That steak on our plate for dinner has a much bigger impact on our planet than most of us realize. The environmental impact of livestock farming, in particular raising cows, is huge. It contributes to land and water degradation, species extinction, acid rain, ocean dead zones, coral reef degeneration and deforestation. According to the United Nations a global shift towards vegan diet is necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change. So, what are the negative impacts related to livestock farming?

Water usage. The livestock sector accounts for about 8% of global human water use (animal drinking, feed crops, and product processes). The production of one pound of beef requires approximately 2,500 gallons of water. In the US 55% of water consumed is for animal agriculture, versus 5% for private homes.

Pollution. Livestock farming contributes 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That is more than all emissions from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together. Livestock is responsible for 44% of methane gas emissions, 53% of nitrous oxide emissions (a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming potential of CO2 and which stays in the atmosphere for 150 years) and 5% of carbon dioxide emissions. The vast amounts of manure produced by livestock cause surface water contamination (increased amounts of phosphates, nitrates, decreased dissolved oxygen etc.). Actually, manure is main source of nitrogen and phosphorus in surface and groundwater. These excess levels of nutrients are the cause of algal blooms which end up killing fish due to the oxygen being depleted in the water. High levels of nitrates not only make water taste bad but it also can cause methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome” which is fatal to babies. Furthermore, manure can contain antibiotics and hormones which have affected the reproductive system of fish in some cases. It also can contain pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and fecal coliform.  In addition to diseases, animal poo can contain heavy metals like lead which is known to cause kidney issues and nervous system disorders.

- Land use. Around 30% of the earth's ice-free land surface is used for livestock farming. Cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80% of current deforestation rates (large amounts of land are used for the growth of soy to feed the cattle). The livestock industry also uses almost 50% of the corn produced in the United States as feed for the animals. Grains that could be used to feed humans are used to feed animals (the production of one kilogram of beef requires 25 kilograms of grain). If all grain now used to feed animals would be used to feed humans, an extra 3.5 billion people could be fed.

- Health effects. In the US 80% of all antibiotics are used by the livestock industry to accelerate weight gain and control infections. This contributes to the growing public health problem of antibiotic resistance. Added to this are the numerous diseases linked with high meat consumption like heart disease, diabetes, stroke and various cancers. 

- Animal welfare. Most meat, dairy and eggs are produced in ways that largely or completely ignore animal welfare. The animals don't have sufficient space to move around, have contact with other animals and have access to the outdoors.

Looking at these numbers it might be hard to imagine what they all mean in our everyday lives.  To make it more clear this example might help: each day a person chooses to eat vegan he/she saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent and one animal´s life. If you would eat one less hamburger a week for one year, it would be the equivalent of taking your car off the road for 320 miles. Maybe an idea to join the Meatless Monday movement, become a vegetarian, or if you really love meat at least become a flexitarian?




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Interesting reading material

Counting animals 

Climate change and livestock: Impacts, adaptation, and mitigation