What is the modern meat industry’s impact on the environment?

What is the modern meat industry’s impact on the environment?

—Jeremy Smith, Bellefonte, PA

In E – The Environmental Magazine‘s January/February 2002 cover story, “So You’re an Environmentalist
Why Are You Still Eating Meat?” author Jim Motavalli wrote, “Just about every aspect of meat production—from grazing-related loss of cropland and open space, to the inefficiencies of feeding vast quantities of water and grain to cattle in a hungry world, to pollution from “factory farms”—is an environmental disaster with wide and sometimes catastrophic consequences.”

Indeed, according to the Sierra Club, producing one pound of grain-fed beef requires about 16 pounds of wheat and—as staggering as it sounds—2,500 gallons of water. Furthermore, millions of acres of forest have been cleared worldwide to make room for the large areas of land needed for cattle grazing. In the United States, more than 260 million acres of forest have been cleared to grow crops to feed animals raised for meat, and an acre of trees disappears every eight seconds.

Tropical rainforests are also being cut to create grazing land for cattle. Fifty-five square feet of rainforest may be destroyed to produce just one quarter-pound burger. Since trees absorb carbon dioxide, the leading “greenhouse gas,” this significant loss of forest contributes to global warming as well.

Soil erosion is also mostly due to the meat industry which, according to the Worldwatch Institute, is directly responsible for 85 percent of all soil erosion in the U.S. because so much grain is needed to feed the animals. Livestock is fed more than 80 percent of the corn and 95 percent of the oats grown by American farmers. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people—more than the entire human population on Earth.

A recent report prepared for the Senate Agricultural Committee concluded that animal waste is the largest contributor to pollution in 60 percent of the rivers and streams classified as “impaired” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report states that food animals produce waste at a rate of roughly 68,000 pounds per second. Major waste pollutants that make their way into our waterways include nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that can cause massive fish kills, harmful bacteria and viruses, and toxic heavy metals, which are present in some commercial livestock feed.

Critics also point to the fact that meat-based diets exacerbate world hunger. Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimates that a 10 percent reduction in U.S. meat consumption would free up enough grain to feed 60 million people. Some 40 percent of the world’s grain harvest is fed to livestock, while nearly a billion people go hungry each day.

While environmental groups recognize the benefits of vegetarianism as an alternative, few recommend it for everyone. Meat-loving environmentalists can look for small farms that feed livestock natural, organic diets, treat animals more humanely, and practice more sustainable land use.

CONTACTS: E Magazine, January/February 2002 issue, https://emagazine.com/view/?142; Sierra Club, (415) 977-5500, http://www.sierraclub.org/factoryfarms ; Worldwatch Institute, (202) 452-1999, http://www.worldwatch.org.