Planet Meat: What is your steak doing to the environment

When we think about Planet Earth and humanity damaging it the first thoughts to come to mind are the heavy consumption of fossil fuels for energy, our crippling dependence on plastic and possibly the quality of air falling due to high usage of petrol fuelled vehicles. What one wouldn’t expect is that the amount of environmental damage from the animal agriculture industry is slowly poisoning our planet, quite literally. In 2006 the UN described the livestock sector as ‘one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems’.

Intensive farming is the use of highly intensive practices to produce livestock; poultry, pigs and cattle are confined and crammed in huge numbers into tight cages and sheds where they are reared to their biggest size to yield the best profits for their producer. Producers say this process is supposedly driven by the demand of cheap food. Intensive farming not only meets but facilitates this need providing a product efficiently and competitively. Almost every aspect of the environment is being damaged by this cheap and efficient farming process.

Intensive farming puts a heavy strain on our resources, an example of the extent is that if all grain currently fed to livestock in the US was to be consumed directly by people, then those who could be fed would almost reach 800 million. There are some 795 million people on the planet (Food Aid Foundation) that do not have enough food to be considered that they have a healthy, reasonable quality of life. If resources were allocated more efficiently then world hunger could practically be eradicated. But that’s just one of many, in this blog I will be exploring in more detail the environmental effects that intensive farming has on the planet.

Land

Continual ploughing of fields to grow endless amounts of grain to feed livestock, means soil is more exposed to oxygen and its carbon is released into the air, making it bind less effectively. Not only does the soil lose its elasticity, it’s also less able at storing water – which diminishes its role as a barrier to floods and a nutrient rich base for plants. These weak soils are also being washed away by harsher weather events caused by climate change. Combined with heavy use of fertilisers, this has degraded soils all around the world to their bare mineral components, erosion happening at a pace of up to 100 times greater than the rate of soil formation.

 Soybean farming (Image Source: PETA)

Soybean farming (Image Source: PETA)

Over 90% if the world’s soy crops are grown and used to feel animals, in order to cope with the projected world demand for meat, the production of soy would have to increase by 80% by the year 2050 (PETA).

It can take around 500 years for just 2.5cm of top soil to be created amid unrestricted ecological changes, with the extent of the damage caused it would take centuries to replace the same quality of lost soil.

A 2009 study found that four-fifths of the deforestation across the Amazon rain forest could be linked to cattle ranching. And the water pollution from factory farms where animals can produce as much sewage waste as a small city, according to the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC).

In the UK The Environment Agency and its counterparts in Scotland and Wales have recorded 536 of the most severe incidents between 2010 and 2016, the worst instances among more than 5,300 cases of agricultural pollution in the period across Britain. These figures relate to pig, poultry and dairy farms in the UK whereas in Scotland they refer to all livestock farms. While there is not official estimate of the cost of the damage caused, or future cost of the damage being fixed/cleaned up will present, but many farmers appear to be struggling with the price of pollution – under investment in equipment such as slurry stores is likely the reason behind breach cases. Moreover, the investigation also found evidence that some farmers are possibly ignoring the pollution risks and are regarding the fines incurred if caught as if a cost of doing regular business. The financial pressures farmers are facing that is making them be ‘careless’ about waste disposal methods, these pressures are likely to only get tougher under Brexit and there is little knowledge so far on what subsidies will be operating in 2022.

Water

Just to initially put things in perspective, around 3.8tn cubic metres of water is used by humans annually with 70% being consumed by the global agriculture sector. Livestock production accounts for around 23% of all water used in agriculture - equivalent to more than 1,150 litres per person per day (WWF). With the world population growing this value is more than certain to increase. The impacts of augmented water scarcity are already being felt. About half of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed since 1900 (WWF), water sources provide a habitat for a high concentration of animals – mammals and fish and even birds. Wetlands also provide a range of services as an ecosystem such as storm protection, flood and climate control, water filtration and recreation. Also effected are the natural landscape

Oceans


Most food grown does not end up in our plates. Crops and grains grown that could be feeding us are used to feed animals being reared – these animals will generate around 500 million tons of waste each year, just in the US (Environmental Health Perspectives). Waste such as manure and fertilizer are rich in nitrogen, a primary polluter of (US) coastal rivers and bays, which in conjunction with phosphorous increases algae growth. The algae growth is harmful as it leads to surrounding areas to be depleted of oxygen, causing marine life to either flee or die – this process has already massively depleted two-thirds of our coastal waters oxygen supply. In the States, a vast number of agriculture waste is dumped into the Mississippi, the longest river of North America, which eventually feeds into the Atlantic where dead zones peak in the summer, every year. The Gulf of Mexico sits in the Atlantic Ocean just under where the Mississippi feeds out and the damage stretches out close to 8,185 square miles.

 Oxygen depleted zones of the Gulf of Mexico via satellite (Image Source: Clean Technica)

Oxygen depleted zones of the Gulf of Mexico via satellite (Image Source: Clean Technica)

Curbing the discharges that are let into the lake will alleviate the effects but once a water source enters the state of “hypoxia” there is no turning the effects back, especially keeping in mind the current standard of living that people are expected to.

The number of ocean dead-zones have increased by four-fold in size in the last 50 years and this increase has been linked to the animal agriculture industry and its practices. This brings environmental risks such as increased temperatures reducing the capacity of the ocean to hold oxygen in the future, habitat loss worsening and leading to horizontal and vertical migration of aquatic species, lower oxygen concentrations resulting in a decrease in the reproductive capacity and biodiversity loss. One of the most impactful risk is microbes that multiply at very low oxygen levels produce lots of nitrous oxide, the greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

What can you do

Reducing your meat intake is a step you’ve heard everywhere before, but instead of turning a full-fledged vegan right away you could gradually decrease your meat consumption over time. This is particularly directed to you if you have an addiction to bacon! ‘Meat-free Mondays’ is global movement where a person will give up meat for a whole day. For one day a week you can explore amazing different meat-free foods, of which recipes are widely available online. Of course, for those who feel more strongly and believe that they could take the plunge, there is always the route of becoming vegetarian or vegan. Eating a balanced vegetarian or plant-based diet can bring many health benefits such as lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, better blood sugar levels- all while making sure animals aren’t being treated cruelly.

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