Food and the Planet

The connection between farming and the environment is significant.  By choosing to consume certain foods over others, we are contributing to pollution, climate change, water misuse, and microbial resistance to antibiotics. According to many authoritative bodies, eating animals and their products is completely unsustainable given the current projected worldwide population growth, and ruining the planet we depend on to live.

Credit: North Carolina Department of Agriculture

Raising livestock causes a huge environmental impact through deforestation, land use, loss of biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, and animal waste. Animal products require more resources and cause higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than plant products. In fact, GHGs released by livestock account for 22% of the world’s total GHGs, similar to vehicle, steel and iron manufacturing, and more than all the transportation in the world (Lancet2007).  In developing countries, animal livestock are the largest contributor to GHG emissions (by expelling methane and nitrous oxide). As the UN Environmental Programme report from 2010 (p. 82) states, “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

More than half of the world’s crops are used to feed animals, not people, and land is continually being converted from native forests to crops to feed animals. According to the UN, 26% of the earth’s land mass is used to grow livestock. Our most important rainforest, and thus our most important carbon dioxide absorber, the Amazon, is affected too. 17-18% of the Amazon is already deforested, and 70% of the deforested land is used for livestock feed ( Deforestation and resulting desertification also contribute significantly to the worsening health of our Earth.

Amazon deforestation

In the United States, the amount of animal waste from factory farms is 130 times more than all human waste, and disposing of it in an environmentally friendly way is impossible. One devastating impact of the failure to effectively control waste, is that waste in the midwest is flowing down the Mississippi River and destroying the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrogen from the waste is causing algae to bloom and killing the native wildlife in the water (

A satellite view of past Dead Zone in the Gulf: The red areas show how a vast, nitrogen-fed algae bloom has risen, blotting out most sea life underneath. (NASA)

Eating a vegan diet can decrease your climate change impact to one third of the impact of a regular diet. The improvement of your environmental impact by eating less beef or switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet was recently corroborated by a USDA Scientific Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

Growing and feeding animals to produce meat and dairy use an inordinate amount of water compared to growing plants. In California, we are amidst a multi-year drought and are projected to run out of water soon. Water use is being scrutinized, as it should, and individual people are cutting back on household water use. However, the importance of dietary choices is not being emphasized enough. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in his New York Times Op-Ed column 5/2015, our food industry is guzzling water. Meat and dairy alone use 47% of California’s water.

I suggest heading over to a website called Water Footprint, which has a tool that shows global averages of the amount of water needed to produce a variety of foods. You’ll find the following information: 1 pound of beef needs 1800 gallons of water to be produced. 99% of the water for beef goes to producing feed for the cows. A pound of pork needs 717 gallons of water. Chicken needs 518 gallons per pound, milk needs 67 gallons for 1 cup (and 8 gallons water per 1 gram of milk protein), and cheese needs 112 gallons per pound. Surprisingly, a pound of nuts uses 475 gallons. Otherwise, most plants use much less. A pound of tomatoes uses about 30 gallons; a pound of cucumbers, 41 gallons; a pound of cabbage, 33 gallons. A pound of beef protein requires six times more water than a pound of legume protein. We need to have food to eat, but we don’t need to spend gallons and gallons of water producing food for animals that we then eat.  The process of producing animal protein for consumption from plants is extremely inefficient.

Microbial resistance to antibiotics is increasing, a supremely troubling fact. In the United States, 80% of sales of antibiotics go to agriculture, to be given to cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals. This is because the conditions that livestock are grown in are completely unnatural and filthy. So many animals are crammed into tight spaces, and diseases would run rampant if not checked by unfettered antibiotic use. Antibiotics aren’t given just to sick animals; they are given to all animals, day after day. These bacteria don’t just stay in the factory farms; they find their way into the environment, and eventually affect us. Over time, bacteria evolve defense mechanisms against more and more antibiotics, and we have to use stronger antibiotics to fight infections. A CDC report in 2013 talked about this vicious cycle. I saw this personally, working in healthcare.  Eventually we may run out of antibiotics to kill the microbes that could kill us, but already our options are becoming more limited. You can read about some of the political issues with limiting antibiotics in animal feeds in Sabrina Tavernise’s article in New York Times. You can help by signing this petition on the National Resources Defense Council website, and of course, by choosing not to eat animals or animal products.

Credit: CDC