Lindsey Gallagher (they/them) is a non-binary nonfiction writer from Shelter Island, New York. They are currently pursuing their MFA at Northern Arizona University. They serve as the Editor-in-Chief of Thin Air Magazine and teach English Composition. Their work can be found in The Oval and The Palhouse Review. Outside of writing, they enjoy running and outdoor adventures of many sorts.
Animal Agriculture & the Climate Crisis
I’m sure you’ve heard about the impacts of animal agriculture on our environment and how it plays into the climate crisis somewhere. Maybe from a friend, maybe you’ve done research, maybe a vegan has told you. It doesn’t matter where you’ve heard it or if you’ve even heard about it before. What’s more important is to know the truth about the impacts of animal agriculture so you can make an educated choice about how you personally want to respond. I’m certainly not saying you have to go plant-based. Making that choice is up to you. I believe the impact of going plant-based has the most potential for change when it is truly a choice, a conscious decision, one makes. So, I’m here to help you see the big picture, to give you the facts, to show you what is behind a burger.
What is animal agriculture?
First, let’s talk about animal agriculture (or the livestock sector of agriculture). Agriculture is simply the growth and production of food products. A significant part of agriculture is animal agriculture, or animal farming, which is “the breeding, raising and slaughter of animals for products intended for human use, as well as the growing of crops used to feed farmed animals” (Sentient Media). In fact, over 92 million animals, including cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens, etc. cycle through this system to be used for food across the world each year. These animals are processed through the system in many ways:
- Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs): As defined by the EPA, AFOs are “where animals are kept and raised in confined situations” and when the “animals have been, are, or will be stabled or confined and fed or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period.”
- Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs): Sometimes called “factory farms,” CAFOs are simply larger AFOs. They are categorized, from small to large, by how many animals are confined. According to the EPA, a larger CAFO, for example, has over 1,000 cattle or over 125,000 chickens (excluding laying hens). A small one, on the other hand, has less than 300 cattle and less than 37,500 chickens (excluding laying hens).
Animal agriculture makes up a significant portion of the agriculture sector. Based on the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the most recent one, that year the United States had 2,042,220 farms (a farm is where at least $1,000 of agricultural products are made and sold). With 900.2 million acres of land, these farms covered 40% of the nation’s land. In terms of the farming specialization, cattle and dairy farms alone made up 44% of the nation’s farmland and 34% of the nation’s 2+ million farms. If you combine all farms that produce animal products (cattle and dairy farms, hog and pig farms, poultry and egg farms, and sheep and goat farms) they make up 54% of the nation’s farmland and 53% of farms. As you will soon see, the proportion of land used for animal agriculture in the U.S. isn’t quite as large as global proportions. However, animal agriculture still uses half of U.S. farmland and makes up half of the nation’s farms.
If you are interested in reading the full 820 page census report, go here.
Moving to the global scale, livestock makes up 40% of the agricultural output in developed countries, 20% in developing ones. Despite this, livestock uses a disproportionate amount of habitable land on Earth. As you can see in the graphic below, 46% of the habitable land consists of agriculture most broadly. But 77% of the land for agriculture is used for livestock (grazing and land used for animal food production). Only 23% is left for crops that are for human consumption. Despite the incredible amount of land used for livestock, only 18% of global calories come from livestock; 82% comes from plant-based food. And though meat is touted for its protein content, only 37% of the world’s protein comes from meat and dairy. The majority of our protein, 63%, comes from plant-based food. Yes, plant-based food has protein.
What this graphic really shows is just how inefficient animal agriculture is, taking up incredible amounts of space for a rather marginal output in terms of food production across the globe. And the 37 million km2 of land used for livestock has a massive environmental impact, which we’ll explore now.
Animal Agriculture’s Impacts
An incredible number of resources go into creating the package of meat you see on the shelves at the grocery store. Perhaps the most valuable of those resources is water. And animal products have water footprints that are generally above other food products. The worst offender is beef, which requires 1,850 gallons of water for the production of 1 pound of the meat. This exact number is contested, and it also depends on the animal and how it is raised/produced. However, most agree that 1,800-2,000 gallons of water is the range of the footprint. In terms of categories, meat requires much more water than all other foods (vegetables, grains, fruit, dairy). Here are some water footprints of animal and plant-based products to consider (in gallons required to produce 1 pound):
|ANIMAL PRODUCTS||PLANT-BASED PRODUCTS|
|Pork = 720 gallons||Soy burger = 452 gallons|
|Butter = 668 gallons||Soybeans = 256 gallons|
|Lamb and mutton = 626 gallons||Wheat = 220 gallons|
|Chicken = 520 gallons||Tofu = 304 gallons|
|Eggs= 392 gallons||Brown rice = 260 gallons|
|Cheese (cow’s milk) = 380 gallons||Broccoli = 36 gallons|
For more water footprints check out this awesome calculator!
