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The Impacts of Animal Agriculture on the Health of our Planet

The old adage “you are what you eat” takes on a whole new meaning when you consider the effects of the food choices humanity makes 3 times a day, 365 days a year. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already conscious of the harm eating animal products does to human health and the environment, not to mention the animals whose lives we sacrifice.

But the truth is what we collectively eat on a daily basis is not only contributing to global warming, but leading humanity to its possible extinction. Sound overly dramatic? Well, it is, like anyone who’s watched the recent documentary “Eating Our Way to Extinction” will tell you. But here are some cold hard facts from leading scientific studies on the subject to convince you and those you love to consider changing their eating habits, ever so slightly, to help reverse the course we’re on.

Animal agriculture puts a heavy strain on many of the Earth’s finite resources, including land, water and energy. To accommodate the 70 billion animals raised annually for human consumption, we use:

  • 1/3 of the planet’s ice-free land surface

  • 16 % of global freshwater supply

  • 1/3 of grain production worldwide

By 2050, consumption of meat and dairy products is expected to rise 76 and 64 percent respectively, further increasing these industries’ burden on resources.

1. Global warming

It's estimated that 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the livestock industry [1] . The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere is estimated at approximately 7,516 million tons per year [1,3]. Studies suggest that this estimate is based on outdated sources from 1964-2001 and that the number could be as high as 51%! Nevertheless, the livestock industry is still the second-largest polluter after the energy industry, a bigger polluter than even the transportation industry which is responsible for approximately 13% of carbon emissions [6].

Animal agriculture accounts for:

  • 5 % of global anthropogenic (man-made) carbon dioxide emissions

  • 44 % of anthropogenic methane emissions (the primary driver of climate change related to livestock, as methane is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 100 years)

  • 44 % of all anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions (the most potent GHG; this gas remains in the atmosphere for up to 150 years and has a 296-fold greater potential for global warming and deterioration of the ozone layer than carbon dioxide)

  • Represents 75-80 % of total agricultural emissions

2. Deforestation

The increasing demand for animal products and the lack of land has caused the livestock industry to become the main cause for clearing forests and turning them into pasture. According to the International Center for Forest Research, during the years 1990–2000, an area twice the size of Portugal was lost in favour of pasture [3]. Another reason for forest clearing is production of food for animals. Approximately 40% of the harvested crops in the world are used as food for animals. Thus, if we took half of the crops used as feed for those same animals, we would be able to feed all the starving populations around the world and solve the problem of world hunger [3,8]. These changes in land use have negatively affected the ability of ecosystems to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. For instance, the carbon-rich grasslands and forests in temperate zones have been replaced by crops with a much lower capacity to sequester carbon. A typical hardwood tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. This means it will sequester approximately 1 ton of carbon dioxide by the time it’s 40 years old.

3. Reduced biodiversity.

Up to 137 species of plants, animals and unique insects are lost every day due to forest clearing. A study by Ceballos et al. [10] claims that this is the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years.

4. Water pollution.

The water pollution is caused by animal excreta, antibiotics and hormones, fertilizers and pesticides used in forage production, and rainfall runoff from pasture [1]. According to the 2017 National Water Quality Inventory of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), high levels of “nutrients,” such as phosphorus and nitrogen (both components of synthetic fertilizer as well as by-products of animal waste) threaten the health and biological diversity of waterways, which can result in loss of aquatic life and their habitats, shellfish contamination and seasonal dead zones. Polluted water also impacts the quality of life and incomes of nearby residents, posing a threat to public health.

5. Waste production

The livestock industry produces copious quantities of waste. In the U.S. alone, the livestock industry produces 116,000 pounds of waste per second! According to a study by Haines and Staley [17], a farm with 2,500 milking cows produces the same amount of waste as a city with 411,000 residents.

6. Antibiotic resistance

Over-use and misuse of antibiotics in animals is contributing to the rising threat of antibiotic resistance. Some types of bacteria that cause serious infections in humans have already developed resistance to most or all of the available treatments, and there are very few promising options in the research pipeline.

Without a doubt, change must occur in the near future if we are to preserve our precious planet. Meat production and consumption is an unnecessary and unsustainable way to feed ourselves. In fact, the Canada Food Guide recommends choosing protein foods that come from plants more often.

If you’re already a vegan, good for you! If you’re a vegetarian who’s on the fence, consider substituting one or two veggie meals per week with one of our 100+ delicious vegan recipes. We all know change doesn't happen over night, but we can lean more and more in the direction of a plant-based diet. To open our minds and introduce new, simple and delicious plant-based meals that look and taste amazing. Baby steps, but steps in the right direction so we can all continue to lead happy and healthy lives on this beautiful blue dot we call home for many year to come.


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