Christopher Hyner is a 3L at Georgetown University Law Center, where he is a Managing Editor for the Georgetown Environmental Law Review. This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate. Click here to see the original post and leave a comment.
Climate change. Ocean dead zones. Fisheries depletion. Species extinction. Deforestation. World hunger. Food safety. Heart disease. Obesity. Diabetes. The list goes on. There is one issue at the heart of all these global problems that is too often overlooked by private individuals and policy makers alike—our demand for and reliance on animal products. We can take a substantial step towards addressing all these problems simultaneously through reducing or eliminating our reliance on meat and dairy products. This begs the question — what are the United States’ major governmental environmental policy enforcers doing to address animal agriculture’s contribution to climate change, if anything? This piece briefly highlights two things: (1) animal agriculture is a leading cause of many major environmental problems we face globally and domestically—most importantly, climate change; and (2) animal agriculture is too often left out of the policy discussion.
First, the interconnectedness of animal agriculture and the environment.
A multitude of environmental problems our planet faces share a common instigator: animal agriculture and our reliance on meat and dairy products. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), global agriculture—dominated by livestock production and the grains grown to support it—accounts for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. A 2006 study by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) finds that 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions is directly attributable to livestock production, which is more than the emissions attributable to the entire transportation sector. Whichever number is relied upon, agricultural emissions are only going to increase as rising incomes and urbanization drive a global dietary transition towards increased consumption of meat and dairy products. The growing demand for animal agriculture is expected to be a major contributor to a roughly 80% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector. This means that animal agriculture must be a central element of our efforts to mitigate climate change.
In addition to being a major contributor to climate change, animal agriculture is also one of the leading causes of many other environmental issues, including overfishing, destruction of wildlife, deforestation, and depletion of freshwater resources to hydrate livestock or irrigate fodder. According the FAO approximately 75% of the world’s fisheries are either exploited or depleted due to fishing, which will likely lead to the complete depletion of currently fished fish stocks by 2048. As to wildlife, in order to protect the interests of primarily the livestock industry, the USDA and Bureau of Land Management sponsor programs to kill or entrap wildlife that threaten the industry’s bottom line. This has led to the decimation of wolf populations in the Pacific Northwest and the mass round up of wild horses in the Midwest, which compete with cattle and sheep to graze on public lands. With regard to deforestation, the World Bank has found that animal agriculture is responsible for roughly 90% of the razing of the Brazilian Amazon. Lastly, but likely most critically, animal agriculture is the number one consumer of fresh water by a significant margin. Animal agriculture consumes on average 55 trillion gallons of water annually—more than 520 times the water used in hydraulic fracturing. On a micro level, it takes roughly 5,000 gallons of water to produce 1lb. of beef.