Environment:  Animal agriculture

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Products from the animal agriculture industry most of us have on a daily basis, left to right: milk, meat, eggs, cheese (Photos by MichelleBulgaria, ManicMorFF, demondimum and Alvimann at Morguefile.com)

Animal Agriculture – The rearing of any animal for the production of animal products. This includes meat, fish, eggs and dairy, including milk, cheese and butter. Some lesser known products from the animal agriculture industry are gelatine or isinglass. It also includes farming for animal feed and water usages for the animals.

Governments and international organisations play an important role in addressing our human footprint on Earth. Initiatives such as the Paris Climate Agreement (2015) and the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn (2017) provide useful guidance for nation states. However, as we continue our fight against climate change, there’s one area almost consistently missed from the discussion:  the role of the animal agriculture industry in the warming of our planet.

The process of farming animals requires large amounts of land, leading to deforestation and habitat destruction on a far greater scale than crop farming. The industry is also linked to vast water usage, the production of greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, and toxic waste that pollutes waterways and makes areas uninhabitable.

With close to 8 billion people living on and from the Earth’s surface, there are more consumers of animal products than ever before, and their numbers are growing – rapidly. Without addressing the impact of animal agriculture on our planet, we run the risk of undoing progress in sustainability achieved elsewhere.

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Farming animals for meat consumption is uses much more space, energy and water than farming crops for direct human consumption. Photo by Sgarton at Morguefile.com

The impact of the animal agriculture industry

Habitat destruction

The effects of animal agriculture on natural habitats are vast. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, livestock grazing consumed a total of 26% of the planet’s ice-free land as of 2012. This roughly equates to the total area of Russia, Australia and Canada put together – cleared solely for the grazing of animals. On top of this, an additional 33% of all crop land was being used to produce feed for livestock – a combined area the size of China and Spain. This is an enormous demand on our finite amount of land.

Moreover, the land most suited to animal agriculture and most frequently being cleared is the more fertile or temperate, rich in vegetation and biodiversity. According to findings published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, 2015 many of the countries expected to see the greatest shift from forest to agriculture by 2050 are currently listed as the world’s most ‘mega-diverse’. The rearing of animals and animal feed production is responsible for 91% of Amazonian rainforest destruction, now the leading cause of habitat destruction, species extinction, dead ocean zones and water pollution.  Our most precious ecosystems are directly at risk.

What makes animal agriculture worse than crop farming? Don’t crops also need land?

Yes, but animal agriculture is especially inefficient. Firstly, animals are secondary consumers. They need land themselves to live on, but land is also required to grow food to feed them, be it grass pastures or soy bean pellets. Consuming calories directly from plants (rather than feeding plants to animals to feed us) is a significant step in reducing our agricultural land (and resource) needs.

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Your ‘foodprint’ per diet type. A vegan (i.e. plant-based) diet has by far the least impact on our planet. This is because we consume the plants grown directly, rather than feeing them to animals which we then in turn eat. (Source -theisthmus.com.au)

As crop farming practices improve and higher crop yields are produced, the humane farming of animals produces far fewer calories for human consumption for the resources put in. According to the 1987 bestseller Diet For A New America by John Robbins, a meat-eating diet requires eighteen times as much land as a vegan diet, whilst a vegetarian diet including eggs and milk requires three times as much land. We may think that we’re being sustainable or environmentally friendly by buying ‘free-range’ or ‘grass-fed’ as opposed to the battery farmed alternative, but this is not the case. The amount of land we would need to produce the amount of truly free range meat, dairy and eggs to meet the current demand is unrealistic. It would mean the destruction of more habitat, biodiversity and natural sources of oxygen, and an increase in land erosion and desertification. The answer to sustainable farming is certainly not the battery-style mass production of animals, but it’s also not in carving out large fields for them to roam. If we want to protect our habitat, the answer can only lie in not farming for animal products on a large scale at all.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

As mentioned, the geographical areas turned over to grazing or the production of animal feed are among those with the greatest potential for combatting climate change. Coined the ‘lungs of the world’, the Amazon and South Asian rainforests have especially suffered from the demand for animal products and animal feed such as soy beans. As more of our natural habitats are deforested for agricultural use, their oxygen output and ability to absorb CO2 are reduced.

