When you eat a hamburger, you aren’t just causing a cow to suffer; you are also supporting an industry that is rapidly destroying our water, air, soil, and forests. It takes an estimated 4.8 pounds of grain, 390 gallons of water, and .25 gallons of gasoline to produce a pound of beef. Livestock production requires 10 to 1000 times more land, energy, and water than is necessary to produce an equivalent amount of plant food. The Earth could support a vegetarian population many times its present size. But the current world population could not be sustained on meat-based diets. [Global Action Network]
In light of the current UN Climate Change Conference, COP16, in Cancun, I’ve chosen to participate in the Green Your Plate social media campaign, in order to raise awareness surrounding livestock contributions to climate change.
The way that factory farming is done today poses tremendous risks to climate change. This stems from a reliance on corn for feed, pooling manure into stagnant lagoons that release methane, use of petroleum-fueled machinery, and pollution to air and water which have unknown consequences for global warming.
The Corn Problem
The US corn industry is the most heavily subsidized farm crop of all, and so we have a huge excess of corn. A good chunk of that corn does not taste good, has low nutrient value, and is meant to be used as livestock feed. However, cows have special stomachs meant to eat grass, not corn. Michael Pollan explains the details in this New York Times piece:
A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike that in our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.
This feedlot corn took a great deal of water, pesticides, and fertilizer to grow. Forestland is often burned down for agriculture – forests purify air and water, sequester carbon, and build soil. These gifts of the forest are lost because we want to grow corn to force-feed it to our cattle, so they’ll fatten up faster.
Because cows get sick from eating corn, large amounts of antibiotics are given to them to ensure that they won’t react too terribly to the corn feed. They are also given growth hormones to speed up their growth. These antibiotics and hormones break down in the cow’s body, and leave through its excrements – manure and urine, which inevitably ends up in the water supply.
Factory farms’ heavy reliance on antibiotics encourages antibiotic resistance in bacteria, which affects both the quality of your meat as well as your own personal health. All living things undergo genetic mutations – this is the basis for evolution. New genes, new proteins, new survival tools. Over time, as bacteria mutate, certain populations acquire increased immunity to specific antibiotic drugs, meaning they are ever less likely to die.
Conventionally-produced meat is more likely to become spoiled with bacteria – you suffer the consequence of foodborne illness. Many factory farm workers do not respond to antibiotics in treatment, because the bacteria they are surrounded by have acquired resistance, and we don’t have new antibiotics to treat them yet. This also affects antibiotics used to treat human pathogens, as diseases from animals can infect humans.
Where there’s lots of cows, manure, and feed, there will be lots of dust. Microbes, organic matter, and excrement can all get blown into the air, passing through wind currents unknown pathogens and polluting toxins.
The Manure Problem
Massive amounts of manure build up quickly in feedlots, and are siphoned off to a manure lagoon. Whereas in a sustainable system, waste is a valued resource and never left sitting out, a conventional system is not able to use manure effectively. Some of it is used to fertilize crops, but most of it just sits there, collecting. Manure lagoons pollute groundwater, deplete soil fertility, kill off economically viable animals such as fish, and they release large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Animal sewage, nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer, and soil erosion from major farming states in the Midwest flows into the Mississippi River, which empties at the Gulf of Mexico. Here, you can find a Dead Zone, an aquatic ecosystem devoid of life. All of that sludge flowing down to the Gulf causes huge algal blooms, which take up most of the dissolved oxygen, and prevents other lifeforms from taking hold.
What does a dead zone mean for climate change? University of Maryland oceanographer Lou Codispoti says,
As the volume of hypoxic [oxygen-deprived] waters move towards the sea surface and expands along our coasts, their ability to produce the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) increases. With low-oxygen waters currently producing about half of the ocean’s net nitrous oxide, we could see an additional significant atmospheric increase if these ‘dead zones’ continue to expand.
So, if we continue to farm animals like we do now, we can expect:
An oft-quoted UN study claims factory farming contributes as much as 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Water pollution means dead zones, which also means loss of fish for fishermen – which means local economies are destroyed. Air pollution causes breathing problems and other unknowns.
All of this pollution – for what? So you can have cheap meat at every meal?
For further reading:
*Photo by Keven Law
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