Source: Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions—that’s more than the exhaust of every car, plane, bus, ship, and train on the planet. Other researchers have put the figure as significantly higher.
Emissions from the farmed animals themselves play a big part, but every step in the production of meat, milk, and eggs is damaging, from the clearing of land for grazing or to grow feed, to the transportation of animals to slaughter, and from the creation of plastic packaging to the refrigerated shipping of the products worldwide. University of Oxford research concluded that adopting a plant-based diet can reduce our own food emissions by 73 percent, depending on where we live.
Impact of greenhouse-gas emissions of the world’s population adopting a variety of diets.
*Assumes nuclear power plants replaced fossil fuels; data from the World Nuclear Association.
The climate impact of animal farming is bad enough, but our consumption of animal products has other serious environmental impacts, too.
Animal farming is incredibly inefficient. It uses 83 percent of agricultural land but provides just 18 percent of our calories. More and more land is needed to meet the global demand for meat, so ancient rainforests and other habitats are destroyed. Beef production is responsible for around 80 percent of the Amazon’s destruction.
The billions of farmed animals on the planet produce such immense amounts of waste that the land cannot absorb it all. Billions of tons of slurry are stored in specially-built “lagoons” and tanks, from which it leaks out or is deliberately discharged into fields and rivers, threatening drinking supplies and causing widespread destruction to aquatic wildlife. In the United States alone, more than 100,000 miles of rivers and streams, almost 2.5 million acres of lakes, reservoirs, and ponds, and more than 800 square miles of bays and estuaries have poor water quality because of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, much of it connected to animal farming.
Just as farm waste pollutes other waterways, it also gets into the oceans. The nutrients in slurry fuel algal blooms which then starve the water of oxygen, creating ocean dead zones. The fishing industry is not only the biggest plastic polluter of the oceans, it also drives entire species to extinction, while killing millions of other endangered animals, such as turtles, sharks, rays, and albatrosses. And, as trawlers drag vast weighted nets along the ocean floor, they destroy fragile habitats and irreplaceable ecosystems.