This is only half of the problem. Livestock themselves produce gases that further contribute to the greenhouse effect. Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane each day – a gas a with a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 within a 20 year frame. Livestock is also responsible for 65% of human-related nitrous oxide emissions, with a global warming potential 296 times that of CO2.

The combination of habitat destruction and cattle ranching in particular are critically speeding up the process of climate change and global warming. Whilst nations across the world are gradually making strides in converting to green energy, little action is being done to encourage people to switch away from an animal-based diet.

Social issues

Finally, it is also important to consider the effects of animal agriculture on our fellow human beings.

Water shortage

It is estimated that by 2025, 64% of the world’s population will be living in areas of water shortage – a figure only likely to increase with further global warming. The threat of water scarcity is daunting. Countries most affected are likely to have to divert internal water stores from agricultural production to domestic or industrial purposes, forcing them to import food instead of growing their own. Those financially unable to import food will be left at risk of famine and malnutrition as is already being seen in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Animal agriculture has a significant role to play. According to a study conducted by the University of Twente in the Netherlands, the water footprint of any animal product is much higher than the water footprint of crop products with the same calorific value. The average water footprint per calorie for beef is 20 times larger than for cereals and starchy roots. The water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs and chicken meat is 1.5 times larger than for pulses. This is largely due to the many stages that go into rearing animals; before an animal drinks any water, water is required to grow its feed, mix its feed, cool its facilities, clean its facilities and for sanitation of the animal itself. While pulses require 1.19 litres of water per 1,000 calories produced, beef requires 10.19 litres of water for the same output of calories.

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1 kilogram of beef requires the amount of water equivalent to 250 baths. (Infographic by zmescience.com)

Water contamination

Additionally, intensive livestock farming has huge potential to pollute and degrade local environments, which reduces a farmer’s capacity to produce their own food. As well as animal faeces contaminating waterways, concentrations of plant fertilisers can run off from farms into oceans and river ways, leading to growth of algae and other biomass that depletes oxygen sources that fish (and those who eat them) rely on. A 2008 report found as many as 400 ocean dead zones worldwide where native aquatic life could no longer be supported. Advocacy group Germanwatch‘s Global Climate Risk Index indicates that the poorest countries in the world, commonly dependant on subsistence farming, are most at risk from extreme weather changes. These countries include Honduras, Myanmar, Haiti and Nicaragua. Managing the effects of climate change is going to cost a lot of money, something many of these countries are going to need support with.


Intensive livestock farming (battery-style farming or other high production methods) is highly dependant on antibiotics, because cramped conditions allow disease to spread rapidly. In 2009, 80% of antibiotics bought in the US were used in animal agriculture, leading to a growing pool of bacterial resistance as well as serious health implications of over-consumption of animal products.

In short, the continued use of animal agriculture increases water shortages, global inequalities and reduces our capacity to fight off illness. These are all direct effects on our own daily lives.

What can we do?

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Being healthy on a vegan diet. (Infographic by peta.org)

Some suggestions to help you reduce your impact on our planet:

1. Reduce the amount of animal products in your diet. We don’t all need to convert to veganism straight away. Be a flexitarian! Small changes in our diets can make a difference too. Opting for soya milk instead of dairy, or a veggie lasagne instead of meat, or sorbet instead of ice cream. These are all easy changes that can contribute towards a more sustainable and healthier lifestyle. Make meat a luxury – eat meat as a rare treat, and then buy it locally from a more sustainable and ethical source. Do away with daily cheap sausages, bacon and burgers.

2. Introduce plant-based alternatives to your diet. Remember when most food advertised as ‘meat-free’ or ‘vegan’ was pretty much coloured cardboard? This isn’t the case today – the appearance, taste, selection and accessibility of meat alternatives have improved drastically in the last 15 years. Try dining out in a vegetarian restaurant instead of a regular one, or venture to a local health food store or some foodie ideas. The more we normalise and support meat-free diets, the easier it is for people to adopt them.

3. Eat local, small-scale. Much of the problem with animal agriculture relates to the mass-scale on which it is farmed. Animal products produced locally and on a small scale often have a lower carbon footprint to those intensively farmed. If you get a meat craving, try heading down to that farmers market.

For more ideas on how to do better for the planet and the people living on it, visit our Simple Things.


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