Eating Away at Biodiversity

Extinction Facts labels show meat’s cost to wildlife

Photo: Copyright © 2014, Elaine R. Wilson

Every day we strive to be a little more environmentally conscious: driving less, turning off lights and remembering to bring along reusable bags. Many people don’t realize, however, that one of the most powerful ways to lighten our environmental footprint is sitting on the dinner table. When our plates are packed with meat, we support an industry that’s destructive to wildlife in every possible way. The Center for Biological Diversity crunched the numbers on exactly how. Similar to the way Nutrition Facts labels show the cost of food choices to your health, Extinction Facts labels help show the cost to wildlife from beef, chicken and pork:

  • Habitat Loss — 270 million acres of U.S. forest have been clear-cut to grow food for livestock. Additionally, native grasslands are used for grazing areas or converted to mass-scale feedlots, slaughterhouses and crops to feed livestock. Not only are food sources and nesting areas of wild animals destroyed by these changes, but, when cows move in, other species like bison and bears are driven out.
  • Climate Change — Meat production worldwide contributes more greenhouse gases than our nation’s entire transportation industry. That means even polar bears can be harmed by U.S. meat production, as the loss of sea ice from climate change-induced rising ocean temperatures makes it harder for them to find food.
  • Pollution — Factory farms have polluted more than 35,000 miles of U.S. rivers and contaminated groundwater in 17 states. Millions of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and other wildlife are killed in lakes, rivers and streams from pesticide run-off and the 2.7 trillion pounds of manure created in the U.S. each year from meat and dairy production, which is sprayed on crops or dumped in toxic — and often over-flowing — manure lagoons.
  • Water Usage — Nearly half of the 150 billion gallons of water per day consumed in the U.S. goes to the production of meat (which includes irrigating feed crops for livestock). It takes about ten times as much water to make a pound of beef compared to a pound of plant protein. Water drained by animal agriculture radically alters and destroys wild ecosystems for the wildlife who depend on them.
  • Pesticides — Pesticides are used in massive quantities to grow the crops to feed the animals that then feed the supersized appetite for meat in the American diet. Wildlife like hellbenders are threatened by toxic pesticides that pollute rivers and waterways. Pollinators like bees and monarch butterflies are also facing an extinction crisis from the 167 million pounds of pesticides applied to livestock feed, like corn, and the damage herbicides are doing to primary food sources for wildlife.
Wondering how some of America’s favorite meats stack up? Check out Extinction Facts labels at ExtinctionFacts.org.

When you replace meat dishes with a plant-based meal, you’re choosing to support wildlife and a healthier environment. And every meal matters — for example, if every American ate one less chicken dish every week, the greenhouse gas savings alone would be like taking 500,000 cars off the road. You have at least three chances a day to eat wildlife-friendly. Make your next meal count.

Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.