This week has seen the public become upset about the prospect of chlorine-washed chicken flooding the UK as the price of a post-Brexit trade deal with the US. It’s difficult to understand how the livestock industry does not come under more scrutiny. If the public can get upset about a bit of chlorine on their chicken, how can the industry get away with being perhaps the most destructive industrial practice on our planet?
The agricultural industry is the number one contributor to human induced climate change; it uses 1/3 of the planets freshwater resources; 45% of the earths land mass is taken for agriculture; 91% of the Amazon’s deforestation is due to agricultural production and the industry is by far the leading cause of mass species extinction. Not forgetting some atrocities against animal rights that we accept without even stopping to think about what is going into our mouths.
Many meat eaters do not like to be told what they should or should not be eating, making it very hard to change the mind of people who have been bought up in a society which gorges on meat and other animal products. The first question to ask is, why are we eating meat in the first place? When humans kill other animals for food, we are not doing what animals do in nature. Humans have no biological need to consume meat or any animal products. When animals kill other animals for food, they do as they must, in order to survive; they have no choice in the matter. Many humans, on the other hand, do have a choice, and when people with access to plant-based foods choose to continue eating animals anyway – simply because they like the taste- they are harming animals not from necessity, but for pleasure.
It is not necessarily the fault of the consumer, although we do have a choice of what we consume. The livestock industry is a business, and like every business profit comes first. Whether it’s from our families, friends, commercials, billboards; our society is pushed towards consuming meat, and lots of it. Our fast food restaurants use marketing strategies to get children as young as possible to start consuming their greasy burgers by offering free toys. Today’s excessive meat consumption has come about through numerous political and economic mechanisms. Beef, like sugar and many other consumables, are a large part the result of turning luxury items into necessities, to increase profits. Meat is well and truly on our minds.
We are happy to send one species to the butcher and give our love and kindness to another, apparently for no reason other than because it’s the way things are. How can we feel so outraged about whaling while continuing to enjoy fish and chips? People rarely enjoy thinking about where meat comes from. Specifically, they deny that those animals have minds. When something is thought to possess a mind we begin to care about their welfare. Our societies have been programmed to lose our ability to empathize with certain animals. Studies show that pigs have similar if not greater intelligence and social structuring as dogs, yet we allow dogs into our beds and living rooms but keep pigs in small cages before killing them for our bacon sandwich, ever thought about having a beagle butty before ?
If you think kicking a stray dog in the ribs or breaking the neck of a stray cat is wrong; you must realize you do the same thing every time you eat meat that is not locally produced. You are supporting an industry that does horrendous things to living, mindful creatures. As the UK leaves EU we are leaving very strong regulations concerning animal welfare. In America they are allowed to do almost anything with their livestock, filling their meat with hormones and antibiotics that not only causes miss-harm to the animals but goes onto their plates. We are in danger of our government allowing this meat to come into the UK. The best way to avoid it? Stop eating meat.
Although terrible, it is important that we look beyond the direct effects on animal welfare in order to truly understand the destruction the agricultural industries are causing to our planet. Unfortunetly due to the fact that environmental organisations are also a business, they feel as though they cannot document or protest against the major issues livestock farming causes to our planet. They are scared that this will drive away not only investors but also supporters, people don’t want to be told that by what they are eating they are causing great harm to our planet. It is therefore our job to communicate with our peers about what is going on and what can be done. So what are the major issues concerning the industry?
Firstly we must consider the fact that the total cattle population for the world is approximately 1.3 billion, occupying some 24% of the land of the planet. This is just the area for the cattle, altogether about 45% of the planet’s surface is used to either house livestock or grow the food used to feed livestock. That’s almost half of the planet’s surface being used just so we can eat meat. Around two acres of rainforest are cleared every second with 80% of deforested areas in Brazil being cleared due to pasture. This habitat destruction is happening all over the world leading to the largest mass extinction in 65 million years. We are replacing lush, biodiverse habitats for fields so we can farm livestock to go onto our plates. The rainforests in the tropics are the lungs of our planet, producing the oxygen we breathe, and yet we are destroying that very source.
