Our impact on the physical environment is enormous. Of course, much of the problem results from burning fossil fuels, contamination of the environment with pesticides and other chemicals, our exploding population and the concomitant usurping of land from wild animals and plants. However, a significant part of our impact on the physical environment is a result of the foods we eat and how we produce them.
In a nutshell, the connections between our diet and the physical environment are as follows, in no specific order: 1) Grazing in some areas has created and enlarged deserts. 2) Deserts produce less biomass than verdant lands, and so they absorb less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even today entire forests are being cut down to graze cattle and grow the corn and soy to feed them. 3) The growing of corn and soy and feeding it to animals consumes vast quantities of energy, impoverishes the soil, and wastes food that could be fed to humans or used to produce fuel. 4) To spur growth of corn and soy the phosphate fertilizer industry has arisen, and its production releases vast quantities of toxins, some of which we put into our water in the form of fluoride, a substance one should avoid. (See http://FluorideClassAction.Wordpress.com.) 5) Animal husbandry consumes vast quantities of water. 6) Animal husbandry contaminates surface streams and wells. 7) Food animals produce vast quantities of methane that worsen the greenhouse effect. 8) Food animals produce vast quantities of manure which pollute rivers and estuaries and wipe out aquatic animals. 9) Domesticated animals in confinement are fed antibiotics on a massive scale, so pathogens develop resistances to antibiotics. These antibiotics become useless to treat humans infected with those pathogens. 10) Humans contract many diseases from confined animals and from eating animal products.
Google the new United Nations report on the disastrous effect of livestock on the physical environment, entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” (http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.htm.)
Half of the earth’s land mass is grazed by livestock. (Alan B. Durning and Holly B. Brough, Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment, Worldwatch Paper #103, Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, 1991, p 15.) Edward Abbey, speaking to cattlemen at the University of Montana in 1985, said:
Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you might call cow burnt. Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of [cows] … . They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Weeds. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.
Lands in the Western United States — and elsewhere — are being turned into deserts by the grazing of cattle and sheep. Billions of tax dollars are spent to subsidize ranchers by renting federal land to them at below-market rates. Ranchers have little financial incentive to stop the overgrazing on public lands, and recent token increases in rents only motivate ranchers to overgraze even more. Much of this land was once covered with knee-high grass; along streams there were trees; it was populated by buffalo, elk, and deer. The grass has been replaced with tumbleweed and creosote plants, and stream banks have been destroyed by the hooves of grazing animals. (Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef, p. 200 ff.)
Some 728 million acres of western range land was opened to herds of cattle and sheep in the late 1800s. With only 15 inches of rain per year, this fertile land was unable to bear the load. Ranchers put their herds onto land too early in the spring and intentionally overgrazed land to keep out other potential claimants. Fertile topsoil has been mostly lost on 575 million of the 728 million acres. This land should never have been opened to livestock grazing in the first place. (Henry Bailey Stevens, The Recovery of Culture, p. 94.ff.)
At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the United Nations enacted the Convention to Combat Desertification. The economic cost of desertification has been pegged at $43 billion; it affects areas on all continents including such countries as Spain, Portugal, and Greece. It obligates counties that have signed it “to adopt national measures to combat erosion and soil degradation both by working through measures to prevent climate change and eliminating land uses which destroy the environment, including overcultivation and overgrazing.” The United States refuses to sign the treaty. (See Seattle Times, “Anti-Desertification Pact in Force,” Reuters, December 26, 1996, p. A21.)
The Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula were once forest and savanna but turned into a desert at around the time that humans began herding animals. This desert continues into Iraq, northern India and China, and it continues to expand in part as a result of grazing by domesticated animals. The Aryan Invaders of Europe and the Semitic Invaders of the Middle East came west from areas desertified at least in part by their herds.
Henry Bailey Stevens recounts a story which highlights the effect of grazing animals on forests:
“Some years ago,” says Hugh H. Bennett, chief of the United States Soil Conservations Service, “I visited Dr. L.T. Shear at Princeton University, on his return from the excavation of the theater at ancient Corinth. I asked the famous archaeologist how deep he had to dig to reach the theater. ‘Forty feet,’ he said. Then I asked where the covering material came from. ‘Washed down from the adjacent hillsides where most of the vegetation had been removed by goats,’ he replied.” (Henry Bailey Stevens, The Recovery of Culture, p. 93.)
Can the damage be undone? The Israelis have demonstrated that deserts can be rolled back to some extent by planting drought resistant trees on the edges of deserts and by gradually expanding the planting into desert areas as they recover. However, this process requires that lands not be used for grazing by domesticated animals. Nevertheless, every author I have read assumes that pasturing animals “responsibly” will be part of the picture. It is exceedingly difficult to pasture animals responsibly, except perhaps in very small numbers. Virtually a pasturing degrades the land and interferes with native plant and animals.
