Does the Future of the Plant Lie on Our Plates?

How animal agriculture is the primary instigator of climate change and a host of other problems

Noah Strand 

Animal advocates should not be the only ones to promote a society that values and protects animal species in the wild. There exists an undeniable connection between the human population’s reliance on animal products and the persistent challenge of global climate change. For environmentalists and animal advocates of all kinds, putting aside idealistic perceptions of this problem—and the solutions aimed to address it—means loosening our grip on some deeply ingrained behaviors in the interests of a healthy planet. 

Climate change research conducted over the last decade points to an uncomfortable truth: atmospheric pollution from vehicular transport and factory emissions, while substantial, is not the driving force behind climate change—a narrative repeated by many of the world’s leading environmental organizations. The animal agriculture industry—and our overgenerous consumption of animal products—constitutes an even greater threat to the planet. 

There are 70 billion livestock animals around the world today. The human population places an extraordinary demand on those animals for milk, meat, and eggs. Yet, there is no enforceable, global standard for their humane treatment. At the same time, we keep insisting that, when it comes to diet, meaningful steps toward a healthier environment should be taken elsewhere. 

Factory farming remains the primary cause of a rapidly warming climate, compounded by its underspoken connection to biodiversity loss, deforestation, waste accumulation, and freshwater depletion. Acknowledging this fact is the first step in saving animal life, and improving ours too. 

A 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that animal agriculture was responsible for 18% of all calculated atmospheric emissions, while that from the world’s transportation totaled 13%. Later research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute in 2009 found animal agriculture to be responsible for 51% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, a statistic that the livestock industry and several conflicting studies have tried and failed to discredit. It is disappointing, but not surprising, to observe that too much of the discussion sparked by these findings focuses on arguing about the exact extent of the problem, not what can be done about it. The potency of methane produced by livestock animals, which is far greater than the carbon dioxide from vehicle exhaust, should warrant great concern. 

While the concept of air pollution from animal flatulence has drawn chuckles from politicians worldwide, methane has proven to be 84 times more harmful than carbon dioxide when allowed to permeate in the atmosphere for two decades. The human population is estimated to reach 9 billion in roughly the same span of twenty years—and with it, the number of livestock animals. If cow flatulence was as funny as it is harmful, then we would be laughing a whole lot harder. 

The animal agriculture industry is as much a problem of land and water use as it is in air quality. Raising livestock is the number one use of both freshwater and land on the planet. PETA finds that one pound of beef requires an astonishing 2,400 gallons of water to produce. A pound of chicken? 468 gallons3. A glass of milk requires 36 gallons, and an egg takes 53 gallons. At present, animal agriculture guzzles 55 trillion gallons of water annually, a figure that is likely to rise as the world consumes more meat and poultry every year—making it harder and harder to understand why our society seems to prioritize a juicy steak over thirsty people. 

Half of the habitable land on Earth is used for agriculture—77% of which, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, is devoted to livestock grazing and growing animal feed. Yet with all the space we devote to animal agriculture, livestock provide less than 20% of the world’s caloric supply; as Our World in Data describes: “the 11 million square kilometers used for crops supply more calories and protein for the global population than the almost four-times larger area used for livestock.” Of those crops—beans, lentils, and chickpeas are just a few examples of plant-based foods that can supply humans the same amount of calories and protein in five percent of the land area required by animal products. 

That the human population can sustain itself through a plant-based diet using only a fraction of the amount of water and land needed to produce animal products, yet has long refused to make a substantial change, shows a glaring lack of compassion for the planet and its many animal species, and ultimately other humans who suffer from the effects of climate change. 

With the constant need for land to graze livestock, the worldwide clamor for animal products has been the leading cause of destruction to the Amazonian rainforest, often called “the Earth’s lungs,” and many of the planet’s other vital ecosystems. The permanent loss of biodiversity for grazing cattle is a tough pill to swallow—especially when the displacement of wild animals leads only to the butchery of farmed others.

The animal agriculture industry breeds, raises, and slaughters billions of livestock under the cruelest conditions imaginable. These animals are held in contaminated, cramped enclosures before being slaughtered—yet, in America, their brutalization is hidden from the public eye by federal “Ag-gag” laws that prohibit filming or photography in farms. With the enlisted help of Congress, the animal agriculture industry has continued operating with no mind to the suffering of their livestock. The objective? Keeping customers blind—and hungry. 

Condoning our addiction for animal products by resting on the laurels of incremental progress made in clean energy and waste management will not deliver the sustainable future we long for. There can be no comprehensive approach to global climate change without addressing what is potentially the greatest source of the problem. 

It is impossible to disprove yet easy to ignore the evidence that suggests no other lifestyle choice has a more profoundly positive impact on the global environment than eliminating the consumption of animal products from our diets altogether. There are many pathways to take, but the decision to adopt a vegan diet is one that can be made today. At no additional cost, the food and water we give to billions of cows could be fed to hungry and thirsty people. The world’s rainforests can begin to replenish, home to some of the most fascinating animal species on the planet—including some we have not yet discovered. We can cease slaughtering wolves and wild horses that roam North American lands now reserved for grazing livestock. 

Most of all, we can restore empathy to our plates. Rejecting age-old habits, while simultaneously sparing life, can help save the planet. In adopting plant-based eating habits, the human population can put the leading cause of heart disease and obesity, deforestation, pollution, and species loss well behind us.

Sources: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Harvard Environmental Law Review, The New York Times, Our World in Data, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Science Magazine, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, World Resources Institute, Worldwatch Institute