has, until now, been determined by a complex interaction between oceans, forests, soil, ice-caps and clouds. These natural changes have taken place over millions of years. However, the last few decades have seen an extraordinary explosion in these three greenhouse gases. The result has been global warming. All 10 of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years.
Warmer weather might sound great to those who live in cold climates, but such dramatic changes could actually mean disaster. Britain's Hadley Center for Climate Change has predicted dramatic events, including, for example, flooding. As the polar ice caps melt and the world's oceans warm and expand, flooding will be a global problem. The number of people on coastlines subject to flooding each year will rise from 5 million at present to 100 million by 2050 and 200 million by 2080. Vast tracts of land and some island countries will disappear under water permanently as sea levels rise. Mass migrations of millions of landless people present a potential environmental and humanitarian disaster as well as threatening potential serious conflict.
Another 30 million people will be hungry in 50 years because large parts of Africa will become too dry to grow crops. An extra 170 million people will live in countries with extreme water shortages.
Malaria, one of the worlds most dreaded diseases, will threaten much larger areas of the planet (25).
The tundra regions of the world contain within their frozen soil an incalculable amount of methane. As the soil defrosts with increasing temperatures, billions of tons of gas may be released to add to the global warming. The more the earth warms, the more gas will be released. This is called positive feedback and could mean that the greenhouse effect becomes unstoppable with unknown consequences.
There is much talk about planting more trees to replace those cut but it is only a partial answer. Rainforests developed over thousands of years and constitute unique and perfectly balanced ecosystems which, once destroyed, cannot be successfully replaced (26).
Every hour, at least
an additional 4,500 acres fall to chain saws, machetes, bulldozers and
flames (28). Rainforests are chopped down initially for the large trees,
which are used for timber. The rich tapestry of saplings, seedlings, shrubs,
bushes, plants and smaller trees are cut to the ground and burned - as
are many of the creatures who depend upon them. The barren land which
results from slash and burn is largely used as grazing or growing feed
for livestock cattle (29).
Slash and burn eradicates all growth and unlocks centuries worth of stored CO2 in only minutes when the wood is burned. It floats upwards and contributes to global warming.
One of the most affected areas is Costa Rica, which was once almost entirely clad in trees. In the last 20 years, nearly 80 percent of its forests have been cut. Just one hamburger made from Costa Rican beef is estimated to cost the life of a large tree, 50 saplings and seedlings of some 20-30 different species, hundreds of species of insects and a huge diversity of mosses, fungi and micro-organisms (31).
More cattle means more belching and this is now the second largest contributor to global warming after fossil fuel burning. World-wide, livestock produces 882 tons of methane per year and accounts for 17 percent of all global warming emissions of methane (32). Methane is 20 times more effective at warming the globe than CO2, which it joins above the earth (33).
Ex-rainforest land is particularly prone to deterioration as the soil is comparatively thin. It has adapted over thousands years to support the forest with its network of roots, and these in turn hold the soil together. The effect of cattle grazing, with their heavy bodies and hard hooves, is to compact the soil, break down its structure and reduce its fertility. The loss of trees also leads to a reduction in water vapor, which prompts climate change and reduces rainfall levels. The eventual end result of these different factors is desert. Unfortunately, when the soil becomes dry, lifeless and unsuitable for cattle, the ranchers move on and start the process again somewhere else.
Many rainforest plants have valuable medicinal properties and contain the only known cure for certain diseases. They are used to treat cancer, strokes, heart disease and many other illnesses. By wiping out the rainforests we are possibly destroying an abundant supply of new drugs capable of curing major diseases. Many of the species being destroyed are unknown to humankind.
Commercial fishing of the oceans has decimated both fish stocks and the aquatic environment. Herring, cod, jacks, redfish and mackerel are the fish species that are most commonly exploited commercially across the world. There are several methods used for commercial fishing:
A variant is the beam trawl, where a long metal beam is fixed to the underside of the net's opening. Floatation devices keep the mouth of the net open and dangling from the beam are 'tickler' chains, which drag along the bottom forcing almost every creature from its hiding place into the mouth of the net.
Between 60 and 80 million tons of fish are caught from the seas of the world each year by trawling. The total for all methods is about 100 million tons. Fish that are too small, non-target species or species with no commercial value are discarded. This can include almost every creature from the sea or sea bed - sea urchins, brittle stars, crabs, dolphins, seals and sea-birds.
As shrimp nets are dragged through the water, they catch every living creature in their path - trapping both shrimp and unwanted fish and sea turtles. Sea turtles caught in shrimp nets are held under water until they drown. Thousands of endangered sea turtles are killed in this way every year (39).
The ecological balance of oceans is disturbed when the catch rate exceeds the natural reproduction rate. This is overfishing. All 17 of the world's major fisheries have either reached or exceeded their limits. The North Sea is cleared of a quarter of its fish every year.
It is not uncommon for nets to become detached in rough weather and float away to kill large numbers of animals and birds. When weighed down with dead bodies they sink to the bottom, but once the carcasses have rotted, they float back to the surface and continue their destruction. Thousands of dolphins, porpoises, small whales, sea lions, and walruses are killed by drift nets each year (40).
Purse Seine Netting
Commercial fishermen often blame the low numbers of fish on local wildlife and call demand culling to solve the problem. As a result, seals have been killed in their thousands - 51,000 in Russia and 250,000 in Canada and there are similar demands being made in Britain. In February of 1999, a proposal was presented to Congress by the National Marine Fisheries Service to allow fishermen and resource managers to shoot Pacific harbor seals and California sea lions along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington to protect the dwindling stocks of salmon and steelhead and to reduce competition for fish between these pinnipeds and humans (41).