Visionaries talk of converting much of the West back into a buffalo commons. The West would be able to produce more income for its residents as a place for tourism than as grazing land. Tourists would come from around the world as they come to the wild life parks in Africa. Pinion-juniper trees, cut down by ranchers—probably to starve out the Indians who relied on them for food —, could be replanted, and they would yield a small fortune in pine nuts.
For those who must have meat, it would make far more sense to harvest wild bison than to erect fences and raise cattle and sheep. The only semi-ethical way to eat the meat of large animals is to eat only wild animals, and to kill them in ways that do not terrorize them or cause them pain, by darting them first with anesthetic, and killing them without them ever waking up.
Ninety percent of all soy and 80 percent of all corn grown in the United States is fed to livestock. (Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet, p. 92; Soyfoods Industry and Market: Directory and Databook, both cited in Our Food Our World: The Realities of an Animal-Based Diet, ed. EarthSave, p. 4.) Most of the land we cultivate grows food to be fed to animals. Most of the nutrition in the food fed to these animals is expended by them just to stay warm and move about. In the production of eggs, 74 percent of the protein chickens consume is lost as is 75 percent of the protein that dairy cows consume to make milk. In the production of chicken protein, 77 percent of protein eaten is lost; as is 86 percent of the protein pigs eat to make pork protein; as is 96 percent of the protein cows eat to make beef protein; and as is 97.5 percent of the protein sheep eat to make mutton protein.
Roughly sixteen pounds of grain is fed to a cow to produce one pound of beef, although some say this figure is too high. Billions of malnourished people could be fed with the 15 pounds that are lost in the livestock cycle. (Aaron Altschul, Proteins: Their Chemistry and Politics, p. 264; Folke Dovring, “Soybeans,” Scientific American, February, 1974.)
Because humans cannot digest grass, this inefficiency might make some sense if it were only grass that these animals were eating. However, their grazing days end and they are “finished” (fattened up) on grain. Of course, if we did not feed grain to animals, there would be more grain left over than humans could consume, so the alternative would be to use the excess to feed the starving and grow biomass, which would be used to produce paper, cloth, fuel, and energy. (See the section of this book entitled The Economy and a Plant-Based Diet. p. 227.)
The same acre that can produce 10 kilograms of beef protein per year can produce 15 kilograms of lamb or pork protein, 30 kilograms of milk protein, around 180 kilograms of barley, wheat, rice, corn or potato protein, 200 kilograms of green pea protein, 500 kilograms of cabbage protein, or 800 kilograms of protein in the form of greens. (William Harris, M.D., The Scientific Basis of Vegetarianism, p. 86-88.)
Feedlots and dairy farms produce mountains of manure, far more than can be turned into fertilizer. A dairy cow produces around 120 pounds of manure and urine per day. These wastes are flushed into “lagoons.” They are often sprayed with high pressure nozzles onto open fields. The stench is so overpowering that neighbors are often forced to move away. These wastes inevitably flow into ditches, streams, rivers, and estuaries. It is illegal to spray manure in winter, when soil is frozen or saturated with rainfall, but farmers do it anyway. Lagoons and other waste handling equipment are often subsidized with state and federal money.
In Snohomish County, Washington, just north of Seattle, where I live and work, a law has been passed which protects the right of dairies, feedlots, and farms in general to produce bad odors. Sellers must give written notice to buyers of land which is within a certain distance of agricultural land, that there may be odors that they will have to endure. Having received such notice, buyers are barred from suing over the stench. Washington state law provides: “[A]gricultural activities conducted on farmland and forest practices, if consistent with good agricultural and forest practices and established prior to surrounding nonagricultural and nonforestry activities, are presumed to be reasonable and shall not be found to constitute a nuisance unless the activity has a substantial adverse effect on the public health and safety.” (Snohomish County Code 32.15; RCW 7.48.305.)
While the number of dairies continues to drop, those that remain enlarge their herds to keep up with rising costs. Dairy cows no longer graze in grassy fields; most spend their entire lives in feedlots where they often stand in manure. Vegetables and fruits irrigated with water polluted by dairies and feedlots often harbor deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. Drinking water wells have been contaminated. The Washington Department of Ecology says there is more dairy manure pollution flowing into rivers than industrial and human waste combined. There is little enforcement of pollution control laws. There are too few inspectors, and there is political pressure against shutting down violators. (Rob Taylor, “Dairies Spread Danger: State is Failing to Regulate Pollution by Milk Producers,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 20, 1996, p. B1; http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/archives/1996/9611200001.asp.)
Stockyards, chicken ranches, and slaughterhouses add to the endless supply of manure, urine, and blood that is washed into rivers and estuaries.
