Animal Suffering | The problem with milk and eggs | Health Issues | The Planet
With growing concern about climate change, water shortages, food availability and damage to the planet’s ecosystems, it is vital that we rely increasingly upon plant-based agriculture, which is far more efficient than animal farming. Meat and dairy foods take far more land, energy and water, and have a far greater negative impact upon climate change than plant-based foods.
Estimates for the proportion of greenhouse gas emissions that come from animal agriculture vary according to the way it is measured and recorded, but even one of the most conservative estimates – which comes from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization – puts the figure at around 14.5%. Compare that to the share from motorised transport, which amounts to 13%, and you’ll see that farmed animals account for more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the cars, trucks, planes, ships and other vehicles combined.
So, it would seem obvious that by eliminating animal products from our diet, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint. This is backed up by a 2014 study at the University of Oxford that assessed the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the diets of 55,504 British people. It found the carbon footprint of vegan diets were as much as 60% lower than that of meat eaters and 24% lower than that of vegetarians.
But the environmental impact of animal agriculture is not just limited to climate change. It is one of the leading causes of deforestation around the world. Huge areas of the South American rainforest have been clear-cut to make way for cattle grazing and for plantations to grow animal feed, such as soya, with 70% of land deforested in the Amazon now being used for pasture. Thanks to this deforestation, Brazil is also now the second largest producer and exporter of soya in the world. And rather than going to make tofu and soya milk, more than 95% of all soya produced worldwide is fed to farmed animals, mostly on intensive units in Europe and North America.
Whilst people experience increasing shortages of fresh water across the world, vast quantities are used by farmers to service, hydrate and produce food for their animals. The impact of plant-based foods, by comparison, is much lower. According to the Water Footprint Network:
- It takes twice as much water to produce a litre of British cows’ milk compared with soya milk
- For the amount of water needed to produce one beef burger, you could produce six tofu-based ones
To coincide with its 2012 annual conference, the Stockholm International WaterInstitute released another report calling for radical moves towards an animal-free diet. As The Observer reported (26 August 2012), the Institute warns that ‘the world’s population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages’.
And the impact on water goes beyond mere use. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of water pollution in the UK and the problem is getting worse, not better. According to government figures, there was a 9% rise in serious water pollution incidents arising from farms between 2013 and 2014, with dairy farms being the worst offenders. And it’s a similar situation in most other countries around the world. According to the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, huge dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, the South China Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Irish Sea and the Adriatic have all been attributed to nitrogen pollution from animal agriculture.
Feeding the World
Animals are a remarkably inefficient way of producing food. Many of the calories and other nutrients that go into animals as feed are lost as they move around, defecate, and do the other things animals do. This means we get far less nutrition from the meat, milk and eggs they produce than is found in the soya, grain and other feed given to them in the first place. We’d be far better off eating that ourselves.
At present, we use almost 80% of all agricultural land worldwide to feed animals, including a third of the land used to raise arable crops, and yet farmed animals provide us with just 30% of global protein intake and less than 20% of our total calories.
Plant crops, which are grown on just 22% of agricultural land, provide more than 60% of global protein intake and 75% of our total calories. Simply put, we can produce more food using less land by growing plants and feeding them directly to people than farming animals. This would allow us to feed more people and reduce the need to clear virgin forest to create more farmland.