The flesh of fish often stores dangerous contaminants, such as PCBs, suspected of causing cancer, nervous systems disorders, and fetal damage; dioxins, also linked to cancer; radioactive materials like strontium 90; and such toxic metals as cadmium, mercury, lead, and arsenic, which can cause health problems ranging from kidney damage and mental retardation to cancer (42).
Factory-farmed fish are kept in shallow concrete troughs. The intensive crowding as many as five fish per square foot spreads infection and parasites, so factory fish farmers use antibiotics and growth hormones to get more fish fatter faster (44).
In the U.S., there are only five drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used in food fish; however there are fifteen in Europe and twenty-four in Japan. This should give anyone who eats fish another reason to be concerned, since the U.S. imports approximately 60 percent of its fish and shellfish (45).
Other chemicals used in fish farming include the pigment Canthaxanthin, used to turn the fish's flesh from its natural gray to pink. Canthaxanthin is banned in the USA because it is believed to be carcinogenic (46).
According to the executive director of the Marine Aquatic Association, farmed salmon are pale because they have been weaned off their carotenoid-rich diets. The FDA has approved Asta (the carotenoid pigment Astaxanthin) to help restore fish to their natural color. Red year (Pfaffia rhodozyma) is also being used on penned salmon to help their color (47).
On March 4, 1998, a federal law took effect that allows fish farmers in 13 states to kill unlimited numbers of cormorants to protect their profits. Catfish and other species on fish farmers attract cormorants. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that 92,000 of these birds will be killed by fish farmers each yearabout 5 to 10 percent of the North American population (48).
Fish farms also cause their own pollution, and one ton of farmed trout produces pollution equal to the untreated sewage of 200-300 people. Feces and food pellets are concentrated around the netted underwater cage, but the bulk accumulates beneath the cages. This toxic build-up causes de-oxygenation and can adversely affect local wildlife communities. Eutrophication can occur as the water is enriched with nitrates, phosphates and nitrogenous waste products.
Unfortunately, fish farming is now a global phenomenon for expensive creatures such as prawns and yellow tails. The coastal areas chosen for the farms are usually mangrove swamps, seen as useless areas ripe for exploitation. In fact they provide the most productive and important habitat in the oceans. Ninety percent of marine fish rely upon the amazing diversity provided by the mangroves, particularly for spawning. Over 2,000 species of fish, crustaceans and plants thrive there.
Mangroves prevent flooding, stop erosion, and are the nursery of ocean life - and they are being ripped up faster than anyone can count. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Ecuador, Panama - clearance is rampant everywhere. The subtropical regions of the world have lost 70 percent of all mangrove swamps since 1960, largely to fish farming. After a few years the farms have to be moved, cutting down yet more mangroves. Desolation is left behind.
The environment pays a terrible price for that king prawn cocktail!
There is one thing within your power that will have a huge and immediate impact in protecting our planet, and that is to change your diet. Stop eating meat and fish today - and, give up dairy products. Any step you take is important, and you can immediately begin to remove yourself from the cycle of exploitation and destruction. Even better, raise your voice in protest, join with others such as Viva! and actively fight against the ruthless corporations who will allow greed to destroy the globe.
Planet on a Plate is an excellent introduction to the problems wrought by the traditional Western meat-based diet, and the increasing role that factory farms play in exacerbating an already dangerous situation. The production of large numbers of farmed animals under incredibly cruel circumstances has lead to air and water pollution, a huge waste of water and grain, and a host of public health problems, such as the emergence of antibiotic-resistant organisms. Planet on a Plate makes a compelling case that we are individually responsible for our own consumption and the resultant environmental, ethical and health consequences. There are more than six billion people who share our planet.
Ultimately it is they who have the power in the marketplace to determine which foods will be produced and sold, and to what extent the industrial model of agriculture will be replaced. It is clear that the adoption of the Western diet as a worldwide standard will ensure a planet with more disease, and increasingly severe environmental problems. Conversely, we know that plant-based protein is readily available, and it is less costly, both in terms of direct costs, and in terms of the "external" costs that we are already paying (e.g., for subsidies, environmental cleanup and to treat disease). Planet on a Plate offers insight into how our food consumption patterns impact on the biosphere and the earth's ability to sustain a growing human population. This publication deserves wide circulation and support - it is a valuable educational tool. Too many of us simply have not seen the connection between what we put on our plates and the state of our physical world, and our own health. We have not, for example, related the quality of our water to the foods that we purchase. We have not related the myriad of Western ailments to our diets. This is beginning to change. The evidence against industrial animal production ("factory farms") specifically, and meat-intensive diets in general is both overwhelming and compelling. Fortunately, this fact is being widely recognized and changes are occurring. For example, the veggieburger, once relegated to the status of a "niche market" is now commonplace in virtually every grocery store. The consumption of soy-based products is rising exponentially. Even major corporations such as The Kellogg Company and Kraft Foods have entered the vegetarian market in a significant way. Yes, positive change has begun. While it is true that we have a long way to go, Planet on a Plate will have enormous impact in hastening the dietary revolution that needs to occur. We can build the kind of planet, the kind of future that we want. But we need to act, and we need to get started now.
David Brubaker, Ph.D. is Director of the GRACE Project on Industrial Animal Production, Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. He also serves as a consultant to the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment in New York City. Brubaker is a graduate of Temple University, Southern Illinois University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Committee for a Global Water Contract. Brubaker has served an a consultant to numerous non-governmental organizations. Previously he was the Executive Vice President of PennAg Industries Association, a regional agribusiness trade association. He is a former president of the Agricultural Associations Executive Council, and was a member of the board of Directors of the American Feed Industry Association. Long active in the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, he has served as Chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee to the Chesapeake Executive Council and in many other Bay-related positions. He lives in Lititz, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.