Eating Our Way to Armageddon

The Environmental Impacts of Farming Animals for Human Consumption

Climate change, its potentially disastrous effects, and its possible causes have been concerns for the world’s scientists and activists for decades. In recent years, particularly after prominent public figures such as former Vice President of the United States Al Gore started to speak about the issue, climate change and “global warming” have become buzzwords in political, economic, and finally public spheres; yet a significant portion of the U.S. population continued to deny that changes are occurring, or that climate change is not at all caused by human activity, or that climate change is nothing to worry about. However, recent events, like the socioeconomically devastating aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Sandy on the northeastern seaboard of the United States, have finally managed to garner climate change the public concern it deserves.

Unfortunately, there is still much debate about how much human activity is actually driving climate change, or which activities are the biggest drivers. The most common human activities blamed for climate change are the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transportation, and deforestation. While these activities are indeed major drivers of climate change, an important sector of human activity that is contributing to climate change on a vast scale is often ignored: agriculture. Specifically, the agricultural sector involving the industrialized farming of animals, and the feed-crops for those animals, is now emerging as a key contributor to global warming as well as a host of additional problems facing humans now and for generations to come. In an attempt to shed light on a topic that is often seen as too controversial to tackle in popular media, this report will focus on the animal farming industry and its impact on the environment.

Any discussion of factory farming’s effects on the environment and climate change must begin with a redefinition of “farming.” Mention the word “farm” in the United States and one will evoke images of hardy, rustic folk setting to work about an idyll land filled with greenery and dotted with cows and other livestock animals lazily grazing through the fields. Mention “farmer” and evoke sentiments of a kind old fellow in overalls, wearing a straw hat or perhaps a cowboy hat, wise and knowledgeable in all things growing, the perfect steward of his land. This pleasant image is a lie; or, more accurately, it no longer represents the farming industry as it exists in the United States.

Instead, farming in the U.S. has gone the way of Wal-Mart, Nike, and McDonald's, the way of the corporation. Gone are the thousands of family farms that used to dot the American landscape prior to World War II, replaced by a handful of huge corporations running dozens of massive concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and single-grain feed-crops. Gone are the farmers, replaced by machines, CEOs, line-workers, and field-laborers. Gone are the traditional family values and business practices of the small farm, replaced by the juggernaut of profit-driven corporate disregard for anything and everything but the bottom line.

When picturing a modern animal farming operation, one must cast aside the image of the big red barn sitting next to the old family house, and instead envision long, low warehouse-style buildings the length of football fields. The insides of these closed, covetously guarded buildings are filled with upwards of 125,000 animals, usually confined in spaces too small to accommodate natural behaviors for the vast majority of their lives (“Factory Farming”). Lengthy books can—and have—been written concerning the horrors experienced by the typical factory farmed animal during the course of its brief, sad life, but for the purposes of this report we will instead focus on that inevitable by-product of containing impressively dense populations of living animals in relatively tiny spaces: toxic amounts of waste. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that “[a]s industrial-sized farms stagger under the vast burden of manure they are generating, environmental disasters are inevitable,” and evidence has shown that this dire prediction is already being fulfilled in our nation and in nations that are now adopting our system (Moby and Park 14).

So how much waste do animal feeding operations (AFOs) and CAFOs produce? Lauren Bush, chief executive officer and co-founder of FEED Projects, writes in an essay on the environmental consequences of factory farming, “according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environment Protection Agency, [AFOs]...produce approximately 500 million tons of manure every year, with [CAFOs] generating up to 60 percent of this excrement” (16). Novel author and journalist Jonathan Safran Foer puts this into perspective in his book, Eating Animals: “All told, farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population—roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second. The polluting strength of this shit is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage” (2349). That is a tremendous amount of waste, with a tremendous potential for pollution, and these animals are not using modern plumbing or sanitation services, so the next logical question to ask is: where does all this waste go and what happens to it when it gets there?

As is the case with most laws and regulations regarding animals in the United States, rules for the management and disposal of animal waste are lax or nonexistent. This means that the corporations running CAFOs are given free reign with regards to finding a solution to the animals’ unsavory by-product, and “their manure and urine are funneled into massive waste lagoons...these cesspools often break, leak, or overflow, sending dangerous microbes, nitrate pollution and drug-resistant bacteria into water supplies” (NRDC 24). The NRDC further notes that these “lagoons” also emit toxic gases, and harmful particulates in the air and in ground water when companies choose to spray the waste over their fields in order to ease some of the strain on the lagoons (NRDC 24). Before continuing, it is worth a step back to examine the scale of these waste pits. Foer, in the three years of research and fieldwork he spent on the issue of factory farming, discovered that “[t]hese toxic lagoons can cover as much as 120,000 square feet—as much surface area as the largest casinos in Las Vegas—and be as deep as 30 feet” (2401). Not only are these lagoons dangerously toxic and unable to prevent animal waste from contaminating the air, land, and water around them, but they are also hugely wasteful of land resources; in fact, the animal agriculture sector, including animal operations and the feed-crop production required to sustain food-animal populations “now uses up one-third of all arable land worldwide” (Lappé 120).

Though more on inefficient resource management is to come, our discussion of waste lagoons begs the question: just how does all this waste impact the environment? According to the EPA, the agricultural sector is the leading contributor to water quality impairments in our nation’s fresh water systems, and that water quality concerns are most pronounced “where crops are intensively cultivated and where livestock operations are concentrated” (Moby and Park 18). Leaks and spills plague the industry’s lagoons, and in 1995, Smithfield—the largest pork packer in the nation—spilled more than 20 million gallons of liquefied manure into the New River in North Carolina, an environmental disaster twice as large as the Exxon Valdez oil spill (Foer 2417). This particular spill was immense in scale, but what is particularly astonishing is that smaller spills of still-significant size occur often and typically do not reach the attention of national media. This, combined with the deregulation of our agricultural sector, means that companies like Smithfield often get away with spills and leaks with nothing more than relatively small financial fines or even no penalties at all (Foer 2418-2444).

