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Environmental Sustainability: The Meat Industry and the Effects on the Economy and the Environment

Updated: Mar 13, 2019

By: Brooke Kleber

PTS Falconer Contributor

January 16, 2019

"There is no doubt that some plant food, such as oatmeal, is more economical than meat, and superior to it in regard to both mechanical and mental performance. Such food, moreover, taxes our digestive organs decidedly less, and, in making us more contented and sociable, produces an amount of good difficult to estimate." -Nikola Tesla

Every child dreads eating their vegetables, even adults, so people have turned to the delightful delicacy of hamburgers (cow) and their yummy associates in the meat manufacturing industry. Humans have been consuming meat for thousands of years, but now scientists and economists are forced to question if people are eating too much. Scientists and economists have been keeping notes on the environment to ensure that humans can continue to survive in this beautiful place called Earth, but with global warming, humanity’s future is uncertain. In Earth’s recent history, its temperatures have been increasing due to several factors, but surprisingly, meat is a huge factor in humans’ possible demise.

Proper management of water, pollution, and land along with a decrease in meat consumption, can drastically reduce the carbon footprint produced by all of the countries, thus saving the human race and Earth.

Water is a necessity for human survival. Without water, there is no life on Earth. In the United States, people use 355 BILLION gallons of water total per day. In economics, there is a fundamental school of thought that says, “everything is scarce.” Cows, pigs, and chickens- our friends from the meat industry- drink and use water as much as people do. A single cow used for milk can drink up to 50 gallons of water per day—or 100 gallons of water per day in hotter climates—and it takes 683 gallons of water to produce just 1 gallon of milk. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef, while producing 1 pound of tofu only requires 244 gallons of water.

Animals raised for food in the U.S. produce many times more excrement than the entire human population of the United States. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), animals on U.S. factory farms produce about 500 million tons of manure each year. With no animal sewage processing plants, it is most often stored in waste “lagoons” (which can be seen in aerial views of factory farms) or it gets sprayed over fields. Runoff from factory farms and livestock grazing are one of the leading causes of pollution in our rivers and lakes. The EPA notes that bacteria and viruses can be carried by the runoff and that groundwater can be contaminated. Factory farms frequently dodge water pollution limits by spraying liquid manure into the air, creating mists that are carried away by the wind. People who live nearby are forced to inhale the toxins and pathogens from the sprayed manure. A report by the California State Senate noted, “Studies have shown that [animal waste] lagoons emit toxic airborne chemicals that can cause inflammatory, immune, irritation and neurochemical problems in humans.”

Using land to grow crops for animals is vastly inefficient. It takes almost 20 times less land to feed someone on a plant-based (vegan) diet than it does to feed a meat-eater since the crops are consumed directly instead of being used to feed animals. According to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, it takes up to 10 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat, and in the United States alone, 56 million acres of land is used to grow feed for animals, while only 4 million acres are producing plants for humans to eat. More than 90 percent of all Amazon rainforest land cleared since 1970 is used for grazing livestock. In addition, one of the main crops grown in the rainforest is soybeans used for animal feed. (The soybeans used in most veggie burger, tofu, and soy milk products sold in the United States are grown right here in the U.S.)

Cartographer Bill Rankin used USDA data to build this beautiful map of the value of agriculture produced around the country. The greener areas are the most valuable for crop production. The redder areas are the most valuable for raising livestock. California is, unsurprisingly, the site of much of the most valuable land for crops. But Wisconsin and North Carolina are making more money off livestock than many realize. This map is certainly interesting as it does depict that Americans love food and value it more than living space, as Americans do tend to promote a considerable amount to produce meat and agriculture.

If there is one thing to conclude from this map, it's that cows are pretty much everywhere. Cattle are all over, from sea to shining sea, except for the deserts of the Southwest and some remote mountains in upstate New York and West Virginia. But cows aren't the only farm animals of interest. Pigs and chickens also make an impressive showing, but with a more regional pattern. They're popular east of Colorado, with pigs gathered in the North and chickens in the South. California also has a chicken belt. This map goes on to further the point that cattle and meat are detrimental to the environment. Livestock across the United States are destroying the environment simply because humans want to use these animals as food.

Together, corn and soybeans make up almost half of America's crop revenues because the majority of it is being used to feed cows, pigs and produce other meat producers- not because humans love eating them. Corn is responsible for about a third of crop cash receipts, with some $64 billion a year.

There has been a drastic increase in meat consumption throughout the world. Worldwide, per capita, meat consumption increased from 41.3 kilograms in 2009 to 41.9 kilograms in 2010. This number is said to increase by 75% by 2050. With more people consuming meat, heart disease and cancer increases have been linked to increased meat consumption. Meat is a major source of dietary fat and cholesterol. The saying is true that “you are what you eat.” Since animals are being subjected to hormones to grow faster and eating genetically modified foods, the human body fails to understand what to do in response.

Who exactly is eating so much meat? This map shows how much meat gets consumed in each country, with each nation's sized skewed accordingly. It's not all that surprising that the world's most populous nations — China, India, and the US — end up looking pretty huge, here. China, for its part, is the biggest meat consumer — evidence not just of its size, but also of its increasing wealth. And recently, China's surging taste for beef has been increasing prices across the world.

The USDA once encouraged healthy eating with its iconic food pyramids, with grains at the bottom and fats and sweets at the top. In 2011, the department dropped its pyramid in favor of the plate below — officially called MyPlate. The idea is to make your plate look like MyPlate: about half fruits and veggies, with some grains, protein, and low-fat dairies, such as milk or yogurt. The guidelines also come with several tips, including to strive to eat whole grains, watch portion sizes, and drink water instead of sugary beverages. So, how well have Americans been following the USDA's new MyPlate nutrition guide? Not all that well. On the whole, people in the US are still in meat-and-potatoes mode, even though that hasn't been the recommended plate for quite some time. They've been eating more than enough meat and grains. But, as a proportion of their intake, they're not eating nearly enough fruit, vegetables, or dairy.

Our world is dying and if necessary actions aren't taken, the human race will be forced into a crisis. By moderating one’s diet or going vegan, one person can save approximately 219,000 gallons of water a year. Without people altering their habits, CO2 is going to continue to rise and surprise the agreed UN 2C (two carbon dioxides per air molecule) by 2050. So next time you have a choice for your meal, consider the environment and have a salad instead. Our grandchildren will thank us.