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The Effects of Meat on the Environment

The United Nations Weighs In


Earth on a Plate
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Animal rights activists have been saying for decades that meat and animal agriculture are bad for the environment. Eating meat and other animal products is wasteful because water, land, energy and other resources that go into producing animal feed could be used directly to produce food for people. Furthermore, forested lands are being cleared to create more pasture for livestock, animal waste creates pollution and methane gas produced by livestock contributes to global warming.

More recently, the United Nations has been weighing in on the effects of animal agriculture on the environment.

The quotes below are from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s report, "Livestock’s Long Shadow" and the United Nations News Centre's article about the report:

  • Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation.
  • Livestock now use 30 per cent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 per cent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock.
  • As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 per cent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.
  • The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops.
  • (The livestock sector) is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, "dead" zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems, emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others. The major sources of pollution are from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides used for feedcrops, and sediments from eroded pastures.
  • In the United States, with the world's fourth largest land area, livestock area responsible for an estimated 55 percent of erosion and sediment, 37 percent of pesticide use, 50 percent of antibiotic use, and a third of the loads of nitrogen and phosphorus into freshwater resources.
  • The livestock sector may well be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity, since it is the major driver of deforestation, as well as one of the leading drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas and facilitation of invasions by alien species.

The United Nations and its officials have also addressed the issue outside of the now-famous report:

  • In a separate 2006 report titled, "Livestock Policy Brief 02," the UN FAO found, "Dense concentrations of industrial livestock production create vast quantities of manure. This can cause nitrates and pathogens to leach into groundwater, which often threatens drinking water supplies. Another risk is the destruction of fragile ecosystems, such as wetlands, mangrove swamps and coral reefs."
  • Dr Rajendra Pachauri, head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, advises, "Give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there."
  • Yvo de Boer, United Nations climate chief, said during the UN climate talks in 2008, "The best solution (to climate change) would be for us all to become vegetarians."
  • Looking at these figures, one might conclude that factory farming is to blame, but pasture-raised, free-range animal agriculture is just as harmful to the environment in some ways, and worse in others. With forests already being cleared to create more pastures for livestock, we do not need more deforestation. Although de Boer says that vegetarianism is the best solution, veganism is an even better solution.

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