Despite CAFOs’ incredible contribution to pollution through excessive amounts of manure, the factory farm’s true harm to the environment is through resource mismanagement and inefficiencies. Through practices of clearcutting forest area for pasture land and feed-crop production, and liberally applying fertilizer for these fields, the agricultural industry has been found to contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change than the entire transportation sector—cars, buses, trains, planes, and boats—combined (Imhoff 112). In fact, “fertilizer production for feed crops alone [emphasis added] contributes some 41 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually—the equivalent of that produced by nearly 7 million cars” (Nierenberg and Niles 55). Worse still, clearing forests for agricultural use releases 2.4 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually (Nierenberg and Niles 57). As though significantly contributing to climate change is not bad enough, the clearcutting encouraged and utilized by the agricultural sector is also driving loss of biodiversity on a large scale. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock compete with wildlife for resources, reducing wildlife populations, some animal populations (namely fish) are overexploited as feed for farmed animals, and the industry focuses on a few specific breeds, severely limiting the gene pool of farmed animals (Livestock’s Long Shadow 202). Additionally, livestock has been implicated as an accelerator of desertification through overgrazing and overstocking (Livestock’s Long Shadow 187-188).

Worse still are the effects of aquaculture and commercial fishing on biodiversity in our oceans. Though neither aquaculture nor fishing would be classified as “farming” in the classical sense, the industry’s adoption of factory farming practices often leads scientists and activists alike to discuss the fish industry in the same breath as the agriculture industry. The fish industry has a drastic and mortifying effect on our waters’ biodiversity in two important ways: first, most of the fish species that are “farmed” in aquaculture are carnivorous species, meaning that aquaculturists must feed their populous colonies of captive fish with huge amounts of captured wild fish; second, commercial fishing is shamefully wasteful in the form of unintended fish (and other species) catch, known in the industry as bycatch. Studies have found that roughly 4.5 million sea animals are unintentionally caught, killed, and (typically) discarded every year in longline fishing, and average trawling operations discard 80 to 90 percent of their bycatch—usually dead or dying sea animals—overboard, with some of the least efficient operations discarding as much as 98 percent of their bycatch (Foer 2598). The situation is so dire that a study of the fish industry’s impact on biodiversity in our oceans projects the “global collapse of all taxa currently fished by the mid–21st century,” which could mean the complete collapse of the fishing industry—an industry that has historically been the main provider of protein for many developing nations, particularly small island nations—by 2048 (Worm, et al.).

Loss of biodiversity, habitat destruction, land hoarding, and greenhouse gas emissions are not the only examples of resource mismanagement in the agricultural sector. Not only are CAFOs notorious freshwater polluters, they are also insatiable freshwater guzzlers. Peter Goodman, in a Washington Post article focusing on the poultry farms of the Delmarva Peninsula, writes that “[e]very working day, a dozen slaughterhouses slice the necks of more than 2 million birds, using more than 12 million gallons of water to flush away more than 1,600 tons of guts, chicken heads, fat globules, feathers and blood” (Goodman). But what does that mean, “12 million gallons” of water? How much water goes into other types of food production? In an illuminating infographic found in Gristle, a small, but useful, list has been compiled: one cup of whole grain oat cereal requires 11 gallons of water; one hamburger patty requires 396 gallons; one lamb chop a distressing 2,912 gallons; and a single roasted chicken requires a staggering—and offensive—17,476 gallons of fresh water (Moby and Park 114). Unfortunately, the animal agriculture industry is not just wasteful with water: one pound of steak requires 16 pounds of grain and soy feed that is otherwise fit for human consumption. In a world where famine among fellow humans is a very real, very large global issue, how do we justify the fact that a full third of the world’s grain and over 90 percent of soybeans are funneled into non-human animals (Lappé 114-115)? This information is especially distressing when coupled with the nutritional knowledge that a good portion of the plant-based protein that humans could be getting by eating these feed-crops directly is wasted when consumed through the medium of meat—up to 95% of that protein is lost when consuming beef, for instance (Moby and Park 116).

It is clear that, despite its lack of political and media coverage, the agricultural sector is participating in activities that would shock many people and that should alarm all of us. Though the multi-billion dollar industry has poured its financial and political clout into efforts to ensure that the public is kept in the dark about its inhumane treatment of animals and colossal pollution potential, it is just as clear that the scientific community is very concerned about the environmental impacts of CAFOs and the fishing industry (Carlson). Bear in mind that this report does not cover the physical and psychological impacts of factory farming on farm employees; the detrimental impacts of the industry on communities and local economies; the industry’s contribution to a frightening prevalence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens; or the industry’s gross and unconscionable mistreatment of non-human animals. Though they may not pertain directly to the environment, these issues are important, real, and substantive enough that entire books have been written about them. However, when it comes to the environment, the Worldwatch institute has this to say about the agriculture industry in its pamphlet “Meat: Now It’s Not Personal”: “[A]s environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future—deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease” (1). Combating our dependence on fossil fuels is an important battle in the war for the future stability and habitation of our planet, but it is now undeniably clear that a reevaluation of our relationship to our food and major reforms in the agricultural sector are equally important to the future of human life on Earth.


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