The Environmental Cost of Animal Agriculture

The fishing, meat, dairy, and egg industries aren’t just relentlessly cruel to animals – they’re also a nightmare for the environment. The United Nations states that urgent and unprecedented changes – including a shift to a plant-based diet – are needed to limit the catastrophic damage that will be caused by climate change.

Here’s the lowdown on the harmful environmental impact of animal agriculture:

Carbon Footprint

According to the United Nations, animal agriculture is responsible for 14% to 18% of global greenhouse-gas emissions – more than all forms of transportation combined.

Sheep and cows release huge volumes of methane – a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere – which contributes to climate change.

Producing fertiliser for crops to feed animals, petrol to run the lorries that take them to slaughter, and electricity to freeze their carcasses also requires massive amounts of fossil fuels, which results in the release of huge amounts of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

Scientists agree that plant-based foods have a smaller carbon footprint than their animal-derived equivalents, so the easiest way to help slow down climate change is to go vegan.

Water Footprint

Animal agriculture also has a shocking water footprint. Each meat-eater is responsible, on average, for using 15,000 litres of water a day. While it takes about 1,790 litres of water to grow 1 kilogram of wheat, we’d need to use more than five times that for 1 kilogram of beef. It takes the equivalent of 50 bathtubs full of water to produce just one steak. And raising cows for milk requires 72% more water than is used to produce soya milk.

Pollution

Most of the pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals used on feed crops return to the environment through waste water and excrement, contaminating land and water worldwide, causing soil degradation, harming human health and deep-sea marine life, creating ecological “dead zones” in the oceans, and killing wildlife such as fish, bees, and amphibians.

The United Nations recognises that animal agriculture is a major contributor to water pollution. Run-off from meat, egg, and dairy farms pollutes rivers with faeces, urine, pathogens like E coli, antibiotics, and other drug residues.

Ammonia gas, which comes from the UK’s cow, chicken, and pig farms, is a deadly air pollutant that is a threat to human health and can cause premature death. It’s estimated that 3,000 deaths could be prevented annually if ammonia emissions were halved.

Deforestation and Species Extinction

Animal agriculture has the world’s largest land footprint. It takes up one-third of the Earth’s land surface and is responsible for 30% of biodiversity loss. Agriculture is the most frequently reported threat to wildlife, and the WWF has identified habitat loss as the main cause of species extinction.

Wild animals are running out of space to live, and species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. In the UK, 26% of mammals and 43% of birds are at risk of extinction. Almost half of British farmland is used to farm animals, at the expense of wildlife.

Despite this crisis, humans are still razing some of the most species-rich areas on Earth – including rainforests in South America – in order to graze cows or grow soya to feed animals. A staggering 90% of the world’s soya-bean crop is fed to cows, chickens, sheep, and pigs. By moving away from raising animals for food, we can stop deforestation, combat the climate crisis, and preserve the natural habitats of many animals.

Mistreatment of the natural world can have devastating consequences for human lives. Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, leading biologist Professor Thomas Lovejoy said, “This pandemic is the consequence of our persistent and excessive intrusion in nature and the vast illegal wildlife trade.” Other scientists have highlighted that deforestation, intensive farming, wild-animal exploitation, and the uncontrolled expansion of agriculture create the “perfect storm” for disease outbreaks originating in other animals.

Devastated Oceans

Fishing vessels decimate the world’s oceans, leaving them empty, lifeless, and on the brink of ecological collapse. With an estimated 90% of fish populations fully exploited, at this rate, there really won’t be plenty more fish in the sea.

A recent report named discarded fishing gear “the most harmful form of marine debris for animals”. This equipment – also known as “ghost gear” – mutilates and kills millions of sea animals every year.

Fish farms aren’t sustainable, either. Farmers who raise salmon feed them three times their weight in wild fish. Fish on farms live in crowded, filthy enclosures and suffer from infection by parasitic lice, diseases, and debilitating injuries. Conditions on some farms are so horrendous that up to 40% of the fish die even before the farmers can kill them.

World Hunger

The world is facing a food shortage that hits the very poorest people the hardest. Yet each year, 760 million tonnes of grain are fed to animals on factory farms so that humans can eat meat, dairy, and eggs. This is terribly inefficient: it can take up to 16 kilograms of grain to produce just 1 kilogram of meat. The world’s farmed cows consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion humans – more than the entire human population on Earth. If the grain were used to feed humans directly, instead of being funnelled through animals on farms, there would be more than enough food for everyone.

 

What You Can Do for Animals and the Planet

The best thing we can do for animals and the Earth is to go vegan. Not eating meat, fish, eggs, or dairy is also the simplest way for each person to spare the lives of nearly 200 animals every year – and to reject the daily cruelty that occurs in abattoirs and on factory farms in the UK and elsewhere. For help getting started, order a free vegan starter kit full of tips and advice for every part of your journey.

    • Animal agriculture is responsible for 14% to 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions – more than the combined emissions from all forms of transportation.
    • Going vegan can reduce your carbon footprint from food by up to 73%.
    • One-third of the Earth’s land surface is used for animal agriculture, and if we all stopped eating meat and dairy, global farmland use could be reduced by 75%.
    • Cows alone produce more than 560 billion litres of methane per day.
    • Over 15,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1 kilogram of beef.
    • By eating vegan, we reduce our water footprint by nearly 60%.