A Deeper Shade of Green

By Cabrejas, Joaquin | The Humanist, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

A Deeper Shade of Green


Cabrejas, Joaquin, The Humanist


ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS have taken an elevated role in virtually every newspaper reader's mind. For years scientists have issued dire warnings over the tremendous consequences of human activity on the environment, and the specter of global warming has become foreboding indeed. Encouragingly, "green" has entered the mainstream lexicon as more people now look for ways to eliminate or at least mitigate their contribution to the environmental degradation and destruction currently ravaging the planet. Unfortunately, what often isn't considered in these personal environmental calculations is the food we eat.

One of the ideas behind the environmental impact of meat production is that raising animals for slaughter uses precious resources like nonrenewable fossil fuels, water, and space--both for the animals themselves and to grow animal feed, and this space could be more efficiently used to grow food for direct consumption by humans. This seems to be especially the case with modern, high-intensity factory farming methods that have enabled, compared to more traditional farming methods, the profitable maintenance of prodigiously greater numbers of animals at incredibly high densities. These unfortunate animals are allowed virtually no freedom of movement and so feed must be grown for them. Manure management then becomes a technical headache (the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that farm animals produce 500 million tons of waste a year in the United States alone) and potentially hazardous on many levels. Moreover, agricultural animal waste releases greenhouse gases, and livestock in particular are responsible for a large proportion of methane emissions worldwide.

Indeed, a 2006 analysis by University of Chicago geophysicists Gidon Eishel and Pamela Martin found that a vegetarian diet is the most environmentally friendly there is. Eishel reports that, ultimately, "however close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet."

Cattle ranching, according to vegan writer and activist Erik Marcus, exacts a great environmental toll (it's important to note that Marcus is critical of many of the vegetarian movement's environmental claims). During the first few months of their lives, U.S. cattle typically graze on pasture before they're shipped to densely packed feedlots to rapidly gain weight for slaughter on a richer, corn-based diet. According to Marcus, an astonishing 44 percent of the land in the continental United States is used for cattle or sheep grazing. Even if the quality of the land that some cattle graze on may be too poor to support grain and vegetable agriculture, as is often claimed for arid regions in the West, this is frequently land that was previously--and still could be--an unmolested home to wild fauna.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report in November 2006 called Livestock's Long Shadow, which details the environmental impact of the worldwide livestock industry. In a summary of the report, the FAO describes the ecological damage beef and dairy production has caused:

   The livestock sector is by far the single largest anthropogenic
   user of land. Grazing occupies 26 percent of the Earth's
   terrestrial surface, while feed crop production requires about a
   third of all arable land. Expansion of grazing land for livestock
   is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America: some
   70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is used as
   pasture, and feed crops cover a large part of the remainder. About
   70 percent of all grazing land in dry areas is considered degraded,
   mostly because of overgrazing, compaction and erosion attributable
   to livestock activity.

The report also estimates that the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions--incredibly, making it a worse offender than the world transportation system--and a far higher proportion of more corrosive greenhouse gases like methane (37 percent) and nitrous oxide (65 percent), which are produced by livestock digestive systems and from manure, respectively. …

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