Our Appetite for Meat Isn't Just Destroying the Planet's Ecosystems - It's Changing the Face of Earth Itself

The following excerpt is from Eat for the Planet: Saving the World One Bite at a Time, by Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone (2018, Abrams Image).


How good are you at geography? Don’t worry. No matter what you think the world looks like, you’re probably not imagining it like the world we're about to describe. That’s because the system we depend upon to feed our human population is largely invisible to the people who benefit most from it.

Say hello to the new planet Earth.

Seventy-one percent of our planet is covered with water. But you probably knew that already.

What you didn’t know is that nearly half of the land that composes the rest of this beautiful planet consists of farm animals and crops that feed these animals.

And what you’re about to learn is that this system of agriculture isn’t just destroying our planetary ecosystems—it is changing the face of the planet itself.

If you really want to understand how the planet Earth came to look like this, all you need to know is that it takes 160 times more land resources to produce beef than it does to produce vegetables, fruits, and legumes. But that’s not where the story ends. Even chickens, pigs, dairy cows, and the other farm animals that make up our current farming system require a lot of space. After all, the livestock population is made up of more than 20 billion animals (including an unbelievable 19 billion chickens!), while the human population is 7.5 billion. When you take this into account, it’s not really surprising that the entire livestock system currently occupies 45 percent of the planet’s land surface. In comparison, 95 percent of the human population occupies 10 percent of the world’s land.

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How Our Appetite for Meat Transformed Our Global Map

As the human appetite for meat, dairy, and eggs increased over the years, so did our dependence on an industrialized farming system that has livestock as its core commodity. One obvious drawback of relying on a system comprised of billions of living beings to feed our population is that those animals need to be fed as well. Additionally, raising livestock is not a short-term commitment, as most farming requires animals to be raised over months or years before they are ready to be slaughtered for meat. Or, alternatively, animals that are raised to produce milk or eggs must be kept alive for much longer. This requires a tremendous amount of livestock feed, resulting in 33 percent of arable land on the planet being used for its production.

Thus began our quest to find more pasture land to increase agricultural output. Feed producers resorted to creating pastures out of grasslands and woodlands, and our forests paid the price. As of 2012, there were around 800 million acres of forest in the U.S. Currently, 260 million acres (and counting) of U.S. forests have been clear-cut to create land used to produce livestock feed, and 80 percent of the deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is attributed to beef production.

So, what do we get out of this deal? At the cost of one acre of land, we get a yield of 250 pounds of beef. Sounds like a lot, considering you can get around 1,000 quarter-pound hamburger patties per acre.

However, the same amount of land can produce 50,000 pounds of tomatoes; up to 40,000 pounds of potatoes; 30,000 pounds of carrots; or 20,000 pounds of apples.

It no longer seems like such a great use of space, does it?

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Four Unusual Ways Industrial Animal Agriculture Contributes to Climate Change

1. Livestock Respiration

Just like humans, livestock breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. This may not seem significant, but consider that there are approximately 20 billion-plus farm animals living and breathing at any moment worldwide. A Worldwatch Institute report noted that “a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe . . . Today, tens of billions more livestock are exhaling CO2 than in preindustrial days . . .”

2. Burps and Farts

Cows, goats, and sheep are ruminants, which means they have to regurgitate and re-chew their food several times. This requires massive amounts of bacteria, which create a by-product called methane—a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than CO2. A 2008 study found that the

U.S. creates 49 million tons of methane every year, mostly from livestock. At the rate that meat and dairy consumption is increasing, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that methane emissions could increase 60 percent by 2030.

3. Manure

The 2.7 trillion pounds of manure produced by farm animals in the U.S.16 is teeming with nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas 296 times more warming than CO2,17 and which lingers

in the atmosphere for 150 years. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

calculates that 65 percent of N2O emissions are the result of livestock activities. Most N2O comes from the production of livestock feed, as well as managing livestock waste with nitrogen-based fertilizers.

4. Transportation

The billions of farm animals raised and killed each year need to be transported by trucks from farms to slaughterhouses to grocery stores. When combined with all other sources of animal agriculture greenhouse gas emissions, the Worldwatch Institute estimates that the livestock sector is responsible for 51 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gases.

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