By Gene Baur, President and Co-founder
Earth Day started in 1970 in response to growing awareness and anxiety about the negative environmental impacts of human activities on the planet. Unfortunately, despite various efforts and accords like the 2016 Paris Agreement to address climate change, the habits of our species have continued to wreak havoc on Earth. Excessive consumption of meat and other animal products is causing profound ecological harm, and most of us are unwittingly complicit.
The United Nations has warned that animal agriculture is a major contributor to our planet’s most significant environmental threats. Here are just some of the ways that a meat-heavy diet is damaging the planet:
Producing meat requires inordinate resources and vast swaths of land. In the U.S., 781 million acres are currently dedicated to growing food to feed farm animals, while less than one-tenth as much, 77 million acres, is used to grow food for people.
Agriculture, especially the mass production and slaughter of animals, is reshaping the earth’s biosphere. Scientists say we are now living in the Anthropocene age, a geologic epoch dominated by human activity and a fossil record that will be marked by chicken bones and plastic. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 70% of birds on earth today are domesticated, mostly chickens. In the case of mammals, just 4% live in the wild, and an astounding 96% are domesticated, mainly farm animals. We are destroying nature and exploiting billions of farm animals (trillions if you include fish), which causes intolerable suffering to both human and nonhuman animals, and harms the earth.
Large farms can produce more waste than some U.S. cities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a farm with 800,000 pigs could produce over 1.6 million tons of waste each year. That amount is one and a half times more than the annual sanitary waste (sewage) produced by the city of Philadelphia.
80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States are sold for use in animal agriculture. In order to prevent the spread of disease in the crowded, filthy conditions of confinement operations, producers feed farm animals a number of antibiotics. Upwards of 75% of the antibiotics fed to farm animals end up undigested in their urine and manure. Through this waste, the antibiotics may contaminate crops and waterways.
Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than every car, bus, train, boat, airplane, and any other mode of transportation on the planet combined, according to a report published by the FAO. According to the same report, animal agriculture is responsible for 37% of all human-caused methane emissions.
The good news is that we each have the power to make an immediate difference in our daily actions by eating plants instead of animals. Shifting toward plant-based agriculture would significantly lighten our ecological footprint, cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, and help preserve wildlife habitat and increasingly scarce natural resources. A 2019 report from a panel of international experts concluded:
When we consider the state of our earth, there can be a tendency to feel powerless and upset about our inability to make a positive difference, which is why it’s so important to focus on what we can control, such as what we eat. We are empowered when we eat food and support an agricultural system that is aligned with our values and interests, and that supports ecological responsibility. Day by day, these incremental dietary actions add up, and collectively, we can make a world of difference.
*Farm Sanctuary’s Sustainable Future Curriculum is a free resource for teachers which helps students explore the environmental impacts of food. Download here.