The climate crisis is an increasing source of anxiety for many, and it’s little wonder why. A change of just half a degree Celsius could mean the difference between the survival or the destruction of many of the planet’s ecosystems. Experts speaking at COP27 last month warned that we’re not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement — which scientists have said are too modest to keep us from passing a number of critical tipping points anyway.
So, concerned individuals are taking action by, among other things, reducing the amount of meat they eat. By observing Meatless Mondays, going fully vegan, or something in between, people are managing their climate anxiety by focusing on how they, personally, can make a difference.
However, as the meat industry and its shills like to point out, livestock farming is only responsible for about 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) caused by humans. Burning fossil fuels for energy causes a much bigger proportion of emissions. “Did you know, if Americans eliminated meat from their diet GHG emissions would drop by only 2.6%?” asks climate scientist Dr. Frank Mitloehner. “An honorable effort but we’re in an emergency, folks.”
That 2.6% estimate of Dr. Frank Mitloehner — who was profiled by The New York Times because his “academic group, the Clear Center at UC Davis, receives almost all its funding from industry donations and coordinates with a major livestock lobby group on messaging campaigns” — is widely disputed, but even at 14.5%, though hardly negligible, it’s true that the meat industry is just one of many factors driving climate change. However, those who would downplay the effects of our diets on the environment are missing the bigger picture. While animal agriculture may not be the single greatest cause of climate change, it has many other negative environmental effects.
Take for example the issue of factory farming lagoons. Factory farms, where 99% of livestock animals in the U.S. are raised, produce literal tons of waste each year. Many of them use a system of disposal (if you can even call it that) wherein animal feces are mixed with water and left to sit in an open pool in the ground. That fecal slush is then sprayed through the air to fertilize crops, a cost-effective move for farmers. But as you can imagine, living near one of these factory farms — as the eastern North Carolina residents featured in a new documentary, “The Smell of Money,” know all too well — is less than pleasant. In fact, it can be downright dangerous. Research suggests that communities living near factory farms tend to have higher all-cause and infant mortality. And that’s on a normal day; when a natural disaster such as a hurricane hits, these lagoons can flood and their septic waste can reach even farther, endangering the health of even more people.
Lagoons are only one way in which factory farms pollute their surroundings and harm their communities. Besides greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane, factory farms tend to pollute the air with ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and particulate matter, the health risks of which include chronic lung disease, chronic bronchitis, and death. When animal waste and nitrates from fertilizers leach into public or private water supplies, they can bring pathogens like E. coli and listeria as well as increase the public risk of bladder, colon, kidney, and ovarian cancers.
And factory farming risks more than local communities. Cattle ranching is the primary cause for the deforestation of Brazil’s rainforests, which is an issue not only because of the forests’ role in offsetting carbon emissions, but also because it causes a significant loss of biodiversity. For this reason, among others, Guardian columnist George Monbiot writes in his new book, Regenesis: Feeding The World Without Devouring The Planet, “land use should be seen as perhaps the most important of all environmental issues.” Studies have shown that species are going extinct 1,000 times faster than in pre-human times. If deforestation in the Amazon continues, the rainforest could reach a tipping point at which its entire ecosystem could collapse. Scientists say that there’s already a mass extinction event underway, and that the “window of opportunity” to counteract it is “rapidly closing.”
The expansion of agriculture into formerly wild land has another nasty result: it increases the risk of pandemics. As people clear land for farming, they and their livestock come into contact with the animals already living there. The interaction between native species, farm animals, and the humans who work with them creates a fertile opportunity for diseases to be passed from one to the next. Evidence suggests the Covid-19 virus has zoonotic origins, as did HIV and Ebola; SARS, Swine Flu, and the Spanish Flu of 1918 all came specifically from animal agriculture operations. Recent studies have found strong evidence that agricultural expansion is a driving factor behind zoonotic diseases. If we want to avoid future pandemics — which I’m sure most of us do — we need to mitigate the agricultural takeover of the planet’s land.
Even if we were to completely ignore the relationship between animal agriculture and climate change — even if you don’t believe in climate change! — the industry still presents a slew of pressing issues that can be observed right now and which could be alleviated by reducing our meat consumption as a society. The dark truth is that there are lots of ways we can destroy our environment (and thus, eventually, ourselves) besides causing a change in temperature.
There are many reasons for environmentalists — “climatarians” and “climavores” included — to target the meat, egg, and dairy industries. But when we restrict our focus to “carbon footprints,” we make it easy for the meat industry to deflect blame. As activists, scholars, journalists, and informed citizens, we need to stop indulging the meat industry’s arguments about its role in climate change and, instead, make it answer for the sweeping environmental destruction it has caused.
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