The production of all of this meat not only takes up outrageous amounts of land but also water. Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the US. Worldwide the industry uses around 1/3 of the planets freshwater, whilst many poverty stricken nations still struggle with major water shortages. Not only does the industry use an extremely unsustainable amount of water, it also pollutes the waterways of which surround the production. A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people. This waste as well as chemicals runs off into streams and then accumulates in lakes and large ocean patches. This aquatic pollution creates algal blooms caused by nitrogen accumulation. These algal blooms deplete oxygen and cause dead zones, were no life exists.
If poisoning our oceans with land based livestock’s waste isn’t enough, we humans also like to gorge ourselves on fish. Many people see the oceans as an endless supply of food, we can keep fishing its treasures and more fish will be produced. This is not the case. Like an armada the 23,000 factory ships that patrol the oceans have decimated our fish stocks with over 3/4 of the planets commercially fished species populations being either close to collapsing or already collapsed. They also indiscriminately kill and discard 200 million pounds of bycatch, non-target species such as dolphins and turtles that are simply thrown back in the ocean dead. Studies suggest that we could see fishless oceans by 2048. That is shocking, we are putting fish onto our plates knowing that we are destroying their populations and eating them to extinction.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the industry is its contribution to climate change, and the fact that we haven’t been told about it. Animal food production now surpasses both the transportation industry and electricity generation as the greatest sources of greenhouse gasses. Fossil fuels burned in farm equipment, methane emissions from livestock and land clearence for pasture all contribute to emitting toxic gases into our atmosphere. The government asked us to change our light bulbs and ride our bikes to work, so why did they not tell us to eat less meat? Why? Money.
If these environmental issues are not enough to make you question what is going on your plate, then think about how the industry is directly affecting humans. The externalised cost of America’s animal food system is $414bn annually. ¾ of that is expenditure on healthcare relating to the epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease which have all been shown to be driven by high rates of consumption of meat and dairy. Not to mention the practices of implanting cattle with man-made growth hormones and selling unlabelled genetically modified foods, but by killing all these animals we are also killing ourselves. Some 80% of grain produced in the US is fed to livestock, if some of this food and money that is used in the industry was put to better use maybe we could start to deal with more important problems such as, world hunger? 82% of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals, and the animals are eaten by western countries.
Some people argue that there are sustainable ways to consume meat, by eating animals reared in better conditions or fed different feed. However these procedures are still resource intensive. The problem is that our population is too large for everyone to have meat as a central component of their diet. Meat production is resource intensive and has a significant impact on the environment, compared to less resource expensive food. It takes dozens of times more water and five times more land to produce animal protein than equal amounts of plant protein. A person on a vegan diet would need 1/6th acre to feed themselves for a year, the figure for meat eaters is 18 x more than this figure. Throughout the world, humans drink 5.2 billion gallons of water and eat 21 billion pounds of food each day. Worldwide, cows drink 45 billion gallons of water and eat 135 billion pounds of food each day. Looking at the numbers it is clear to see that at the consumption rates we currently see, it will be impossible to continue if everyone eats as much meat as the western world currently does.
So what can we do about it? Change our attitude. Virtually every atrocity in the history of humankind was enabled by a populace that turned away from a reality that seemed too painful to face. We must be the ones who bear witness and demand that others bear witness as well. Having a diet based on plant products or being a vegan in other words must be the answer. Despite been ridiculed and joked about by meat eaters, each day a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30sq ft of forested land, 20 pounds CO2 equivalent and one animal’s life. Any well-educated doctor will tell you that vegans have the longest life expectancy, and on average score higher on IQ tests.
It may seem impossible to change the view of the majority of the world’s population and make them give up eating animal products, however i am sure the activists trying to stop the sale of tobacco felt the same. It’s taken many years but now it is socially accepted that smoking tobacco is terrible for your health. The same process must be put into place for the consumption of animal products. Even if we can encourage people to simply cut down on their meat intake, it would be a step in the right direction. By eating animal products we are not only killing innocent animals, we are killing ourselves and we are killing our planet.
As individuals we do have the power to change the world. When we tell our peers and our families why ecological farming makes sense, we start to heal our bodies and the planet. If we can encourage more people to make smarter food choices when we shop, cook or eat out. Simply becoming conscious to what we are putting onto our plates. When we work together to create ripples they will eventually grow into shockwaves that will change our industrial systems, run by money driven corporations and governments. We are slowly consuming our planet to death, however perhaps the biggest impact you could have is simply changing your diet, removing animal products, which is not such a hard thing to do when the future of our existence could depend on such change.