I read articles about the coming extinction of salmon in Puget Sound in which clueless reporters express bewilderment as to why the salmon are disappearing. I debate with myself whether there is a conscious cover up between the connection between the manure and the death of the salmon. Or whether reporters presume that dairy products and meat are absolutely essential and therefore have top priority. In either case there is a twisting of values.
Half of all fresh water consumed in this country goes directly or indirectly to raise livestock. Certain aquifers are being permanently depleted; water that accumulated during the last Ice Age is being “mined.” If present practices are continued, Mid-Western aquifers such as the Ogallala will not completely recharge until the next Ice Age. Instead of building expensive new water facilities, we should just quit producing animal-based foods and in the process save the grain and water that are fed to animals. (Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef, p. 218 ff.)
To produce a pound of tomatoes requires only 23 gallons of water, but to produce a pound of beef requires 5,214 gallons. (Tom Aldridge and Herb Schlubach, “Water Requirements for Food Production,” Soil and Water, No. 38 (Fall 1978), University of California Cooperative Extension, 13-17; Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment, San Francisco: Freeman, 1972, p. 75-76, both cited in Our Food Our World: The Realities of an Animal-Based Diet, ed. EarthSave, p. 5.) Another authority says this figure is far too high and that only 440 gallons of water are required to produce a pound of beef. (J.L. Beckett and J.W. Oltjen, Journal of Animal Science, 1993, 71:818-826.) In either case, more water is consumed in producing animal-based foods than green foods.
Throughout the world forests are being cut down to provide pasture to animals and grow corn and soy to feed them. This results in the loss of 7 billion tons of topsoil per year. According to John Robbins,
Two hundred years ago, most of America’s croplands had at least 21 inches of topsoil. Today, most of it is down to around six inches of topsoil, and the rate of topsoil loss is accelerating. It takes nature 500 years to build an inch of topsoil. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service reports that over 4 million acres of cropland are being lost to erosion in this country every year. That’s an area the size of Connecticut. (Diet for a New America, p. 357-358.)
Mangrove forests are found in river mouths and estuaries throughout the tropics, from Taiwan to India to Central America, wherever sand beaches do not build up because of ocean currents. I have paddled and swum through shallow mangrove estuaries in Mindanao. Half the world’s mangrove forests have being ripped out and replaced with prawn farms. Such farms pollute surrounding rice growing areas and poison aquifers. They often fail after a few years and are abandoned, leaving ugly muddy waterholes. Mangrove forests are the nursery of aquatic life. When you remove the mangroves, the wild fish have no place to lay their eggs, and this eliminates the wild fish which millions of fisher folk rely on. (The Mangrove Action Project, http://www.earthisland.org/map.)
In British Columbia, hundreds of salmon farms have been set up. Salmon are fed several pounds of fish meal for every pound of salmon meat produced. Because these animals are confined, they tend to be diseased and so are fed antibiotics. Because they do not eat the same fish that wild salmon eat, their flesh does not turn pink, and so they are fed dye. Farmed fish are often fed corn and soy, and thus they contain lower levels of the essential fatty acids found in wild fish. (See the Fish, EPA and DHA section of this book, p. 260.) Farmed salmon are infested with sea lice, which are controlled through chemicals introduced into their feed. Swarms of sea lice latch onto passing wild salmon and dramatically diminish wild salmon populations. (http://www.watershed-watch.org.)
I should point out that it is possible to farm fish in a way that is not degrading to the environment. For thousands of years the Chinese have raised four species of carp together, each feeding on different naturally occurring plants and animals. Humans add only vegetation to fish ponds. Filter-feeding clams and mussels can be raised in cages suspended offshore where they suck in and eat plankton. Shell fish could provide an almost infinite food source. Unfortunately, experts advise limits on shell fish consumption because in the process of filtering water, they concentrate PCBs in their tissues.
Although the human population of the world is around 6.6 billion as of 2007, the farm animal population of the world is around 15 billion: 1.3 billion cattle, 2.7 billion pigs, sheep, goats, horses, buffaloes and camels, and 11 billion fowl. (United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, Production Yearbook 1989, cited in Our Food Our World: The Realities of an Animal-Based Diet, p. 6.) However, other estimates of the total domesticated animal population are much higher, up to 40 billion. The recent United Nations report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow says 48 billion fowl are slaughtered yearly. (http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.htm.) Perhaps the lower number represents the number of animals alive at any given time while the higher number represents the number living and being slaughtered yearly.
The impact of such large numbers of animals on consumption of grain, water, fuel, and energy and also their production of fecal waste and methane is staggering. Confined animals are a breeding ground for resistance to antibiotics, and so the cost to our health will be great in the long run. (United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, Production Yearbook 1989, cited in Our Food Our World: The Realities of an Animal-Based Diet, p. 6.)
