Science Explained: Unsustainable Agriculture
Columns / December 8, 2015
Food for thought
When we think of climate change we tend to think about wasting power, taking long showers, landfills, oil drilling, fracking, and greenhouse gas emissions produced by transportation. There is a misconception that these practices constitute the most significant contributions to our warming planet.
Animal agriculture is a controversial topic—the meat and dairy industries are easily some of the most powerful on Earth. As their unsustainable and unethical practices gain widespread attention, their profits become prone to negative public backlash, and since they are so powerful, they can easily go to great lengths to portray a deceptive view of their operations.
Animal agriculture is the mass production of animals, primarily cows, pigs, chickens, and fish, for animal-products such as meat, dairy, and eggs. Its dramatic impacts include greenhouse gas emissions, ocean dead zones, deforestation, habitat destruction, habitat extinction, and heavy water usage.
The average cow lives approximately two years of its 25 to 30 year life span before slaughter. In this time, it consumes a lot of food and water, and produces a lot of GHGs and excrement, which continues to burden the planet even after the cow is slaughtered. Specifically, in the USA, farm animals for food produce 3-million kilograms of excrement a minute. Their excrement causes dead zones, meanwhile, their GHGs contribute to global warming.
Dead zones are regions in the ocean that have very low oxygen concentration, which causes all marine life to suffocate. Dead zones can occur naturally, but cattle excrement is the leading cause. Cattle are producing three times as much waste as humans, and typically when it rains, the excrement moves into the ocean, causing these dead zones.
When we talk about climate change, we often think of global warming. Greenhouse gases have the ability to trap the sun’s energy in the form of heat in the atmosphere, thus increasing the overall temperature. The global temperature is increasing, and the arctic is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world. The repercussions include species extinction, and will eventually lead to a loss of Earth’s landmass. In the same way that the liquid in a glass of ice water increases in height as the ice melts, the water levels on Earth will also rise. Landmass will gradually perish if global warming continues to increase at its current rate.
Farm animals take up a lot of space, and so do their food crops – together, they take up 45 per cent of the Earth’s land mass. The lush Amazon rainforest is quickly disappearing as one to two acres are destroyed every second – over 90 per cent of this destruction is for animal agriculture grazing. Once known for its biodiversity, thousands of plant and animal species are going extinct every month due to loss of habitat.
As the human population continues to grow, so does the need to feed people. Meanwhile, there are 70 billion farm animals to feed, and they are consuming 60 billion kilograms of food a day. To put this into perspective, humans consume nine billion kilograms of food worldwide everyday.
As if the vast resources required to produce a relatively small yield of animal products are not already astounding, animal agriculture may also be a contributing factor to the world water crisis. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process that involves injecting water into the Earth’s surface at a high pressure to acquire natural gas. It’s a process that is thought to use massive amounts of water; statistics show 300 to 500 billion litres used annually. In comparison, cattle are consuming 170 billion litres in water resources every day, and this is not including the water that is used to produce their crops. To produce one pound of beef, it takes a whopping 9,500 litres of water.
As water runs low, the environment begins to dry up, leading to an increase in the number of forest fires. As the planet warms up, the polar ice caps begin to melt, leading to loss in landmass. As farm animals are gorging themselves on 50 per cent of the Earth’s grains and legumes, impoverished nations continue to face devastating famine.
Most discussions surrounding climate change propose the solution of converting from oil and gas to wind and solar power, but the full transition would take over 20 years and would cost over $40 trillion. Although the transition will be a great investment for the planet, by reducing meat and dairy consumption, we can make a significant impact more efficiently, and more economically.