The sun provides energy for grass to grow, herbivores eat the grass, and carnivores eat the herbivores. This is how the most basic food cycle works, right? Right … unless the “herbivores” in this situation are actually livestock … a group of herbivores that humans have overproduced specifically for their own consumption.
Livestock can be defined as any domesticated animal that is used as a commodity for agricultural purposes. In the United States, common livestock include cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, poultry, and fish. Over 99 percent of which are raised on factory farms for the food industry. Seeing these animals as commodities, they are mass produced in large “highly-efficient” facilities.
Farming animals in this manner disrupts the delicately balanced food cycle – creating more herbivores then there are plants (or more readily, space), and more carnivores (i.e. humans who eat meat). Industrial farming has also shown to have a number of detrimental environmental impacts, including high greenhouse gas emissions, extreme water usage and land exploitation, and air pollution.
How could this news get any worse? Well…turns out we’ve altered the natural food cycle so much that even the foods used to raise livestock are damaging the environment and consequently, causing harm to other animals (including YOU!).
Don’t Most Farm Animals Eat Grass?
When many of us imagine farms the way our childhood storybooks described them to us, we often think of vast rolling green pastures with soft wooden fences and gentle red barns. Along with this image, animals are frolicking, grazing, rooting, or pecking around in the grass. According to cultural media, this all seems fine and dandy. So, why are animals being fed corn, soy, wheat and other grains, bi-products of the remains of other factory farmed animals, and…chicken manure?!? (not to mention added hormones and antibiotics).
Corn and soy are protein-rich food bases that cause animals to quickly reach market weight, and are much cheaper than other food options – due to government subsidies. In the United States, 47 percent of soy and 60 percent of corn is used for livestock consumption. Corn is considered very productive and can be grown in a variety of environments.
…But wait! Aren’t most farm animals, especially cattle, goats, sheep, and other ruminants naturally supposed to eat sprouted grasses? Well, who cares about farm animal health anyway? Certainly not factory farms. Because if they started to care about the health of the animals they raised, that could cut into their profit margins. It is much cheaper and efficient to feed animals a mixture of corn and soy then to allow them the freedom and space to roam out in pasture.
Seeing as animal agriculture corporations don’t care about the health of their animals, then we can’t really expect them to care about the environment. But just because they don’t, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Our survival depends on protecting the environment, however, it is becoming more and more apparent that animal agriculture, and our meat-centric diets are making this a tricky task. In order to produce enough feed to fatten up the billions of livestock being raised on Earth, companies resort to clear-cutting rainforests to make way for crop fields. It is estimated that 33 percent of arable land on the planet is used to produce livestock feed!
And the crops of choice of the industry are none too environmentally friendly themselves. Let’s look at how the food that livestock eat is contributing to environmental damage:
- Corn is immensely overproduced due to government subsidies and thus, is grown across about 97 million acres of land in the United States alone – about the size of California. That’s a lot of land! In fact, corn uses more land than any other U.S. crop. Corn also accounts for more than 1/3 of the United States’ overall food production by calorie content.
- Corn is a grown in large monocultures, meaning there is little or no crop rotation and thus, corn is more vulnerable to insect infestations. In order to successfully mass-produce nutrient-hungry corn for livestock, more nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides are required than any other crop. Can you believe that every year, over six million tons of nitrogen is used on corn through chemical fertilizers and manure? Corn also reduces soil fertility, rendering the land it is grown on unsuitable for other plant species.
- Chemical fertilizers used for corn production run into lakes, river and streams, and coastal oceans, causing algae to grow and spread, depleting the water’s oxygen. As a result, dead zones, or areas with less oxygen dissolved in the water, kill many organisms.
- Genetically modified corn, also known as Bt corn, contains toxins intended to kill pest insects. When pollen or other parts of the plant are washed into various bodies of water, the insect populations within these ecosystems are affected. Since insects are essential to aquatic food webs, many other species are also put at risk. According to researcher and Assistant Professor Todd Royer from Indiana University, “If our goal is to have healthy, functioning ecosystems, we need to protect all the parts. Water resources are something we depend on greatly.”
- Care about water conservation? Cornfields use massive amounts of water every day and consume over six billion gallons of freshwater each year in the United States.
- Can you guess which cereal grain is the largest element of global trade? You got it: corn! And most of it is used as animal feed. The United States takes the prize for being the largest corn producer and exporter in the world. One acre of corn is responsible for using on average approximately 60 gallons of fossil fuels for production and distribution.
- Due to the rise of demand for meat, dairy, and eggs in the 1960’s, soy production increased to meet the needs for cheap, high-protein livestock feed. Similar to corn, methods of mass soy production led to monocultures and thus, heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Land that once supported important ecosystems in countries such as Argentina and Brazil is now useless to soy’s soil degradation.
- In the year 2000, 75.2 million pounds of herbicide were used for United States soybean production, according to the USDA. Unfortunately, with further demand for livestock feed, the amount of chemical insecticides used will continue to increase.
- Deforestation to make room for soy plantations takes a tremendous toll on the environment by accounting for about fifteen to twenty percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global climate change. Since rainforests store all of their nutrients within living matter, destruction of these forests discharges immense amounts of carbon. In Brazil, for example, over 473 million tons of carbon dioxide was released to make room for soybean plantations.
- Soybeans are being produced on fragile systems of land, susceptible to soil erosion. Furthermore, soy production causes soil compaction, exhausting the soil of its nutrients and value to the ecosystem. In the late 1990’s, over 100 thousand hectares of land in Bolivia were abandoned because they were so damaged from growing soybeans.
- Soybean production requires immense quantities of water. Approximately 530 gallons of water are needed to produce a mere two pounds of soybeans.
If Not Soy or Grain-Fed Livestock, What Should We Eat?!
As much as many of us would like to believe that consuming grass-fed livestock is more ethical and environmentally sustainable, it is important to consider that this may not be true at all. In fact, many “grass-fed” animals are still fattened up with soy, corn, and other grains. Perhaps you should check out how livestock are harming the environment simply by grazing on 41.4 percent of U.S. land and 45 percent of the Earth’s entire terrestrial space!
Fortunately, we all have the opportunity to reduce the environmental impacts of livestock feed by reducing or eliminating our demand on animal product consumption. Making changes in your eating choices could even benefit your health!
As the leading organization at the forefront of the conscious consumerism movement, it is One Green Planet’s view that our food choices have the power to heal our broken food system, give species a fighting chance for survival, and pave the way for a truly sustainable future.
By choosing to eat more plant-based foods, you can drastically cut your carbon footprint, save precious water supplies and help ensure that vital crop resources are fed to people, rather than livestock. With the wealth of available plant-based options available, it has never been easier to eat with the planet in mind.
Image source: Jim Champion/Wikimedia Commons