Every time you drink milk, eat cheese or ice cream, put butter on your potato, or eat beef, pork, eggs, or chicken, you are doing your small part to further the world’s environmental degradation.
You might respond: I am only eating a few pounds of animal products each week. That’s such a small impact; it doesn’t matter that much. The problem, of course is that there are 6.6 billion people, all of them making a small impact. You can make a small impact in degrading the environment, or you can make a small impact in improving it.
GLOBAL WARMING, BIODIESEL AND ETHANOL
Oil, coal, and gas contain carbon that was buried millions of years ago. Burning them puts greenhouse gasses back into the atmosphere and thus contributes to global warming. Burning of coal is the biggest source of mercury pollution. Mercury goes up the smokestack and ends up in the oceans. It has done more than anything else to make fish a toxic food.
We burn fossil fuels to produce fertilizer and grow food for farm animals. Ninety percent of all soy and 80 percent of all corn grown in the United States is fed to livestock. If everyone in the United States adopted a vegan diet tomorrow, then all this mass of oil seed and biomass could instead be used to feed hungry humans and produce biodiesel and ethanol. If we grew as much biomass and oil seed and did not feed it to animals, the product saved would be available to replace oil and coal. If the right kind of biomass were grown, it would enrich the soil.
If biomass, grain, and oil seed fed to animals were used instead to produce biodiesel and ethanol, and if as much additional biomass, grain, and oil seed were produced as possible, and if solar, wind, wave, and tidal power, and power from the temperature differential of ocean water at different depths were all harnessed, would there be enough energy to replace petroleum, gas, and coal consumption?
Biodiesel burns better than petroleum diesel and produces fewer unwanted emissions such as carbon monoxide, sulphur compounds, and ozone, although it does produce more nitrogen oxides. Tailpipe emissions smell like French fries being cooked. Ethanol made from corn, sugar cane stalks, and other forms of biomass has a high octane rating and burns cleaner and cooler than gasoline. Corn makes a poor biofuel because it takes almost as much fuel to produce it as it yields. Green fuels recycle carbon, burning carbon from plants after those plants have taken in the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere in order to grow. (http://www.biodiesel.org, http://www.biodieselnow.com;http://www.greenfuels.org/biofaq.php.)
In the greenhouse gas debate, carbon dioxide is mentioned most. Methane is largely ignored. Carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for a hundred years and is increasing slowly but surely. However, methane is 24 times as potent a greenhouse gas as is carbon dioxide, and methane levels are increasing faster than carbon dioxide levels. Methane is responsible for half of human-induced global warming. The major human induced source of methane is animal agriculture, with methane coming from animals expelling gas and from the decay of manure. Methane production from animal agriculture continues to rise: Meat consumption has increased from 44 million tons in 1950 to 242 million in 2002.
There are massive quantities of methane dissolved in arctic tundra, with is already being released as more and more tundra thaws. Too there are staggering quantities of congealed methane hydrate ice in the mud at the bottom of oceans around the world. As ocean temperatures rise, this methane may melt and gassify and “burp” upwards into the atmosphere.
The only good news about methane is that it persists for only eight years before being reabsorbed out of the atmosphere. This means that “going vegan” can do more to reduce global warming in the short term than buying a Prius. (Noam Hohr, A New Global Warming Strategy, Earthsave, http://www.earthsave.org/news/earthsave_global_warming_report.pdf.) Al Gore says not a word about the connection between domesticated animals, methane, and global warming in his An Inconvenient Truth. Maybe this is a truth just a little too inconvenient for middle-of-the roader Al.
The environmental outlook is grim. I feel fairly certain that calamitous change will occur. Al Gore suggests there is still hope, but I doubt it. Runaway global warming will occur and we may see devastating effects in our lifetimes, including rapidly rising ocean levels, along with droughts and other forms of climatic instability. When there is instability, the outcome is unpredictable. The world could keep getting hotter, or deep ocean currents could be disrupted, and the world could be plunged into a new Ice Age. In either case billions of humans could be displaced or killed.
Sleepwalking humans will not change their ways until they are forced to change, and by the time they are forced to change, it will be too late for there to be a “soft landing.” I hope that we will wake up before it is too late and mend our ways—and change our diet.
Both of the political parties which govern us are capitalist. Republicans are a little more short term about their capitalism than are Democrats. But they are both “crony capitalist” in orientation, meaning that they irrationally subsidize and protect money-making industries such as the saturated fat business.
I must admit confusion as to why Republicans do not adopt the global warming issue: Republicans own most of the waterfront property that is going to be flooded as oceans rise.
For all the reasons outlined above, I hope you will agree with me when I say that one cannot be an environmentalist without being a vegan or moving strongly in that direction.