The Meat and Dairy Industries' Harmful Effect on the Environment

‘If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.’
Sunday December 02nd 2007, 4:24 pm
Filed under: Melissa research

           As we read about in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, the United States is all about production of corn. In fact, the US alone produces 40% of the world’s corn and 80% of the grain; livestock consumes six and a half times as much grain as the population consumes directly. This takes into account the corn people consume by consuming animals or animal products who were raised on corn. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology’s research found that our grain supply could feed five times more people if they consumed it directly. Ph. D. David Pimentel points out that 72% of the US’s cereal grain is fed to livestock while only eleven percent goes directly to feeding humans. Technological advances attempt to compensate for the environmental damage caused from depleting resources (such as water) and the growing problem of waste. With few government regulations, and with those that are in place being difficult to enforce, the industry of raising animals gets away with bending and breaking the rules. “Livestock rearing is the most ecologically damaging segment of the entire U.S. agribusiness industry”.

                Beyond the amount of grain used by the meat and dairy industries, they are also responsible for the erosion of natural life. With the combination of the chemicals from the feed crops and overgrazing, the surrounding vegetation has little chance to survive. It’s been estimated that the rate of soil erosion today is greater than was during the Dust Bowl Era. Ninety-percent of croplands lose soil thirteen times faster than the sustainable rate. The ground suffers abuse from sewer wastes and becomes especially vulnerable to flooding. The soil can no longer filter carbon dioxide to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. In Lynn Jacob’s Waste of the West: Public Lands Ranching, he claims that cattle of the greatest destruction of land, water, and vegetation. Consequently, they are the primary cause of flooding and desertification. Grazing eliminates more plant life than any other cause and native animals disappear without a food source. The more ‘dangerous’ animals are killed off in the name of protecting the live stock. As seen in The Buffalo Wars, it is not necessarily the threat of savage attacks, as I think we can all agree buffalo are not aggressive or frightening animals, but their apparent threat to the health of the livestock is enough to secure their death. The government continues to bow down to agribusiness and allow for grazing to continue in protected areas or public land while chasing the wildlife back further and further, all in the name of hamburgers. Now that the U.S. finds trouble keeping the land healthy enough to support its animals, the overflow has reached Central America, and the rainforest is coming down as a result. The destruction of the rainforest means the obliteration of biodiversity more than anything else, and Pimentel cites animal agriculture for 80% of the world’s deforestation.

                Regardless of whether or not water is actually becoming more ‘scarce’, the fact remains the everyday millions of people go without a clean, available water supply. Norman Myers found that 80% of the U.S.’s water is used as irrigation for feed crop and Pimentel goes farther to say that 90% of the fresh water is used by agriculture. The Environmental Protection Agency charges agriculture as the number one water polluter due to the runoff caused by fertilizers and herbicides.  The EPA also estimates the a third of all agricultural water pollution comes directly from animal production operations. This ranks animal agriculture as one of the top ten sources of water pollution. Sixty percent of rivers are ‘impaired’ by runoff pollution, making them unsafe or unusable. A cattle feedlot of 12,000 produces the same amount of waste as a city of 20,000. Combined, cattle, pigs, and poultry produce an annual 1.4 billion tons of waste. That’s 130 times that of the U.S. population. Manure causes soil damage, toxicity, and alga growth in water that kills aquatic ecosystems. This phenomenon is known as eutrophication, and in its most extreme forms result in a ‘dead zone’ such at that in the Gulf of Mexico. There are 7,000 square miles of ocean that no longer support life.

                In 1967 the FDA banned the use of animal manure in livestock feed because of environmental and animal/human health concerns. The ruling was partially reversed in the late 1970s, and by 1992 sludge has been reclassified as ‘fertilizer’. Over 60,000 toxins and chemical compounds dwell in sewage sludge, which obviously has harmful effects when applied to agriculture.  The manure also presents the problem of air contamination. Hogs and other industrial housed life-stock cannot survive in their ammonia-filled enclosures without antibiotics.  Nitrogen released from the manure pollutes the water and air with ammonia and lagoons, pond-like structures found on many farms, of manure often poison animals and humans alike. The carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and methyl bromide gases released as a consequence of animal agriculture directly contribute the global warming.

                On the subject of energy, Pimentel’s research shows that it takes eight times as much energy to produce animal protein as compared to its equivalent plant protein. This energy mainly comes from the burning of fossil fuels, polluting the air and further depleting our resources. Even after the animal is raised, the processing, packaging, running of machinery, refrigeration, traveling, and shopping must be taken into account. Ten percent of the energy used is agriculture works to compensate for lost nutrients and soil productivity from a consequence of erosion. As agribusiness attempts to make up for what it destroys in nature by technological advances, small farms fall to the wayside and disappear. Biodiversity dies along with them at the hand of overgrazing and pesticides. The toxic runoff kills fish in nearby streams.  According to George Wuertherner, grazing threatens to eliminate more plant life in the United States than any other single factor. The detrimental effects are not limited to one area, and adjacent connected habitats, even if protected, are at risk. The natural predator/prey relationships of the wildlife, which serve as a natural checks and balances, also feel the harmful effects of pesticides. There can be population of pest outbreaks, insects changed by chemicals that alter their beneficial behaviors, destruction of natural enemies for insects, insect pesticide resistance, and birth defects.

                As agribusiness continues to grow, gathering more and more power through both vertical and horizontal integration, they meet little resistance. Because such few companies have such large monopolies, there’s not enough competition or challenges to force change. Due to small farm consolidations, over the past fifty years the number of farms has reduced by two-thirds while the amount of farm land has remained the same. With the control over America’s food, agribusiness has the power to influence Congress as well. Many states go as far as to creating laws forbidding the spreading of rumors about super-market meat. The regulations that are passed in attempts to control the farms and protect the consumers are vague as best and difficult to enforce even is someone wanted to, which isn’t often the case. Animal agriculture realizes it’s being scrutinized and is doing everything within it power, without many limits, to cover it up and continue on with business as usual.


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