I should let you know, though, that nuts have sizable water footprints—almost as much as, and in some cases more than, meat. Almonds required 1,932 gallons of water for 1 pound, cashews 1,708 gallons. So, this is not to say that all plant-based foods have a lower water footprint. However, as a whole, plant-based foods use less water than meat and dairy products.
Some other bad news: chocolate has the highest water footprint of all foods at 2,064 gallons of water needed to produce one pound. The calculator doesn’t specify if this is dairy or non-dairy chocolate, but either way this is sad news for chocolate lovers (like me).
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Perhaps the largest impact of animal agriculture comes from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the most prominent being methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. Animal agriculture produces GHGs in a number of ways:
- Crop and soil management: Although nitrous oxide is something soil naturally makes, human activities that change the nitrogen content of the soil increase the amount of nitrous oxide produced. Some of these activities include using manure as fertilizer, using nitrogen fertilizer, draining soils with a lot of organic matter, and irrigation and other alterations to land.
- Livestock digestive process (enteric fermentation): When microbes break down food and ferment food in the animal’s digestive tract, they produce methane which is expelled into the environment through burps and flatulence.
- Manure management: Manure is a source of methane when it is managed under anaerobic conditions (lacking free oxygen) like in liquids and slurries (try not to picture that). In recent decades, a movement toward liquid manure management systems to manage larger farms led to an increase in manure methane production. If manure is handled as a solid, little to no methane is produced. However, nitrous oxide is also produced by both manure and urine, and solid manure management systems produce nitrous oxide.
Now the question is: just how many GHGs are produced by animal agriculture?
On the global level, livestock is responsible for 7.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year, which is 14.5% of GHG emissions. The information I could find from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and this report estimate that:
- Methane = 44% of animal agriculture’s emissions. Also, 44% of the world’s methane emissions across all sectors.
- Nitrous oxide = 29% of animal agriculture’s emissions. Also, 54% of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions across all sectors.
- Carbon dioxide = 27% of animal agriculture’s emissions. Also, 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions across all sectors.
NOTE: The data in these bullet points reflect 2007 data, which was the latest I could find from a global report. Though the relative contribution of each GHG to livestock’s overall GHG emissions has fluctuated, the overall percentage of emissions from livestock (14.5%) has not changed by more than a few points (estimates range from 11%-17%).
In the United States, 10% of emissions came from the agricultural sector (crops and livestock). You can read the full annual report that inventories GHG emissions and sinks here. But for a little more perspective on a smaller scale, for 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef almost 300 kilograms of carbon dioxide are emitted. As a reference, when you drive a car 1 mile, only 0.4 kilograms are emitted (this does add up quite a bit, and cars certainly have a bigger impact on carbon dioxide emissions than agriculture).
While animal agriculture is not the largest source of GHG emissions in either the U.S or globally, it does make up a significant portion of emissions, enough so that by cutting down the emissions from the animal agriculture sector, we could make a sizable impact.
There are a number of other impacts on the planet caused by animal agriculture including deforestation, biodiversity loss, air pollution, and water pollution, amongst others. But I’ve gone on long enough now, so if you want to know more about these impacts, I’ll leave the research to you!
We’re at the end of this dense, research-filled post now. I do hope this is a helpful starting point! After these astounding numbers, I think it’s pretty clear just how effective a plant-based diet can be in terms of mitigating the climate crisis.
Stay tuned to hear more about the potential a plant-based diet has to reduce climate change and other reasons why you should consider turning to a plant-based diet.
Thanks for reading!
Recipe of the Week: Balsamic Tofu
My partner discovered this recipe a few years ago. To this day, it is one of our favorite ways to have tofu!
- Press one block of tofu (pressing is always optional, but if you want a nice crunch and the balsamic flavor to be stronger, use a tofu press or simply something heavy on top of the tofu block to squeeze out excess water).
- After the tofu has been pressed (~30 minutes), cut the block into cubes. Place in a sealable container that is large enough so you don’t have to stack the tofu cubes on top of one another too much.
- In another container that seals, like a mason jar (so you can shake to mix it), add:
- 3 tbsp oil
- 3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 3 tbsp water
- Slightly less than 3 tbsp sugar (or sweetener of choice)
- Slightly less than ¾ tsp salt
- 3 generous shakes of garlic powder
- Once you’ve added the ingredients, shake the container to thoroughly mix.
- Pour the balsamic marinade over the tofu cubes in the larger container.
- Seal the container and place in the fridge for at least 8 hours. I would recommend letting it marinade overnight (up to 24 hours) for maximum flavor.
- Once the tofu is marinaded, place on a baking sheet coated with oil. Don’t let the excess marinade spill out on the baking sheet. Save that in the container—you’ll use it later!
- Place in an oven at 425° for about 30 mins (flip the tofu halfway through). Monitor the tofu throughout the cooking stage as the amount of excess water in the block will determine how quickly it will crunch up.
- Enjoy! I love this tofu with a grain (like a bowl of brown rice) and a veggie (like some asparagus cooked with some of the excess marinade). Combine the tofu, grain, and veggie in a bowl and dig in!